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Evolving America

During the Great Depression, there were common themes that defined the experience for virtually every citizen. Economic and climatic upheavals surged across the land, affecting young and old, rich and poor. Very few were untouched. The value of such broad, catastrophic social suffering was that it forged bonds that would inadvertently prepare the country for the horror of a World War that it had tried so hard to avoid. When it came, the nation was more ready than it realized.

The deprivation that defined the years from the mid-1920s through the end of WWII created a determined, if not fully unified society of survivors, entrepreneurs, and warriors. This unique combination has carried America forward over the past 65 years and created a foundation for a nation that can, and should, endure. Clearly, there are signs that the fabric is fraying. While there remain some that continue to celebrate all that America is and was, there are just as many who offer cautionary counterpoints suggesting decline is underway.

Much like the Great Depression, the Great Recession of 2008 has reshaped America. After a profligate six decades, debt has been reduced, savings are growing, and there is evidence that more people are considering the long view and their legacy as citizens of a planet under duress. More importantly, collectively concerned voices are being raised over poor educational performance, political gridlock, public health, infrastructure decline, reduced economic vitality and wars that seem both constant and irrelevant. This century is being defined not by “imperial overstretch” as noted by Paul Kennedy in his 1988 book The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers. In that superb book, Kennedy raises the point that “the sum total of the United States’ global interests and obligations is nowadays far larger than the country’s power to defend all simultaneously.” It appears that all but the most jingoistic citizens would concur that the U.S. has a more important domestic agenda that needs immediate attention. While few advocate isolation, there is growing advocacy for more intervention here at home and less in the affairs of others.

Containing only 5 percent of the global population, the U.S. still produces a quarter of the world’s economic output. This has remained unchanged even during the 5 years of difficult economic recovery. While we might cautiously celebrate the ‘rise of the rest’ we have also proven quite capable of competing successfully in volatile global markets. More importantly, there are signs that America’s entrepreneurial power is being reenergized. It now seems humorous that, in 2008, German finance minister Peer Steinbruck strongly stated that “the United States will lose its status as the superpower of the global financial system.” Since that time, the EU has struggled, the DOW is above 15,000, and U.S. financial institutions and industry continues to cautiously recover.

Perhaps the greatest benefit of this recession and recovery is that it returned many citizens to their roots and away from habits that lead to fiscal disability and instability. While some generational variations exist and educational levels remain a factor in employment, there are evolutionary signs that bode well for America. Overseas production costs and issues continue to rise, encouraging U.S. on-shore industrial resurgence; technical education is being seen as equally essential to this new American Century and more students are opting for careers based on technical know-how; talent clustering has become a reality, creating magnetic cities and regions that attract highly educated and technically gifted people and industries that hire them; agriculture continues to grow as the U.S. remains a central global breadbasket; auto and home sales are up; and home debt is down, confidence is up, and consumers are beginning to cautiously spend. There is trepidation, but there are signs that America is on the move.

For those who review the data, I would ask you to consider whether it has been wiser to slowly work out of this recession and if deliberate growth might not still be the best course? It would appear that it is sensible to have more savings, less debt, and fewer factors that could derail a family, community or business. While austerity has proven to be a poor substitute for conservative investment and spending, it should provide a touchstone for why we spend and what value accrues. Public and private entities must seek long-term value and a return on every investment. Rapid expansion fueled by easy money and profligate consumers devolves into giant Ponzi schemes that have doomed entire communities. An evolved America must seek consistent, sound growth platforms fueled by technology, education, long-term investment, and entirely new methods of collaboration. Individuals, business and communities must live within their means and learn to thrive on stable foundations characterized by innovation, sharing, collective will, common vision, and discipline.

There are signs that we are evolving back to the level of sensibility and rational thought that defined the Greatest Generation. Frugality can coexist with entrepreneurial energy and conservative ideals can provide curbs that can keep us on a progressive path. It is essential to understand that a lot is happening in the global ecosystem and the ripples will continue to wash upon these shores. But the real key is to take the point and lead during uncertain and troubled times. America has done this and done it well. It can do it again if it maintains a clear vision of the desired future…but rest assured that it will be simultaneously challenging, frightening, enlightening and rewarding.

 

JFL Pic Blue Shirt-Yellow Tie 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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One Response

  1. Worry about Syria and the Middle East or Detroit and Chicago? Is that even a question? We have more problems here that must be addressed and solved. I should have guessed that America would rise above the 2008 recession; we’ve been through tough times and emerged stronger. Very little has held us down for very long.

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