Saturday, August 6, 2011

It's Now Up to Us

The message—and it is not only for the lords of the feast—is that we aren’t great enough for our times.  The challenges are immense and exhilarating; too many of us are shabby and small.  We tread the endless circles of our own habits and ideas while around us the world is changed beyond recognition.  We accept shabby lies and conventional fictions for solid truths; we build our homes upon the sand, and demand government subsidized insurance in case the floods come.  . . .

I have written before of the challenges that face us in the United States and will not say more here except that stale quibbling over expense cutbacks that will not significantly reduce the deficits, and reforms that will change very little, is not what we need.  Americans have the opportunity and the duty and the urgent pressing need to move into the future, to do and be more than ever.  The thin rhetoric of a backward looking president, the obstreperous negativism of an opposition better at rejecting what it hates than building or even conceiving what it needs, the lotus-eating educational formation that cuts us off from our past, and the incessant noise of a superficial pop culture: none of this is worthy of America at its best and none of it will help us now.

—Walter Russell Mead

It will be painful for all of us to read Professor Meade’s sobering but soaring post, “The Invisible Hand Is Writing On Our Wall,” but it must be read and passed around, analyzed and meditated upon, by everyone who loves his country and is prepared to take the responsibility that that love engenders.

“Americans have the opportunity and the duty and the urgent pressing need to move into the future, to do and be more than ever.”  My friends, to achieve this is precisely why the Recovering Bureaucrat speaks out.

We do not live in “normal” tough times.  This is not a replay of any of the business recessions that our industrial economy experienced regularly over the past century and a half.  Nor, the RB thinks we can agree, is this a new rendering of the Great Depression of the 1930s.

This is something truly unique and unprecedented: the great and inevitable upheaval of a new world unceremoniously dumping an old and depleted one.  Formally, we are experiencing the Information Age impatiently thrusting aside the Industrial Age, but because we still have huge numbers of people still living in pre-industrial conditions across the planet, it’s a very complex and ultra-chaotic dynamic.

Regardless of the geometry of what’s going on—historians will straighten it all out later—what’s essential to grasp is that the old world is dead and never coming back.  Never.  All of the social, economic, and political institutions we grew up and depended on are collapsing.  Some may be disappearing more slowly than others, but there isn’t a one that will survive the next decade intact.  Not one.

And so postindustrial progressives, such as the vast majority of American small business owners and entrepreneurs, have to be the nucleus of a new political movement that promotes applying the values and contours of the new world to our political economy.

These revolutionary values include:
  • The tendency to decentralize power of all sorts—financial, political, intellectual.
  • The transformation of capital to what Peter Drucker identified as “knowledge work”: i.e., the capacity of the individual by dint of his/her own talents and mental capabilities to create wealth by direct application of his knowledge and skill in the market place.
  • The globalization and democratization of human culture.
  • The rapid rise of middle class living standards in hitherto agrarian nations, especially China and India.
  • Dramatic increases in human health and longevity.
  • Enormous stresses upon the sources and nature of industrial-strength energy production.
  • And finally, the ever-increasing development and application of new technologies which results in what appears to be ever-increasing social and political instability.
Professor Mead asks the salient question of us: What is our job in the world; what do we have to teach and to suffer and to do?  What is the special contribution that only America and its citizens can make, and how do we prepare ourselves for this?

In an earlier essay, Mead observed the central role of ownership in our civic lives.  For most of America’s first century and a half, the majority of us owned and operated farms.  “A nation of family farms,” Mead observes, “is a nation of family firms.”  As the industrial age rose and hundreds of thousands migrated from rural America to its cities, a large middle class of homeowners emerged.  “Thanks to home ownership, post-agricultural America remained a land of mass property ownership and that experience continued to inform American political and social values.”

But even now, with the collapse of the housing market (and not just in America), mere home ownership as the basis for civic commitment may be going the way of the family farm.  But given the shift in capital access that the rise of the Knowledge Worker is enabling, it is highly probable that a new, mass-based entrepreneurial class will emerge.  Ownership of the individual means of production may finally restore the values of small business owners, tracing their entrepreneurial and civic ancestry back to the yeoman farmers of Jefferson’s vision, to the business of American self governance.  Meade continues:
The one thing I do know is that change is on its way—more fundamental, more challenging, and also perhaps more exhilarating than many of us are ready for. The health of the American economy is going to require us to move away from the credit card economics of the consumer republic.  The health of American society and democracy require that we move beyond the life of the last eighty years.  We should be looking at new ideals in which domestic partners are enterprise partners, the home is more frequently a place of business, and education moves away from big box buildings and toward forms of community schooling somewhere between home schooling and charter academies.
One way to summarize the kind of change we need: during the farm era the focus of American domestic policy was to create the most favorable possible environment for millions of ordinary Americans to launch flourishing small businesses.  Rather that focusing on home ownership, American social policy should probably be looking at small business formation as the key to mass middle class prosperity in the next fifty years.
This transformation is already underway.  By the hundreds of thousands and millions American small business owners, both long-timers and those just starting today, are already responding to these unprecedented dynamics and figuring out their new, unique, and special offering to the local/global marketplace.  They are working, sweating, experimenting, making/losing money, networking, putting heart and soul into this chaotic, frightening, and exhilarating new world space.

Unlike our political leadership, which we have permitted to run and hide from the obviously difficult and sometimes downright awful choices facing us, small business owners are tackling the challenges.  They have turned their faces to future and thrown away the rearview mirrors.  They know the only way out is forward.

The markets are warning us that it’s time to get out of denial and focus all of our power and creativity on the essentials; the primary job of government right now is to eliminate every possible legal and regulatory obstacle holding back the economic engine that is America’s small business.
The American Dream is not in the last analysis a farm or a home and a good job.  It is the dream that through hard work and good choices the average American can be prosperous and independent, and that ordinary people with these life experiences can govern themselves wisely and well without the “guidance” of their “betters.”
That dream is timelessly valid, and it is still the thing that people around the world admire most about the United States.  We are going to have to re-imagine and re-engineer the dream to keep it alive in the decades ahead, but that shouldn’t daunt us.  America is a nation of dreamers; building the future by following those dreams is what we do best.
And by “we,” dear readers, the good professor means the person reading this together with the person writing it.  Our elites, like Lot's wife, have their eyes firmly planted in the rearview mirror; the way into the future is already being made by everyone unafraid to look ahead.  Now that the expert-led nanny state is bankrupt, let us pick up the pieces, welcome the repentant, unleash our native genius, and do all which may achieve and cherish a new era of prosperity for ourselves and all nations.

It is now up to us.

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