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Programmed, Tactical Failure

As a creature of habit, you will generally find me on Sunday mornings watching NBC’s Meet the Press with host David Gregory. For several months, it has for me devolved into a flagellation of sorts, with me hoping for some rational discussion and any indication there is someone willing to raise enough hell to move things off dead center. Listening to Senators Kerry (D-MA) and Kyl (R-AZ) this past Sunday I felt like throwing a shoe at the television.

To compound matters, even with respectful commentary from Mike Murphy, Dee Dee Myers, Eugene Robinson and Ed Gillespie, there was no one blasting the total ineptitude or morale failings of the ‘Debt Reduction Super Committee.’ Rather, within a context of charming jousts and disarming ideology, these ‘roundtable’ pundits shared their perspective without focusing on a very clear truth. Driven by a total disregard for what is best for the country, this committee continues to neglect the very good work of last year’s Simpson-Bowles and Rivlin-Domenici commissions, which made almost identical, very difficult but very well researched and prudent recommendations. From both, we heard admonitions to abandon the Bush tax cuts, reduce discretionary government spending, and begin reeling in entitlements. Both suggested economic programs that would begin the process of revitalizing the workplace and laying the foundation for job creation. Having read both committee reports, I can recommend them as thoughtful, no-nonsense, tough reviews of what must be done and why.

As noted in this commentary some weeks ago, decisions are being made without regard for America’s near- and long-term future. Recommendations are driven by power and greed, both of which provide the foundation for modern American politics. The era of representing the highest and best common interests of citizens is over. Sadly, it may never again flourish as it did in the mid-1900s.

Business and banks are sitting on enormous cash hoards. At a time when investment is crucial for growth, there is reluctance to open the coffers. Why? Simply because confidence in long-term solutions is lacking, gridlock has demonstrated an almost total absence of congressional leadership, and the global economy is being torpedoed by historic disregard for prudent spending, and even more prudent living. Greece, Italy, Portugal, Spain and other European Union countries have run aground on shoals of indifference and profligacy. A 60-year history of letting others pay their way has bred generations of narrow thinkers, vacationers, and apologists. Theirs is a platform of reparations and disregard for a global future. It is myopic and toxic, but more critically, it is dangerous.

The Debt Reduction Committee has failed. Even with a clear and somewhat simple task that involved embracing former Republican positions to which Democrats now adhere, committee members reversed field and refused to compromise. Behind the scenes, the Beltway word is that dissention is contrived by strategists who are counting on twelve more months of unrest to unseat the president. Not by any measure a strategy born from a commitment to the common wellbeing of citizens, but rather, it is a tactic driven by calculated degradation of this country for political gain.

The U.S. doesn’t have another year to dally. Europe is in a lifeboat reaching for the oars. Both China and India will see contracting economies beginning in 2012 and other stronger economies (Brazil, Germany, Canada, and Argentina) cannot carry the load. Newsweek’s Niall Ferguson has just commented that, to grow, the U.S. economy must enjoy robust exports at a time when Europe is contracting into an economic death spiral. We can’t count on either sales or loans much longer.  That game is almost over.

So, here’s the deal.  The U.S. can grow, albeit slowly, if it can weather the current storm, which will last for another three to five years.  Count on it. In this space, I have noted that the recession or its first cousin will linger for much of this decade. The U.S. gross federal debt is approximately 100 percent of GDP. Just four years ago, it was 62 percent. It is growing, with little sign of slowing, unless decisions are made NOW. Based on the abject failure of Congress and this ridiculous Debt Reduction Super Committee, I suggest we continue working at the local level to build, grow, encourage and collaborate. Local economies can surge during slow economic times. Yes, it will be slow, but forward movement is possible and can be accomplished with careful planning and thoughtful resource allocation. We can do this, but it is time to stop expecting much help from Washington.

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 government 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 2010 book, Planning the Future – A Guide to Strategic Thinking and Planning for Elected Officials, Public Administrators and Community Leaders, is being hailed as the best book for public managers and community leaders who are committed to building a sustainable future.  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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Information Overload

During a recent program I mentioned that over 4,000 new books were published every day and that there had been more new information created in the past 30 years than in the previous 5,000. The accelerating pace of change and emerging data streams are converging to deluge even the most prolific reader. While new information is good, one must wonder if it really matters. And, if some of this information torrent matters, how does one determine what to discard and what to retain?

Valiantly attempting to keep pace with new information on the economy and to understand what exactly happened over the past four years, I recently elected Free Fall – America, Free Markets, and the Sinking of the World Economy by Joseph Stiglitz (W.W. Norton, 2010) and All the Devils are Here – The Hidden History of the Financial Crises, by Bethany McLean and Joe Nocera (Penguin Books, 2010). Certainly, there are hundreds of other books on the same or similar subjects, but Stiglitz and McLean are hard to beat.

The real issue comes from the volume of information and exceptional reporting found in both books. What is one to do with such information? Other than understand what occurred, there is also the tendency to get agitated over the stupidity, arrogance and avarice that fueled the recent (and subtly continuing) financial meltdown. If even 10 percent of the information is accurate, and I’m certain it is carefully annotated, we have been led onto a slippery slope that leads to a very dark place. The quest for power is only exceeded by the level of greed that underpins this country’s most celebrated and iconic financial and political institutions. For the common citizen and typical community, there are few options – at least not in the short term.  And none are without risk.

Most communities and families can hunker down, save more, pay down debt, and do without. But this is occurring in juxtaposition with extreme corporate earnings and Wall Street profits (and salaries) that exceed the levels of four year s ago. Though teetering on the brink of a second recession (or deeper continuation of the first one), politicians dither and joust while Wall Street wallows in enormous profits – all at the expense of those who have returned to savings as the best preparation for an uncertain future.

On other fronts, the new book, The Fate of Greenland: Lessons from Abrupt Climate Change, by Philip Conkling, Richard Alley and Wallace Broecker (MIT Press, 2011), provides exceptional reporting on climate change in Greenland – probably Earth’s best barometer for the future affects of global warming. Reported without pedantic environmental fervor or overstated science, the data offers a potent review of what we might expect IF. Of course, the IF pertains to mankind’s continuation down a path of rampant fossil fuel utilization, which, though slowing in the U.S., is rapidly increasing in most developing countries (India, China, and Brazil to name a few). This, and other similar books, would appear to offer admonitions similar to the old Fram oil filter commercial, in which the mechanic simply noted that, ‘You can pay me now or pay me later.” Of course, if you chose later, your costs for that new engine would be MUCH higher than an oil change and new filter.

European economics, global warming, the war in Afghanistan, escalating transportation costs, declining infrastructure, eroding pension funds, community security and economic doldrums are all subjects with enormous impact on America. Add these to education issues, crime rates, the number of people incarcerated in America, declining immunization rates, the rise of gang violence, growing air traffic incidents, and literally a hundred other issues and you can easily reach a threshold of despondence, apathy, fear, or anger. Perhaps a combination of all four better expresses the mood of those who comprise the OWS movement. 

Communities don’t have a choice…they must rally to the common good and to the futures they prefer. That takes insight, prescience and leadership. It will require uncommon courage to do what is right while others are raiding the cash box in D.C., but local control and local progress is the key to this country’s future, as it has always been. There is no time to lose…we need progress now, as we approach 2012. It promises to be another difficult year, with many variables out of our control. The key is to control what you can, understand what is uncontrollable and create a culture of integrated, shared resources that brings a new age of efficiency, quality and sustainability. This is the path of progress…more consolidation, more shared resources, more collaboration and a focus on the long view.

We have the skills and expertise. The question is, ‘Do we have the will, commitment and courage to lead?’  The next 10 years will not be like the previous 10 years.  Do current leaders understand this?  Again, the new norm will not mirror the old norm.  Times are a-changin’ and we need the wisdom to understand this and become architects of the next phase of American life.

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).