Where is the Baseline?

When we begin to think strategically about the future, there are a number of imposing challenges and baffling questions to be addressed.  I offer one here for your consideration.

Bigness has been a hallmark of American culture and has been said to reflect the spirit of the nation.  As an expression of raw power, massive engineering projects have fascinated Americans – and the rest of the world – for a long time.

Great ships, long bridges, tall buildings and world-changing inventions have transformed the material world throughout American history.  Many of us recall the awe we felt as we watched Neil Armstrong step onto the moon – live on television.

In recent decades we have watched huge banks and corporations grow ever larger, crushing the small businesses we used to favor on Main Street, USA and dispersing our jobs to distant places.

Eventually corporate America decided it did not need Americans at all.  Jobs were moved across the sea to places that had less interest in protecting the safety and comfort of working people.

We were told this would be good for us; that the cost of living would fall.  They said we could buy the things we need more cheaply – with the money we no longer have.

And then we became accustomed to “big-box stores” filled with cheapened goods manufactured somewhere far away by some other struggling people.

With the success of big business, the wealthy elite have become ever wealthier, and an ever-larger portion of personal wealth has been effectively removed from the consumer economy.

Bigness was supposed to be more efficient; it is not. It was supposed to improve the standard of living for ordinary Americans. It has done the opposite.

Large corporations have destroyed millions of small and medium-sized businesses, as well as the millions of decent jobs they once created.  Indeed, we now know that with very few exceptions large corporations are net destroyers of jobs.

In the last decade the American middle class, once the engine of American economic ascendancy, has in many ways ceased to exist.  With their role as “consumers” crippled by job losses and “hidden” inflation, many who were once in the middle class are now unable to envision a better future or even to afford a new mortgage.

You know whereof I speak.  A massive and unresponsive government dominates the economy, consuming the national wealth while producing nothing itself.  Huge impersonal corporations, for which honesty and responsibility serve no intrinsic purpose, show little concern for the consumer economy, much less the social and economic integrity of the nation.

As Americans we should be well-practiced at asserting our views, but we have allowed this situation to reach an extreme.  Indeed, we have fed it with our own rampant materialism and couch-potato lives.  And now it has morphed into a monster.

This is not a problem that can be legislated away.  How are we to turn it around?

Will economic catastrophe force a rational re-ordering of things?  Or will individual foresight, ingenuity, and determination forge a new economic course?  Americans should know how to “think-out-of-the-box.”

Whether we face the chaotic state of collapse, or the confusion and disorder of a long grinding depression, it is apparent that ordinary Americans must find a way to build the foundations for effective governance and a renewed economic order.

But – where do we start?  Here in the 21st century, where is the baseline?

I suggest that our local communities are the only place where we have the power and potential to take initiative, to make things happen.

I am not an experienced entrepreneur, but many of my readers are.  Many of you are inventive; most are smart.  It is time to put our creative imagination to work to figure this out.

Survival is not a new concept; neither is creating wealth from scratch.  These things are difficult and time-consuming, but they have been accomplished successfully over and over again for centuries.

This time is special.  We need community.

The unity needed for rebuilding begins with individual initiative – each making the effort to bring others along with us, teaching, serving, sharing knowledge, skills, and energy – building a future with a safe place for everyone.

Tom

A note to readers: This blog posts regularly; please watch for the next post on or about December 12.

Responsibility and Trust in America

Community is the seat of civilization. It is in our local communities that we engage with one another face-to-face and work shoulder-to-shoulder.  And, it is in responding to crises and meeting shared needs that we earn respect, learn patience and build trust.

With our neighbors we can overcome disorder in our own little corner of the world.  Trust and responsibility don’t just appear by good fortune.  They are formed in the trials of necessity and hardship.

Like a marriage, a genuine commitment to community forces us to mature as adult people – emotionally, intellectually, spiritually.  Perhaps this is why so many avoid full participation.

However, there are other reasons to live responsibly.  Just beyond the boundaries of family, community is that place where the reality of immediate needs must be addressed and resolved.

Americans have avoided personal responsibility for these aspects of civilized life for a long time.  We will continue to do so at our peril.

It was not always thus.  Prior to the American Revolution and for close to 100 years afterward Americans gravitated easily, even impulsively, toward decentralized local governance and an independent frame of mind.  We managed our own affairs in cooperation with our neighbors and expected regional autonomy as a natural condition.

Civil society flourished during America’s first century, a vibrant force that was documented admiringly by Alexis de Tocqueville in his two volume commentary, Democracy in America.  Americans created an immense variety of civic organizations to address every conceivable interest and social need.  Citizens did this on their own initiative, inspired by their sense of belonging and the spirit of the times.  There were few restrictions or constraints.

The need for community in America, both in spirit and as a practical matter, is as important today as it has ever been.  It is only in direct engagement with our neighbors, and in all spheres of problem-solving, that we will learn the skills of living and working productively with one another.

As Americans, we have been here before and we can do it again.

Some argue that the decentralist tradition of the American past represents an ideal to which we should aspire.  And this is, indeed, an attractive vision.  However, I think it should be apparent for all to see that there must be a balance struck between a nation of fully engaged local communities and a competent and trustworthy central government that respects and protects the primacy of local responsibility.

At the present time it is difficult to imagine a limited central government managed by mature adults who are prepared to protect both our freedoms and our security.  But, that is what we need.

Without law there can be no freedom.  And, there can be no freedom without a mature understanding of responsibility.  I believe that a valid vision of limited government for the American future can only come from a view firmly anchored in local communities.

Those who understand trust, moral responsibility, and constructive action – and who recognize the very high stakes involved – will build the foundations for the American renewal at home, with their neighbors.

Building unity within communities is a gradual process.  It depends on each of us to reach out across our differences, to form friendships that develop trust, to be supportive in times of trouble, and to influence the hearts and minds of all who care.

It will take time and patience, creative thinking and new skills, and we will do it because America is too important to lose.  The future of humankind depends on it.

Tom

Dear readers: Watch for the next post on or about November 28.   Please note that a project description and several sample chapters from the forthcoming book are linked on this page.