Three questions for the Committee of Twelve…and for the Congress…

…and for the rest of us as well.

Have you noticed that media coverage on progress of the Committee of Twelve is ramping up?  We can likely expect more over coming days and weeks.

You shouldn’t envy those folks! They have a lot on their plate. Put yourself in their shoes…you’re being asked to cross a partisan divide few people have navigated on even the most trivial of subjects over the past year. But you’re being asked to do it at the divide’s widest, most fraught point. Everyone’s looking to you to settle the mix of tax increases and budget cuts – and the timing of those – that will put on our nation on a sound footing financially over the immediate and longer term, while at the same time addressing national aspirations. [Hold this last thought; we’ll return to it in a moment.]  You’re being asked to do it under the unremitting glare of public scrutiny. People aren’t standing in line to encourage you. They aren’t telling you that you have a tough job, that there are no absolutes but only shades of grey, and that they’ll support you whatever you decide.

Just the opposite! They’re complaining they should have been put on the committee instead of you. They’re  saying you can choose only to be a devil or an angel…there’s no room anywhere in between.  They threatening that if you wish to have any political future, you must not “cave” … and they’ll be in your face making sure you remember what “cave” means. And you and your staff are drained emotionally and physically exhausted already, even though you’re only now entering the tough part.

Amidst the turbulence and the clamor, the fear and striving, the cutthroat competition, finding the courage and the focus to cooperate and reach consensus will be difficult. In the confusion, it may be tempting to settle for any solution that addresses the financial issue alone, and to forget any hope of dealing with the aspirational bit.

Wrong.

As individuals and as a nation, we want to matter – to make a real difference in human affairs throughout the 21st century. What we most certainly don’t want is to see a national decline on our watch. Natural enough. But this is not just a self-interested, narcissistic goal. We’ve been taught to believe that the United States has always punched above its weight…not just because of our vast geographical extent and natural resources, although we’ve been favored with these… and not just because of the protection afforded by two oceans that have kept major powers off our shores…but because we embodied virtues and universal values. Values like individual freedom and democracy. A set of ideals including an entrepreneurial culture and a spirit of optimism and adventure that was and remains unique worldwide…and in fact coveted worldwide. Exceptionalism, anyone?

With that preamble, then, here is the first question:

As a nation numbering only some 300-400 million people out of a world of some 7-9 billion, do we think we can be a world leader in the year 2050, and still in the year 2100, if we’re not also the world leader in innovation?

Strains credulity, doesn’t it? If we were strong in numbers, our size alone would make us matter. But as 3-4% of the world’s population? Hard to imagine any real staying power unless we’re coming up with more bright ideas, more knowledge – and not just any knowledge, but useful knowledge – than anyone else. And it follows that we need to invest in innovation and demand return on that investment. We need to foster a spirit of and hunger for innovation in our children, and reward and encourage it.

And here is the second:

Given the paramount importance of sustainability during this century, do we think we can be a world leader throughout this period without also being the world’s most innovative with respect to resource extraction, environmental protection, and mitigation against natural hazards?

If we want to invest in entertainment, and in recreation, fashion, splendid homes, and cool, fun stuff that people buy (sports cars,iPads, and Wii, and smartphones and on and on) and market that stuff worldwide, that’s ok. But we’d better also be the absolute best at converting from nonrenewable to renewable energy, agribusiness, water resource management, transportation, public health. We’d better be the most skilled at protecting air, water, and soil quality, habitat, ecosystems, and biodiversity. Given we have the most hazardous weather in the world, our communities surely ought to be the most disaster-resilient. These issues define this century.

And finally, here is the third:

As a nation of only 300 million people in a world of some 7-9 billion, do we think we’ll be a world leader in innovation if we go it alone internationally? 

Not hardly. We’re going to be isolationists in a world fueled by social networking? We’re going to ignore the inventions, and insights, and progress of the other 9 billion? We’re going to be a world leader without liberally and generously sharing our innovation, and our sustainability skills, with all? We’re going to be the only innovators? We don’t want to live in any such world.

The implications of these three questions for our beleaguered Committee of Twelve?

Just this…we’ve got to resolve our present challenge – the fiscal picture – in such a way that we position ourselves to address our larger goals. So…let’s seek to climb out of our current fiscal predicament and high unemployment through identification of new opportunities rather than by fear of further mistakes. Let’s stay in touch with our natural curiosity about how the real world works and let’s see that not just as a human trait but as the path forward. Let’s maintain and extend our knowledge infrastructure – all the R&D and the broad public education that supports it.

Not a sufficient condition for 21st-century exceptionalism – but certainly a necessary one.

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2 Responses to Three questions for the Committee of Twelve…and for the Congress…

  1. Bill:-

    Your questions and answers are right, but many of the necessary innovations won’t cost government a dime. For example, how about working with the private sector to finance the needed rebuilding of our infrastructure (already being done to rebuild the Goethals Bridge in NY)? How about putting in place real tort reform to reverse the climbing costs of health care? How about replacing our adversarial regulatory regimes with ones based on partnership and common goals? How about restructuring our elections so that we avoid the obscene spectacle of politicians running for reelection almost as soon as the last vote from the previous election is counted (just maybe we might get a little more more attention to the people’s business)? And while we’re at it, how about finding ways to reduce the corrupting and corrosive influence of money (whether from corporations or unions or so-called public interest groups) on our politics?

    I am a firm believer in American exceptionalism and I see it assailed from both the left and the right. And you’re right – if we are to play the role that that exceptionalism implies we must innovate. But perhaps the greatest innovation needed is that we must all come to recognize that government is not the answer; business is not the answer; the third sector is not the answer – they must all work together to solve the problems we face. If we can make this one innovation, the others we need will come.

    • Thanks, John.
      This is spot on/brilliant…and on several levels. A great bottom line/takeaway message.

      Your points about keeping our eyes open to myriad opportunities that require no financial resources…and about how we might think less in terms of what “sector” we might or might not belong to and more about working together to solve common problems? All of us should try to hold those thoughts today.

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