A Different Kind of Nation

The United States Constitution holds a unique place in history.  The Framers stepped away from the customs and tyrannies of the past to devise a new model for governance envisioned for a free and civilized people.  It has endured for more than two hundred years.

Are we willing to overlook the subsequent missteps and mistakes, the rude and selfish behavior, to consider what is truly of value to us?  Are we prepared to step forward to defend what we wish to preserve?

If we let this inheritance die, what will we have lost?

The record of American history has been rough-hewn.  How could we expect anything like perfection when we have gathered the human race together from across the world into the natural restlessness of a democratic republic?

We are blessed with a structure for governance that has channeled creativity and contentiousness into a dynamic force for capacity-building and prosperity. The Founders made an effort to ‘see the end in the beginning’, but they knew the future was beyond their ability to imagine.

We now stand at another great turning point in history, another moment that requires a visionary maturity from Americans of all stripes, colors, and viewpoints.

I do not refer to the current political turmoil as such a turning point.  Rather, I speak of something far greater and more profound, a shift in attitudes and perspective which has been building for many decades, and which will require at least a generation to fully comprehend.

In the coming years we must find our way through a sequence of crises that transcend partisan politics.

As in the past, many of our troubles will be caused by foolishness, mistaken assumptions and a lack of responsibility and foresight.  Change comes slowly.  Shamelessness and iniquity have walked together on this land.

However, the future will also be impacted by the inevitability of structural change—which is beyond anyone’s control.  The world is undergoing major shifts in physical and economic circumstances. 

The oncoming and irresistible forces we can expect will include the undisciplined advance of technology, exponential population growth, and the limits of agriculture and other natural resources.

There are those who think 200 years is a reasonable age for a democratic republic to reach its’ natural demise.  However, the United States of America remains an extraordinary model of spirit and governance, despite the blemishes.  

I think it more reasonable to understand 200 years as the age of maturity, shaped by experience and illuminated by the context of a disturbed world.  The nation is coming of age and in a time of natural volatility.

Let’s be clear: Americans are responsible for the trust our forebears have placed in us, and for the unique heritage of the American idea.

It is a trust that no other nation has the vision, the strength of will or the generosity of spirit, to embrace.  Brought into focus by the foresight and wisdom of the American Founders, it shines even now from the darkness, a beacon amidst dangers and hardships.

Yes, human imperfections remain.  Those who point to the evils and injustices of the past and present are serving a necessary role. While we should not forget the ignoble or wrongly conceived actions of the past, it is not useful to condemn the vision and character that give us our strength.

Questions also remain.  Thoughtful citizens will consider the requirements liberty imposes on the way we manage civil discourse, our disagreements and decision-making. 

Surely there can be no freedom for thought, for creativity, for social and economic advancement in the absence of the civility and self-discipline that allow us to engage freely and without fear.

Recognizing the need for social order and stability, upon which all else depends, a practical question confronts us each day:  Have we matured as individuals to the degree that we can represent our personal views patiently, listen with understanding, and, when necessary, live with our differences?

The crisis-fueled tensions of the early 21st century leave us wondering.

The future depends on our ability to engage in problem-solving, and to accept our differences within the supporting constraints of shared values.

If we fail—we could lose everything.

Tom

Please look for the next post on or about December 15.

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Values, Justice and Economics

The word “economy” comes from the ancient Greek word meaning “household management.” It is hardly surprising that so much of our lives – from the means to make a living to civil order and social stability – depends on a well-functioning economy.

Yet, who exactly is managing this “household”?

We need governance that is geared to serving the best interests of society.  And while our ‘best interests’ may be a matter of debate, we depend on those people in positions of responsibility for honesty and foresight.

The nature and functioning of a civilized society depend on trust.  And trust appears to be in short supply in the digital systems and human thinking that facilitate global finance today.

Americans cannot raise families or plan for the future without consistent and dependable conditions, whether physical, social, or economic.

Businesses cannot expand or take on risks without confidence in the consistency of law and government policies, and in the unhindered price-discovery mechanism of the marketplace.

In short, we need our economy to be managed in the interests of the American people as a whole, rather than for certain groups.

However, the difficulties we face involve more than a simple problem of personal and institutional trust.

Leadership needs to acknowledge the uncomfortable fact that it is not possible to control everything in reality, even with the best of intentions.  Indeed, growing complexity leaves little possibility for constructive change without new thinking.

Economist John Taylor’s 2012 book, “First Principles”, argues persuasively that the arbitrary application of discretionary policies has led to inevitable economic imbalances and distortions that feed upon themselves.

However, it appears his recommendations will not protect us from the current anarchy of global finance or the massive distortions that now prevail.  It is difficult to see how the economy can escape the control of people who cannot admit their errors or bear to face the pain of changing course.

Short of another major financial crisis, I do not see this changing.

Central bankers will either abandon the illusion of control and the hubris of the past, or their assurance will be wrenched from their hands when reality reasserts itself.

Leaders of government will either awake to the truth or they will find themselves helpless before a calamity of unprecedented proportions.

The coming transition will be painful and frightening, because great destabilized forces must rebalance themselves.  The extraordinary excesses of recent decades will be wrung from a shuddering world.

An instability reaped by ego, greed, and massive indebtedness has infected both the mind and spirit of the nation.

What does this mean for ordinary Americans?

Americans do have recourse, but let’s be realistic: We will not be saved by self-styled leaders who think they know it all.  We’ve been there and done that.  Rather, we must rise above our differences as individuals, build local community, and commit ourselves to a principled integrity.

And, when the ground moves beneath our feet we must trust in the decision-making structure of the Constitution of the United States.

The national economy, when understood as “household management”, involves far more than budgeting and finances.  It requires leadership with a conscious attitude of responsibility, who care about the “household” and the people in it.

It calls for freedoms that are obstructed or denied to real people – citizens of limited means.

Some readers will be uncomfortable with the concept of “love” when applied to economics.  OK; so let’s call it respectful caring or compassionate understanding or common decency.

Whatever we call it, nothing else will guide us home.

The principles to provide the foundation for the future will be those that facilitate both respectfulness and problem-solving.  Genuine community can only be based on the values of true civilization: honesty, trustworthiness, ethical integrity and moral responsibility.

When we fully embrace these values, the economy will reconfigure itself according to just principles.  Only then will our lives find stability and renewal.

Healing will take time.  But rest assured: the economy will reboot.

Tom

Note to readers: I will be taking a brief break to travel in the coming weeks.  Please watch for the next post after February 7.  Drafts of two additional chapters of the coming book have been posted on this site.  Please see links at the top of the homepage.