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Vision and Veracity

The circus atmosphere surrounding many of America’s presidential election cycles has a tendency to abate once a new administration is in place and the rich talent pool of established veterans is assembled. Regardless of party affiliation, Washington has many seasoned, motivated patriots who are caring, connected and deeply dedicated to prosperity, security and global harmony. So far, a pattern of deflection and chaos has prevailed.

There is a much more profound game afoot here. While discontent, distrust, allegations and paranoia seem to be the primary drivers of this evolving administration, questions about trade, public health, infrastructure, international respect, climate change, and economic well-being loom ever larger. This is not to say that four months is enough time to foster major events or significant change, but one would expect more clarity about where we are going, key priorities, why they were chosen and how the country will proceed toward established goals. Whipping up generally nonsensical health care legislation in the House is not ideal progress.

The Senate now promises to eviscerate the House offering and replace it with something more workable, at least according to those senators willing to share. Unfortunately, the committee assembled to accomplish this has no women members and seems destined to battle over party-centric ideology rather than real improvement in the ACA. One would think they would take note that every major hospital, medical professional, physician, senior citizen and social services organization in America has criticized the House bill.

The deeper question here is about vision. While symbolism, rhetoric and bombast might for some reflect progress, it merely obfuscates the lack of vision, planning and long-term strategic intent. No corporation or voluntary organization would dream of managing its affairs in this way. Blather about putting coal miners back to work, bringing millions of manufacturing jobs back to the U.S. and demanding greater trade equity from established trade partners is both vain and foolish. Even neophyte economists will explain why and how an economically connected planet, costs for natural gas vs. coal and predictable economic cycles must guide policy decisions and, one would hope, promises.

Historians will look back in not too many years and marvel at the idiocy of building a wall between two friendly nations that are socially connected trade partners and long-time collaborators. While there are some issues with immigration, the data clearly show a decline in illegal immigration over the past several years and the value of a cooperative policy framework that works for the people of both countries. A 1,900 mile wall will cost well over $20 billion—money that could be spent for tax reform, education, health care, better airports and seaports, greater cyber security, and a reduction in the number of substandard bridges and roadways. Misallocation of precious resources at a time of growing federal debt is not only unwise, it is ignorant and unethical.

Instead of laughable pontifications and promises, is there a sensible long-term vision? For instance, how will America address the destruction of the seas? The ocean’s bounty, once a miracle of evolution, is now in peril. In the November/ December 2013 edition of Foreign Affairs, oceanographer Jeremy Jackson termed the destruction of global ocean habitats “the rise of slime.” By that he meant that once complex oceanic ecosystems and food chains featuring large animals have devolved into simple systems dominated by microbes, jellyfish, and disease (see Great Barrier Reef). Reported by Alan Sielen, this article should be enough to galvanize the international community into action.

Is the new administration even aware of this enormous force that is now impacting the entire planet? More critically, where is the leadership required to deal with not only the oceans, but education, atmospheric pollution, pandemic safeguards, financial regulation, true and lasting healthcare reform and economic inequality? If you need another exclamation point, see the Time Magazine special report on infrastructure (April 10, 2017) entitled, ‘Dear Washington, We need to rebuild. Can you get your act together?’ by David Von Drehle.

Politics is not voodoo, with incantations, hexes, and illusion. We assume that politicians are elected to seek the best common good for all constituents. Keith Allred, prior to running for governor in Idaho a few years ago, directed a superb apolitical organization called The Common Interest. Its sole purpose was to foster bipartisan support for policies and legislation that would have positive impact on all citizens…focusing on the value gained for all people rather than special interests. Importantly, the primary driving force for all of that organization’s work was truth. Sharing information with a commitment to total honesty was the central value that provided a platform of openness and trust.

The ideal of veracity in all things must be embraced by both the administration and Congress. Organizations that fact-check news can vouch for most of its accuracy. So too can those organizations reviewing the accuracy of what comes from the White House. In other words, the word ‘fact’ is a self-defining word that is easy to verify.

Challenging those who deal in data (CIA, FBI, NSA) or report current events (Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Gannett, the Associated Press, etc.) is a fool’s errand. Certainly, there are editorials and opinion pieces, but those are separate from news reporting. As most working people already know, it is best to remain faithful to the truth…due to the ease with which credibility and trust can be lost. And, once lost, it is difficult to recover.

Inflamed rhetoric, policy discontinuity and factual disconnects are rapidly leading to global distrust and, more critically, loss of respect among valued allies. As previously reported in this space, many economists believe that the U.S. is in a natural economic cycle that is responding to resource depletion, an aging Baby Boomer population, product and industrial life cycles and rapidly advancing global competition. Some have recently predicted 2 to 2.5 percent GDP as the norm in the years ahead. Good managers assess reality (read Confronting Reality by Bossidy and Charan), then develop strategies and action plans. There is no denial, deflection, blaming, gaming, or incoherent grievances.

America needs a wise, thoughtful and workable vision. There are good people in Washington on both sides of the isle and more than a few good ideas. The Tip O’Neills, Henry Kissingers, and Everett Dirksens may be gone, but ample talent, drive and spirit remains. My question is, Will those individuals pander to their parties or to America? Will they rise above the pettiness, pranks and discontent and actually do something that matters, long-term, for all Americans?

With over four 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). Reprints of his book, Planning the Future – A Guide to Strategic Thinking and Planning for Elected Officials, Public Administrators and Community Leaders (2010) has sold out several times. 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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Off and Running to…?

After less than twenty days post inauguration there were already skirmish lines forming all over the American landscape. Even approaching 100 days, most issues have been due to the new president’s style, mannerisms, and behavior while others are grounded in edicts, threats and executive orders that foster deep concerns for the future.

Perhaps the most telling event took place far below the radar of most citizens but heralded what might become one of this nation’s most profound platforms for evolution and, in some ways, revolution. As reported in Time Magazine in late January, one of the nation’s most influential Republican industrialists, Charles Koch, hosted a gathering of 550 powerful business leaders to discuss their level of support for the president’s various platforms, edicts, orders and actions that do not bode well for the American economy. As quoted in Time, Koch stated, “We cannot be partisan. We can’t say, O.K., this is our party, right or wrong.” His point throughout the conference was that many promises and opening actions launched from the Oval Office are contrary to good business practice and cannot possibly end well for the U.S. The most prominent point cited at the conference was the growing erosion of trade relationships, economic partnerships and global networks that many business leaders have developed over the past three to four decades.

In addition to the business community’s view that no one ever wins a trade war is a parallel view that cutting taxes, huge infrastructure projects, more military spending and the goody bag of promised changes would do nothing but drive the U.S. toward economic recession and potential depression. Among serious, experienced global business leaders there is resistance brewing. These are not seat of the pants operators, but America’s best, who operate according to strategic plans, are collaborative, understand diplomacy, and embrace the long view. Any business owner would have serious questions about how $1.2 trillion in infrastructure projects will be financed. New taxes? That would be curious in light of the promise to cut taxes. In other words, business professionals are already wondering how all the promises can be kept and who will pay.

In this context, we are moved to look over the horizon and make predictions regarding several areas that will be in flux during 2017 and beyond. Among the most remarkable phenomena is the current administration’s lack of understanding that we live in a republic that has evolved over 240 years. The new administration is not a ‘business turnaround’ where a new group of managers is brought in to reorganize a company according to their personal experience and perspectives. While certain changes in government would be welcome, there are processes, procedures and protocols that must be followed if the republic is to remain strong. The most obvious and already brewing dichotomy is between what was promised and what is possible, practical and wise. The potential for conflict and a continuing circus atmosphere is high.

There is high probability that the prospect of regulatory shifts, more government spending and a pro-business atmosphere will energize the economy. However, the question is how long it might last before reality strikes. As stated previously in this space, what goes up always comes down. Regardless how it is postured, we live on a connected planet with interconnected economies and it is both foolish and myopic to believe that America can force anyone to do anything, outside of armed conflict. The current economic environment is one of escalating competition, growing collaboration, and evolving symbiotic relationships. This is how the world works and other countries will continue to evolve, compete, and battle for economic relevance. America must do the same. It can’t dictate all the rules.

Sooner or later (bet on sooner), citizens will understand that the U.S. is not weak, vulnerable, passive, struggling, or economically doomed. This country has a vibrant economy, millions of new jobs have been added since 2010 (227,000 in January, 235,000 in February and a 4.7% unemployment rate), thousands of new business enterprises have been formed, new alliances have been created, and far fewer live in poverty. More, violent crime is down, new trading partners are at the table and consumer confidence has been quite high over the past two years. At some point, the citizenry will no longer buy into negative rhetoric. It’s difficult to complain when there is so much to celebrate.

Unfortunately, over the next year or several years, there may be less focus on national parks, the environment, occupational safety, free speech and equality. Immigration could be crippled for years, which could have a negative economic impact and health coverage, even if the Affordable Care Act is partially unraveled without a valid upgrade could dwindle for millions who now have coverage. In this review, keep in mind that policy evolution is how reform tends to happen…it is incrementally improved, not totally removed. It has taken years for Civil Rights and American with Disabilities legislation to become what it is today…improved rather than discarded.

I have noted earlier that bombast, threats and jingoistic retorts do little to improve relationships or forge alliances. Even small trade wars will negate years of improving global relationships and possibly devolve into global recession. Trust and mutual respect are integral elements if America is to build trading relationships that strengthen its economy while fostering long-term opportunity. If Koch and his colleagues are concerned, we should all be concerned.

There are enormous forces in play but it appears that some individuals do not understand that other countries have the sovereign right to compete, grow, seek and participate. Every sign points to continued slow global growth with many struggling economies. America will also experience slow growth, but it will be steady and sustainable if it is not derailed by foolish policies and the erosion of trading and security relationships. Unfortunately, there is significant potential for polarity among U.S. citizens, especially if the economy struggles, healthcare is restricted, there is stagnant job and wage growth and inflation begins to escalate.

2017 will see a new centering of America but it will be driven by polarity, at least until wisdom and leadership prevail. It will be a comical, frustrating and troubling period that will test this country’s will, values, and spirit. The vast majority of Americans treasure dignity, harmony, good will, diplomacy and true leadership. Sadly, the new administration has so far not reflected any of these characteristics, but you can bet they will become more precious in the months ahead.

With over four 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). Reprints of his book, Planning the Future – A Guide to Strategic Thinking and Planning for Elected Officials, Public Administrators and Community Leaders (2010) has sold out several times. 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).

Enough Already!

Most exceptional editorials and essays are produced during times of social upheaval, citizen angst and polarity among conflicting ideologies. On October 2, the Las Vegas Sun carried three separate editorials written by New York Times authors Paul Krugman (Rebels Without a Clue), Gail Collins (Congress Cracks Up) and Charles Blow (The Captain Ahabs of the House). All were blunt, scathing reviews of the current idiocy taking place in Washington D.C. and, even though each had a different prism, the overriding theme was that the epic level of dysfunction is totally irrational and horrifically stupid. And, of course, it is the American public and global business community that will bear the brunt of the various ripples that are sure to come.

Poignant rhetoric aside, an even more interesting fact is that there are many, many other forces at play on the planet and all deserve attention.  Nicholas Kristof wrote a recent essay celebrating that human mortality due to AIDS is finally being reduced, especially in sub-Saharan and South Africa and other stricken areas. And, through the efforts of many governments, the World Bank, various NGOs and the United Nations, we are seeing a substantial reduction in worldwide poverty, disease, illiteracy and isolation. Mostly through the efforts of non-governmental agencies, such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, we are witnessing enormous progress in disease prevention and education, both of which are leading to revolutionary growth in grassroots entrepreneurs and neighborhood businesses. Good things are happening…they just aren’t happening due to the good work of the U.S. Congress.

It seems clear that the American public must collectively rise above petty political ideologies and seek a deeper understanding of what good government should entail. We have elected representatives who virtually always ‘re-center’ once on Capitol Hill. Good intentions are quickly replaced by positions driven by power and political control. The calculus of a broad and sustainable American vision then becomes about near-term struggles for position, assignments, and illusory ‘proof’ that elected representatives actually meet constituent expectations. The record will show that, on the small stuff, each state gets a share of earmarks and pork. But on a grander scale, this country is on a slippery slope greased by greed and senseless jousting. At a time when our leaders should be fully engaged in collaborative efforts to address water issues, create a long-term economic plan, and address infrastructure decline, incarceration levels, immigration, educational performance, public safety, and uncontrolled health care costs, they default to a childish game of chicken. As stated in previous Blogs, no business or local government leader could afford to act as foolishly as politicians, because nothing would ever get done and their operations would quickly fail.

These are troubling times. While many good things are happening around the world, U.S. leadership has become a sad joke. Regardless of rationales concocted by party ideologues, we need decision makers, thought leaders and visionaries who focus on the long-term development of this nation. We are tired of foolish wars and police actions; we are tired of high unemployment; we are tired of resource dependence; and we are tired of hearing how the U.S. ranks far below many other countries in educational performance. But mostly, we are tired of a juvenile, self-serving, and egocentric Congress that can’t plan, manage, decide or implement.

jfl-pic-blue-shirtyellow-tie1.jpgWith 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). Reprints of his book, Planning the Future – A Guide to Strategic Thinking and Planning for Elected Officials, Public Administrators and Community Leaders (2010) has sold out three times. 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).

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).

Thinking About the Future

One would have to assume that many readers continue to look at the calendar and marvel at the date. While this seems curious, consider that many of us have lived five or more decades and have never thought much about 1) growing old 2) how long we will live, or 3) the enormous changes that would take place during our lives. As we struggle to grasp that it is almost 2013, we are faced with the twin dilemmas of considering our legacies (what we are leaving behind) and what challenges and opportunities the future will bring. It would also seem important to consider what role we’ll play in building a tenable future, especially if we care at all about leaving something worthwhile for succeeding generations.

Then, there is the specter of circumstances and scenarios we cannot change…those inevitable transitions currently underway that will alter societies, global cultures, economic balance and the planetary environment. In retrospect, it is now clear that we have bungled a lot. We have spent, burned, harvested, polluted, melted, mined and cut our way past several tipping points. Others are nearing inevitability but may still be reversible, while many are far enough out for current Earth-bound residents to change predicted outcomes.

For most of us, the most important considerations pertain to foresight and caring. However, it may be even more essential to recognize that facts are facts and we will indeed reap what we have sown. As we work through this year and toward mid-decade, it is essential that we recognize that a lot of water has passed under the proverbial bridge and things are rapidly evolving. A commitment to ‘futuring’ requires that we recognize established fact, understand cause and effect, are able to sensibly extrapolate what might occur IF, and have the courage to alter course no matter how difficult.

The planet has already warmed by over 2.5Õ F in the past century and has virtually 100 percent chance of growing by 4.5Õ to 5Õ F by the end of this century, which will guarantee enormous loss of sea and glacial ice (the most recent data indicate temperatures increase by over 4Õ F within three decades). If you are interested, read The Fate of Greenland: Lessons from Abrupt Climate Change (MIT Press, 2011), which explains how and why Greenland holds clues to the fate of the entire planet. Current data (just hard fact without all the hooey) indicates that melt rates are now so high that the Greenland ice sheet could melt in a few decades, raising sea levels by approximately 24 feet worldwide. This is not bunk…melt rates are measurable and tracked quarterly. This is simple math…not complex physics or weird astrology.

Similar questions arise when considering essential resources. What about oil, arable land, forests, minerals, rare elements, and water? As I have said before, just review the data then decide what you want to believe.

As futures thinkers, there are questions we need to ask, such as:

  1. How much global warming lies ahead and what will it do to economic vitality, health, population migration, international relations, levels of conflict, environmental sustainability, etc.? 
  2. What role will CO2 and methane play in planetary warming and is there anything we can do about either? (You can Google information about the amount of methane being released by melting permafrost; it is enormous and cannot be stopped unless temperatures moderate.)
  3. As the population grows, will there be adequate resources? What about potable water?
  4. When will oil reserves dip below the threshold needed to fuel modern society? What will that do to industry, society, economics and, ultimately, potential opportunities in our communities?
  5. Will there be enough water, where is it and who will control it? How precious will it become and what are we doing to preserve/ protect it?
  6. Is there truly enough enterprise on Earth to employ all who seek work? What can we predict for younger generations relative to opportunity, careers, and pursuit of vocational dreams?
  7. Will the trend toward plutocracy continue the evolution away from democracy and equality? This is a major global (and U.S.) trend line that shows a significant shift in power to the wealthiest and elite who seek to govern and retain power.

As future thinkers, we must embrace the fact that times are changing. It is a human tendency to live in the moment, to focus on the day-to-day operational aspects of work and life. However, there are absolutely enormous questions about sustainability, preparation, positioning, and preservation that must be addressed by more than a few scientists and global thinkers. As noted before in this Blog, the plot always turns and is turning in ways many choose to ignore.

Am I concerned about future opportunity and the ability to thrive within the context of the challenges suggested above? Certainly. However, the human spirit provides boundless options that are available to those willing to embrace change, evolve, and consider new possibilities. Give some thought to the future you prefer for your family, business and community. What course needs to be pursued? What changes must be made? Are you, your managers, decision makers and community leaders planning strategically and with foresight? And, will you and they choose to step forward and lead during these challenging times?

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).

Converging Ideology

As America rounds the turn and heads into the annual fall home stretch, there are many competing and converging ideologies serving as platforms for debate, idle discourse and debacle. As with any social evolution, the conceptual lattice that frames most fundamental arguments tends to erode or morph as curious and committed thinkers seek middle ground.

Over the next several months, we will see competing arguments for more austerity, quantitative easing, increased government investment, greater isolation, economic expansion, Syrian intervention and every conceivable tax reform. For the casual observer, it will be a period of ideological confusion fueled by elusive facts and ill-defined goals. For those inclined toward rigorous study and enlightened review, the last four months of 2012 will be one of the most frustrating, challenging and kinetic periods in recent history.

The austerity movement has lost its appeal as economists and business leaders re-learned the fact that chronic deficits have multiple causes. As government retrenched and cut spending, it reduced demand and lowered confidence. The inadvertent message has been stark: the future is unclear, proceed with caution, take no chances and wait and see. And, the big message seems to be that no one really has any idea what to do.  Rather than taking the lead, for the most part governments have created a darker global vision that is energized by political disharmony, nationalistic idealism, greed and fear. The message has certainly not been optimistic or visionary, and there is little evidence of wisdom, foresight or commitment to a sensible alternative future.

As noted in the August 2 Public Futures blog, the return to Keynesian discourse has been interesting, due to its advocacy for positive government intervention. Understanding that too much frugality promotes recessionary attitudes, Keynes advocated a balance between saving and spending; the more we save and reduce private and public spending, the slower the economy grows, so balance is critical. And, of course, a downward spiral ensues when governments, business and families assume an ‘every man for himself’ posture that inhibits balance among the essential elements of planning, sharing, investing, spending, and saving.

There is empirical evidence that the following do not work: 1) reducing budget deficits by cutting spending, especially spending for social services; 2) reducing taxes for the top earners; and 3) deregulating business so ‘wealth generators’ have more incentive to invest. All recent economic crises saw some variation of this theme beginning with the global debt crises in 1982, and continuing with the 1994 Mexican crisis, 1997 Asian crisis, the Brazilian and Russian crises in 1998 and the Argentine crisis in 2002. In every case, the IMF and other institutions forced these countries to cut spending and build budget surpluses. Historic data clearly shows that recessions in those economies grew much worse. Therefore, since 1980, tax cuts, permissive loopholes, and deregulation have not led to economic growth, and in many cases, economies actually grew weaker.

As with most of my commentaries, I encourage readers to seek factual historic data and not rely on current media, political or biased institutional reporting. The ultimate question is, ‘What are current leaders reading and thinking?’ At a time when the infrastructure is eroding, America’s educational system is proving less robust than those in other countries, drought is ravaging two-thirds of the nation, fires are destroying millions of acres, and senseless war continues to take the lives of young men and women, why is there no national consensus on what seem to be clear priorities?

America is positioned to assume the greatest global leadership role in its history. This will not be through military strength or humanitarian aid, but through its ability to demonstrate unity, clarity, direction, and will. Most citizens are hunkered down, trying to weather the storm and hoping for better days. Inertia has dampened the American spirit at a time when the population is growing, new markets are emerging, and U.S. enterprises are positioned to expand. Rather than seeing and seizing opportunity, far too many are waiting for someone else to take the lead.

It is time to re-think our politics; it is time to follow prudent, long-term economic policies; it is time to reconsider what America stands for; and, it is time for citizens to define the preferred future. Our future is not associated with a political party, nor is it associated with a single ideology. It will be founded on an understanding of what it means to lead, care for others, be accountable, and constantly progress. We celebrate the recent Olympic competition that is driven by pride, spirit, and enormous will, regardless of national stature, religion, culture, or ideologies represented by the athletes.  We must now find that same unique willingness to accept, collaborate, compete and celebrate if we are to build this nation and lead through several more difficult years.

America is being challenged. It is time to distill the best solutions from multiple ideologies and forge a clear path to the future. There is not one path forward, but many. Finding those converging paths will require our best thinking and best thinkers…in an atmosphere based on mutuality, common vision, commitment, and trust. When will we fully embrace that process?

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).

The Dimensions of Reality

In his June 4th blog, entitled Welcome to the Wormhole, James Howard Kunstler commented, “The world is waiting to re-learn an old lesson: that untruth and reality exist in an adversarial relationship.” He goes on to comment on the various misrepresentations, outright scams, and fanciful ruminations that are leading various publics toward a belief that magical reform and a transcendent ideology will right the global ship. Meanwhile, two weeks ago and before the June 17th Greek party election, Kiplinger predicted that Greece will leave the euro zone by July or August and member governments will rush to shore up ailing economies by cutting interest rates and issuing euro-backed bonds. With Antonis Samaras’ conservative New Democracy party at the helm, this may not happen. Whether this becomes another shell game that is akin to check kiting remains to be seen. The real question is whether there is enough vitality, commitment, and buying power among the strongest euro zone members to weather the storm. And, that storm is approaching gale force in Ireland, Spain, Portugal and Italy. Even China’s pace is slowing as it calibrates to new social, environmental, economic and political realities.

The competing facets of this very complex game are escalating and will affect every U.S. community as the plot unfolds. The reality is clear and has been stated in this space in prior commentaries. This is a decade of transformation and re-centering. It was predicted and predictable. Whether one relies on studies of business cycles, biologic/ ecosystem cycles, cultural and social evolution, or the not-so-sweet science of economics, the plot always turns. So, be prepared for the reality of reduced European vitality, softer commodity prices, reduced demand for U.S. exports, and more social unrest as multiple societies struggle to make sense of foolish choices, lost assets, deeper debt, and more strident calls for austerity.

On June 3, The Guardian ran a story by Decca Aitkenhead that cited Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman’s recent comment that, “Debt is one person’s liability, but another person’s asset.” This comment was made as he shared thoughts on why debt was not always bad…and perhaps a better choice than manic austerity.  Dr. Krugman goes on to say that comparing a household budget to a national economy is ‘seductive’ because it is easy to understand, but is wholly inadequate in a macro-economic context. If everyone pays off debt and reduces spending, as austerity supporters encourage, what happens to economic vitality? Someone has to start spending to fuel the economic engine. Corporations are sitting on billions in cash, citizens are paying down debt, banks are recovering as much as they can and lending little, and all sectors are slow to spend. Reality is revealed in the data. The U.S. continues its path forward, experiencing slow growth estimated at around 2% for 2012. Inflation remains low, unemployment is creeping down on a predicted five to eight year downward spiral, and personal debt is at a two-decade low. Americans are still spending, albeit at lower, more conservative levels, new business enterprises and technologies are emerging, and the U.S. economy shows signs of achieving a new, more sustainable center.

As overseas prices and costs escalate, more business and manufacturing will return to the U.S., which provides a capable workforce and proximity to consumers. Of course, that assumes that Congress will figure out that existing tax rates will stifle or drive away, rather than attract business. In any case, Europe must re-center, which will not happen without pain, sacrifice and resistance from spoiled citizens. While this will impact the U.S., it will also provide new opportunities to strengthen this country’s capacity to fund/ support new growth. Again, domestic and global citizens must accept the reality that recovery from this recession will take close to 10 full years and requires new thinking, better habits and wiser policies. Even optimists are prepared for a calculated struggle until at least 2014 or 2015. Keep in mind that, as this summer unfolds, Europe will grapple with multiple demons of its own making. Same with South America, Russia, Tunisia, Egypt, India and much of Asia, where there will also be unrest and serial upheaval.

The larger question is about America. This country has the power, resources, capacity and capability to emerge even stronger than before. But will it make the tough choices?  Will both political and non-political leaders emerge who are not motivated by greed, ego and power? What will move this nation’s true leaders to action and will it be soon enough? True leadership begins at home, in every family, every business, and in every community. The compound question is, what is each community doing and will it be enough before it is too late?

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).