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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).

Rhetoric, Reason and Reality

Sociologists and cultural anthropologists have warned us for some time that the defining characteristic of the future will be ambiguity…that sense of uncertainty and anticipation that breeds anxiety and apprehension. These descriptors are not the best foundation on which to build trust and long-term investment strategies. Neither are they the characteristics we seek when contemplating going to college, pursuing a graduate degree, raising a family or starting a new enterprise. This environment inhibits passion for the future while depreciating much of what we have worked so hard to accomplish over the past several decades. And, if you are a Boomer, recent political and economic rhetoric does little to lift the spirit.

For close to twenty years, there have been admonitions that this particular decade, especially since the 2007/8 recession, would be transformational. Discussed often in this space, every sign has pointed to a period in global and U.S. history that would result in enormous worldwide competition, declining resources, growing populations, climate change, higher expectations, aging populations, fewer craftsmen and skilled workers, and growing concerns about water. This is not new. Since 1946 the world has struggled to regain its balance; global infrastructure had to be rebuilt, institutions re-established, and governments restructured. In historic terms, this has all occurred at an enormous pace and, for many countries, while it has ebbed and flowed, both trajectory and pace have continue to soar.

Fear, isolation and nationalism have become centerpiece topics in the recent political circus. While committed here to an apolitical stance, it is difficult due to the misinformation, misdirection, posturing and absolutely vacuous rhetoric that saturates the nightly news. In fact, America is strong. Any review of the data will show that it has a strong defense and a stable, if not fully robust economy. Wages have not kept up nor have the type of new jobs that we are used to based on historic expectations, but this is a different time…there is a transformation taking place and we are just now at the front end of this period of massive change.

The answer is not to build walls, punish immigrants, segregate religions or conjure rationale for divisive action. The path forward lies in this country’s ability to understand the emerging world, harness its amazing opportunities and create a new foundation for progress.

There are amazing new technologies that will totally transform power generation, automobiles, mass transit, communication, computing, construction and agriculture. The ability for virtually anyone to learn, understand and pursue knowledge is opening portals to new business enterprises and relationships that could bring geometric progress. Unfortunately, due to a myopic media, much of this has been overlooked while buffoonery, antagonism, incoherence and ditzy logic rules the day.

Does anyone understand that growth is never constant? That it is non-linear and that the plot always turns? Is there recognition that the U.S. has enjoyed a long, successful run that is not remotely close to being over, but is merely recalibrating? And, that there is never a forever accelerating and inclining progress curve? The U.S. is the only country that recovered relatively quickly from the Great Recession and, while full recovery is elusive, this country is in far better shape than any country in the world. Why then, when there are so many positive economic and social indicators, is the focus on those that remain negative?

One might wonder if future historians will be puzzled by the gloom and doom rhetoric when, by all objective measures, the past three decades have been the best in history, especially in terms of human well-being. While Samuel Huntington warned us about the impending clash of nations, what has actually occurred is a confluence of civilizations and cultures. Never perfect, this blending of global cultures has been accelerating for the past two decades. Consider China twenty years ago. Those of us who worked there can attest that the mid-1990’s were amazingly different than today.  And the model for China’s development?  The United States…even if the Party can’t admit it, Chinese historians and sociologists openly admit that it was the U.S. model that motivated that country’s passion for development.

There is an amazing worldview that is being obfuscated by the clueless, often savage attacks reported by the media during this political campaign. Those still caught up in ideological debates about communism, democracy, theocracy and other forms of governance seem unable to grasp that the planet has evolved to one driver – capitalism. Certainly, there is a small percent of religious fundamentalists (mostly Muslim, it would appear) who remain far outside the norm, but most populations have, in some way, embraced capitalism and have joined the global market. To forge a major platform without focusing on the vast majority of countries and their populations is idiotic. Yes, there are threats to America. They are known and are being addressed. But what about our future? What cornerstones will be used to build a nation that is sustainable, prosperous, engaged, admired, and progressive?

For the record, there is irrefutable data that verifies that the vast majority of the planet’s 1.6 billion Muslims are totally compatible with and supportive of the modernizing world. In populations of millions, there may be only 15,000 thugs who are more comparable to gangs than religious sects. They are the outliers; they are dangerous, but they must not be the basis for America’s foreign policy.

Fareed Zakaria, in his book The Post-American World (W.W. Norton, 2008), provides multiple anecdotes that demonstrate the accelerated pace at which other countries have tried to catch up with America. Even in the overleaf, there is a comment that states, “The current political debate in the United States is utterly out of touch with this broad development, obsessed with issues like terrorism, immigration, homeland security, and economic panics.” Keep in mind that this was written eight years ago and acknowledged then that, when dealing with pure fact, that the world has merely been catching up with the U.S. As a country, America is not in decline, it is merely seeing other countries finally grow into more competitive positions. Tom Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum, in their 2011 book, That Used to Be Us, cited many of the same facts and drew similar conclusions.

The real message as we approach mid-year, is that bluster, misinformation and predatory, corrosive rhetoric does not reflect the true nature of America. If we are to avoid decline and implosion, we must keep in mind that people gravitate to four things: clarity, direction, truth, and a dignified, harmonious leadership style. For the next five months, all eyes will be on this country. One would hope that, during an election spectacle that warrants worldwide coverage, we will demonstrate a leadership style that reflects the true and enduring nature of America.

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).

Count Our Blessings

The blessing theme was marred late in 2015 by the horrific attacks in Paris and San Bernardino and the ensuing aftermath of revulsion, blame and resistance to accepting immigrants in dire need of support, food and shelter. One of the most unsettling things about the growing antipathy toward migrating people is the massive number of young children who have nowhere else to go. It is difficult to hold them accountable for atrocities they can barely comprehend, even if witnessed firsthand. There is no easy answer and no glib response will suffice. It just seems to be another testament to a global cauldron fueled by sectarian animosity, religious entitlement, historic grudges and a clash between civilized, future-looking populations and those with little to embrace. Even vestiges of their cultural heritage are being erased by forces immune to reason, trust and good will. This too will pass, but at what price and over what period of time? Difficult to say at this point, but the plot always turns, even if too slowly for so many who need immediate assistance. Sending dispossessed people home is a non-solution because so many don’t have homes. They are truly walking in the wilderness…pretty strange for the modern age and the New Year 2016.

While the Paris and San Bernardino attacks cast a dark shadow over the holiday season and did not provide the classic run-up to Thanksgiving, Christmas or New Years, the solidarity reflected in global responses must be taken as a positive indication of at least the prospect of more collaboration among nations against a common foe. Whether a grand scheme is created or fractious interventions continue, a more robust response is certain. Let’s just hope it begins to turn the tide and doesn’t create more uncertainty, retribution and blame.

Even factoring recent events into the yearend equation, I don’t see a gloomy year ahead. As this country has experienced for some time, there will continue to be bumps and bruises, convolutions and diversions, and a measure of economic fluctuation, as we’re witnessing during a current market dive. But overall, the interactive world will remain mobile, engaged, cooperative, and committed to progress. Those of us fortunate to be American citizens will continue to enjoy economic growth, emerging opportunities, ample goods and services, and many, many options. GDP growth should be above 2.5%- some predict around 2.8%; inflation will grow to above 2%, perhaps as much as 2.3%, which is well above the current 1.2% for 2015. Unemployment will continue to decline from the current 5% to a range of 4.4% to 4.6%, signaling steady economic growth, that is, if not spectacular, still reasonable. Commodity prices are languishing and will continue into 2016 but this also reduces manufacturing costs and keeps inflation low.

Crude oil prices are a major driver of economic progress, and crude prices are predicted to remain between $45 and $50 per barrel as we move through 2016. With massive supplies, we are now at a 12-year low at $33.88 a barrel but there is good reason to believe that crude prices will remain in the range of $40 to $50 for the next twelve to fifteen months, providing a solid base for consumer spending (3.2% annual rate), more investment (housing 6.1% annual growth rate), and lower operating costs across all industries. The Fed raised interest rates a bit in December and if things go reasonably well, will surely raise rates again in 2016 but it won’t create many problems. A greater concern is the movement toward a higher minimum wage, which will impact small business and boost inflation. Over time, it may also be good for the general economy. Overall, our economy is more stable than any other country and the U.S. continues to serve as the bedrock for global investment and economic development. This should continue through 2016 and well into 2017, unless there are major worldwide upheavals. With so much riding on stability, this is unlikely, no matter how many skirmishes, ambushes and attacks occur. Interventions will move to an entirely new level to preserve some semblance of world order.

That said, incursions and test case scenarios are escalating. In addition to the Middle East circus, China and Russia in particular will slowly test the will of other sovereign nations, especially the United States. Whether building made-made islands in the South China Sea or disputing territorial rights with Japan, Taiwan and South Korea, China will rattle its saber to test the resolve of the U.S. and her allies. However, China’s internal economy is sinking (thus the current market doldrums) and will continue to decline and domestic issues will divert its attention inward, as the enormous Chinese population seeks more freedoms, a greater voice, jobs, property ownership and less government meddling. There are too many problems there for China to spend much time or money gaming the United States. Russia will continue to make plays in the Artic and meddle in Eastern Europe and Syria, but it may also be forced into joining a more sustained, coordinated effort against ISIS. South America remains a quagmire of debt and only Brazil is digging out after years of recession. While still marginal, it is a regional leader and may see actual growth in 2016. With some luck and reasonable weather, its drought will ease and decent harvests will boost GDP.

Turning attention homeward, I see opportunity for growth and development. As noted in other articles I authored last month, it is time for new thinking, exploration and evolution to a progressive way of managing our affairs. Whether business, government or our personal lives, the convergence of technology, trends, culture, and information will bring new opportunities to those adventurous enough to seek them. Baby Boomers are working longer, Millennials are competing like crazy; new enterprises are being created and new horizons are constantly being defined. In this context, however, there also remains enormous problems with social inequality and fiscal inequity; there are more people below the poverty line than ever before in American history; educational performance remains low; far too many people have inadequate retirement savings; and, of course, Washington politicos are about to launch another totally inane election cycle. But who would want to trade all this? It is, after all, our country, our struggle, our future.

There is much to do and we have the resources to undertake any challenge. The question is, do we have the resolve, capacity, and deep commitment to think, plan, adapt and move into a New Year that has promise mixed with equal measures of sadness, anger, frustration, and anticipation? Are we ready to move forward regardless of known and unknown challenges? And, are we able to set aside latent anxieties and embrace the inherent beauty and wonder of this nation? I believe the answer is yes.

JFL Pic Blue Shirt-Yellow TieWith over three decades working in and with federal, state and local government, John Luthy understands public agencies and private organizations.  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).