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Cultural Shifts and Transformations

Globalization has often been misconstrued and badly interpreted by those from whom we expect wisdom and guidance. Embracing a world that is becoming more ‘flat’ requires an understanding of this metaphor along with a deep understanding of cultural anthropology, history, economics and social psychology. On virtually every continent, there are significant changes taking place – some that will reshape the world order during the 21st Century.

Recent evolutions (not necessarily revolutions) in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and other Middle Eastern countries grew their roots in economic, cultural and technological soil. Populations there are young, frustrated, and thirsty for opportunity. While many in these populations are un- or moderately educated, they are becoming more aware of the greater world…what it is, what it offers, and how it can improve their lives. According to author Fareed Zakaria (The Post-American World, 2008), it represents ‘the rise of the rest’ as opposed to the decline of America. In fact, it has little to do with this country…or does it?

In many ways, the U.S. represents the planet’s most potent beacon of freedom, self-reliance, and self-determination. It is here that people are able to pursue life in an environment forged through the pursuit of liberty and self- actualization. It is here where people have the right to choose, elect, joust, and debate. But sadly, it is in this country that we also have the right to ignore, fantasize, neglect, and pretend. As often noted here, we have ridden this golden pony for a long time and the plot has turned. Given all that this country does and can do, will it be able to apply the brakes, make difficult decisions, and pull out of the current spin before it is too late? The whole world is watching. What will those witnesses see? What will our message be?

More and more, we are squabbling over the asinine. Good economics says that some tax increases can benefit the economy and culture while sowing seeds of greater equity. Government spending is necessary, but must be sensible and address commerce, security, and socio-cultural development. Immigration is a good thing, but must be regulated and have policies applied according to the current century- not driven by antiquated fears and provincial values. Globalization is not only good for America, it is the new order of things. We need to be more involved globally, not less involved (not advocating a boost in foreign aid…merely engaging with global markets and cultures). This must not be a political debate but a reasoned discourse that provides the underpinning for a prosperous future. There is far too much energy being expended on preserving historic norms rather than on developing modern policy platforms that allow the U.S. to refocus on leading the future through innovation and vision.

Over ten years ago, I began encouraging government leaders to confront reality; to become truth tellers above all else. We are now seeing the hand being forced by unbalanced budgets and calls for massive reductions in spending. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has been walking point on significant budget reductions requiring fewer personnel, reduced and eliminated programs, salary cuts, pension concessions, and a call to do more with less. He has also made it clear that the revenue is just not there to support all the programs and services to which citizens have become entitled.

While decision makers are now (still) diddling around with 12% of the federal budget, the remainder is capsizing the country. Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and defense are again being ignored this year while ‘conversations’ about various aspects of elusive ‘common ground’ are being held. While it is a sham, voters have historically excised those who have spoken truth about debt and sacrifice. The historic path to reality is littered with those who dared to share real data and suggest bold action. One of the most chilling examples was the honesty of Walter Mondale who, in 1984 addressed the need to raise taxes, then handily lost the presidential election.  Ronald Reagan promised reduced government and no new taxes and won a resounding victory. He and Congress raised taxes 11 times in 8 years. Expedient or dishonest?

Governor Christie has taken the initiative during a transformative time. If he is able to restore fiscal balance and reduce government while maintaining essential services, he may enjoy popular support and achieve political tenure. He is talking truth, sharing data, and providing direction. If the results are forthcoming, he may have provided a path forward as the U.S. begins to restore restraint, transparency and honest dialogue to the political arena. Wisconsin governor Scott Walker seems to be following a similar path, even with current difficulties with unions and his calls for eliminating collective bargaining.

At least 30 states are in some stage of facing budget realities and the challenge of balancing the dueling demands of need, entitlement, expectations, and independence. We are not seeing ‘hard times.’ We are experiencing a return to realism that will take a decade to transform this nation. However difficult and unfair the sacrifices seem, they will leave this country stronger and better prepared for global competition and an integrated world. Buckle up. It will get wild for a few years.

With over three decades working in and with federal, state and local government, John Luthy understands public agencies.  Known for his real world, straight talking style, he is a leading futurist specializing in city, county, state, and federal long-range thinking and planning. John is the author of Operations Planning: A Guide for Public Officials and Managers in Troubled Times, and The Strategic Planning Guide, both published by the International City/ County Management Association (ICMA). His new book, Planning the Future – A Guide to Strategic Thinking and Planning for Elected Officials, Public Administrators and Community Leaders, was released in October 2010. An innovative and dynamic presenter, John is frequently asked to speak and consult on how to prepare public organizations and communities for emerging challenges (public futures at http://www.futurescorp.com).

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