Peering into an uncertain future

Walter Russell Mead:

But for people who are more interested in shaping the future, it’s important to grasp that this is one of those times when politics feels more important than usual but in fact matters less. The status quo doesn’t fit well and doesn’t work well so we look toward politics for answers, but the politicians don’t have what we need.

This is not anybody’s fault. As regular readers know, our view is that the US stands at an uncomfortable transition point between eras. We are between social models. The blue model of twentieth century mass production, mass consumption society based on stable corporate oligopoly, bloc voting and government regulation in a relatively closed national economy has foundered and it cannot, so far as we can see here, be restored. But we have at best only a very dim and incomplete sense of what could replace it.

This means that we are at a moment of maximum discomfort nationally, and we want our politicians and leaders to fix things — but that neither party really knows what to do. On the whole, the Democrats stand for restoring the blue model and Republicans oppose that and so far, so good. The choices between the parties seem to be growing more clear as the problems resulting from the decay of the blue model take a larger toll.

Yet neither party can offer the smooth path to a stable and affluent future that voters want. The Democrats know what they want but can’t deliver it because it is undeliverable. The Republicans know what they don’t want but are not able to describe the future they would like to see — much less show how they can manage the transition fairly and kindly because they don’t really know what the goal looks like.

Our problem is that the time isn’t ripe: the real work of our society right now isn’t about political competition. It is about re-imagining, reinventing and restructuring core institutions and professions. Our health care system is wasteful and poorly organized and if in the next generation we don’t fundamentally reorganize it the country will go broke. Our educational system from kindergarten through grad school needs a variety of upgrades and innovations. Mass employment through manufacturing cannot support the kind of middle class society it once did; conventional big box retail cannot do it; government employment and subsidies can’t do it. Americans must find new ways to organize themselves for work and production, and we must learn to produce different (better and more interesting) goods. We must complete the transition from a late stage industrial society to an early stage information society and it’s something that nobody has ever done before in the history of the world.

Neither party, it must be emphasized, knows what to do about these issues. To a very large degree the solutions are outside politics. Policy and therefore politics will play a significant role ultimately in either furthering or retarding the changes we need, but so much of the shape of the future is still unknown that nobody can really tell us what should be done and in what order to create the best possible conditions in which a brighter future most quickly and most stably emerge.

I’m not convinced that an “information society” is a viable model, but we are in transition from an industrial society to something else. Politics will not control that change, it will reflect the change.

The institutions of society (government, religion, law) are by their nature conservative. They will resist change. The marketplace adapts first. Back in the Sixties they said that computers would change the world. They were right, but their predictions about how it would change were mostly wrong.

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54 Responses to Peering into an uncertain future

  1. yttik says:

    “…we are in transition from an industrial society to something else..”

    Maybe we’re all going Steampunk?

  2. DeniseVB says:

    LOL ! This makes me think of the French President who wants to stick corporations/millionaires with a 75% income tax. Their response: Buh Bye France. Anyhow this is funny-sad:

  3. wmcb says:

    Mead very often nails it for me. The one piece he did awhile back that absolutely blew me away was this one: The Once and Future Liberalism. It’s in depth and crunchy, not a light read. But it expressed perfectly for me the apparent conflict between my long-held (and still held) liberal ideals, and the reality that what we are doing *isn’t working anymore*, and we need to face that. It’s well worth the time investment to plow through the whole thing. I keep thinking that I want to do a post exploring the things he talks about, but it’s not going to be a quick 30 minute write. It’s going to take some effort, and I’ve been lazy.

  4. driguana says:

    Love this site….really is my favorite place to hang out!!!
    I was asked yesterday to participate in an annual Santa Fe Salon coming up in December with about 30 folks from around the country to discuss “What is the most important thing we need to do right now for the future”?

    As an urban/regional planner and community development “specialist” for the past 40 years, I have actually spent a lifetime not only considering this challenge but actually trying to work at it. I am currently working on my book to put together my thinking on the subject and to detail many of the projects that I have established to try and actually implement changes. The working title of the book is A Philosophy of Yard….here is it’s brief outline and basic questions.

    My basic thinking on the subject is that our future really rests on everyone’s understanding of and involvment in local government. That begs the question, What is the role of governement in general and, consequently, the role of the federal government. And, secondly, what are out “rights” as individuals and as communities of people?

    A Philosophy of Yard
    Jack Kolkmeyer

    Introduction: The Yard as Measurement of Self

    The Questions:
    At what point does one become involved in local governance and the issues of community?
    What are individual and community “rights”? How are they determined?
    What is a Desired Future?

    What are the basic principles we need to develop to achieve this
    Desired Future?

    1. Form appropriate and supportive Partnerships that respect differences of opinion.
    2. Acquire and provide relevant Information for problem solving.
    3. Provide informed Leadership at all levels of local government and community involvement.

    1. A New Era of Planning/Collaborative Placemaking

    2. Governance and Personal Involvement

    3. Placemaking: Personal and Public Space

    4. Problem Solving in Local Government

    5. Decision Making and Differences of Opinion

    6. Spiritics not Politics: Community and Community Involvement

    7. The Whole Nine Yards

    So, the most important thing to do right now……get involved where you live! That will, eventually, have a national bearing.

    • SWPAnnA says:

      so how do you include both: a.) those who choose to participate in the interest of good government, who implement the choice by making time for it, carve out a way to afford to take the time and sacrifice the myriad of other things they could be doing in order to properly focus on issues and answers and b.) hackers and wanna-be’s who just want a “say” when they’ve done zero to inform themselves, consider the input of the focused and respectfully wait their turn?

  5. threewickets says:

    One of those many changes is the globalization of the economy for everyone given today’s trade, resource, and financial links worldwide. When we talk about foreign policy in our politics, we tend to focus on security topics. We don’t talk as much about global economic policy which is often the top economic topic in the political debates of most other developed nations.

  6. elliesmom says:

    In the early 70’s I took a chemical engineering class that was more about solving the problems of the world than it was about actual engineering. The prof started the course with “No matter what the future brings, human beings have to breath, they have to eat and drink, and they have to piss and shit. These are the basic problems that will face humans for as long as we manage not to kill ourselves off. The future doesn’t belong to the computer scientists. It belongs to the chemical engineers because we’re the ones who keep the air and water clean, produce the methods that make food production easier, more bountiful, and cheaper, and we’re the ones who deal with the shit.”

    • DM says:

      If the chemical engineers, who developed every poison and plastic that’s been detrimental to the environment are the ones who are supposed to keep the water clean, they flunked. It’s clear to me that they sold their souls for a few pieces of silver.

  7. driguana says:

    BTW, great article by Walter Russell Mead, the whole article is a great read.

    • yttik says:

      Your book sounds interesting. I spend a lot of time working with local government and tearing my hair out. We have a huge local sustainability movement, everybody wants locally grown food, local shopping, community development, but there isn’t much honoring of the past, acknowledgement of different income levels, respect for differing opinions. We keep winding up with city laws that forbid plastic bags, discourage tourism, and ban nuclear weapons, in that order. A big part of local sustainability is economics, jobs, commerce.

      • myiq2xu says:

        everybody wants locally grown food

        When you think about it that idea is so conservative that it’s reactionary. They are fighting progress.

      • driguana says:

        yes, it’s very difficult work….in part because it usually is a small group of people who are involved and they don’t necesarrily reflect the community’s true make-up and also because we tend to “vote” on everything and thus pit groups against each other. “Sustainability” is much ballyhooed by planners these days, and the planning profession is almost entirley liberal/progressive. If you mention sustainability around here, you immediately get lambasted by the right/tea party groups as part of the UN/Agenda 21 initiative. It took me a long time, and getting called a lot of names from all sides, to get people to start thinking that sustainability is really a “conservative” idea……conservation is a conservative idea.

        And, then, how to write and affect ordinances and make sustainable changes that are really about, as you suggest, local economics and local problem solving and not about nuclear disarmament……very convoluted and complicated and, as I said earlier, a lot of it is about helping people understand how local government really works. Another important step for us was doing problem solving by “consensus” rather than voting…people hated it at first but then started cooperating and reaching really good collaborative solutions. Everybody’s ideas got put ont he table and heard….and respected.

        One important result, for example was taking on the difficult subject of “home based businesses”….people now want to work at home more than ever but what I can do with my property might be in conflict with what my neighbors think should be allowed to do. We worked out a “tiered” program so that if you want to do something that has virtually no effect on your residential use…go for it…only a very simple permit required. But as you move away more from strictly residential uses to more commercial uses, a series of permitting steps might be required. Worked out pretty well…so far…..

        I don’t have a lot of hair left to tear out anymore….so it got easier!!!

        • wmcb says:

          Sounds like you are trying to be true to principles without altogether taking leave of common sense. Not always easy.

        • elliesmom says:

          The town of Concord, MA just banned the sale personal sized bottled water. Because Coke and Pepsi bottles are biodegradable, but water bottles are not? Localized stuff can get pretty crazy, too.

  8. wmcb says:


    Politics will not control that change, it will reflect the change.

    Some of the things Mead lays out in that article are big reasons why we are seeing the rise of Independents. Joe Average sees, a lot more clearly than the heavily-invested-in-their-model politicians do, that we need to chart new territory, get outside the respective boxes of the “old” blue model or the “old” red model.

    I predict a lot of years of much more swing voting than normal, as a populace that intutively senses this failure of both models tries to nudge and badger our creaky political system toward branching out into 21st century solutions. I personally have no idea whether I will be voting D or R in any given election in the years to come. It will depend. This year it’s R, but I make no promises of loyalty to anyone anymore.

    Obama, for all his talk of new and fresh, has now proven to be utterly backward looking and nostalgic for “more of what worked in the industrial age”. Romney/Ryan, for all their baggage of being part of the tired old GOP, in truth seem more open to shaking up how we do things in a global,marketplace. Maybe by just a hair, a glimmer of innovativeness, wrapped in a lot of same old same old, but it’s there. I’m going to be stuck with one or the other, Obama or Romney, so I’m going with the tiny step toward change.

    American politics is going to be a wild ride from here on out, with swings back and forth and plenty of mistakes as we try to find our new footing. Buckle up.

  9. myiq2xu says:

    People exposed to organic foods are more judgmental, self-righteous: study

    Eating organic might make you a jerk, a new study suggests.

    Researchers have found that people exposed to organic foods are more likely to exhibit judgmental attitudes.

    “There’s a line of research showing that when people can pat themselves on the back for their moral behavior, they can become self-righteous,” study author Kendall Eskine, assistant professor of the department of psychological sciences at Loyola University in New Orleans, told NBC’s “Today” show.

    I’m pretty sure they got it backwards – being a self-righteous jerk makes you eat organic food.

    • wmcb says:

      I like some organic stuff, because it’s better IMO, but I don’t make a religion out of it. I buy this and that, organic or not, it depends. And I don’t react as if you’ve blasphemed if you do otherwise.

      The tendency of people to make a religion out of their lifestyle choices (or political choices) seems to be a big problem in many areas. I really don’t see a big difference between the Jesus ranters and the tofu ranters. Your belief isn’t the problem – your assholeness is.

      • wmcb says:

        Oh, and the atheism ranters go in that category too. I have no problem with whatever you believe, or don’t. Stop being an asshole.

    • yttik says:

      “Eating organic might make you a jerk, a new study suggests.”


      “Researchers have found that people exposed to organic foods are more likely to exhibit judgmental attitudes.”

      OMG, I’m rolling on the floor here! You have to understand that we have a huge monument built to the Church of Organic Foods right in the middle of my town, that ministers to some of the most obnoxious elitists the planet has ever seen. To call them judgmental is an understatement.

    • r u reddy says:

      I eat organic, for all the right reasons. Then again, I eat conventional if the price is right and the quality is there. (Or even if the price isn’t right but the quality is there).

      Unfortunately, organic in-and-of-itself is no guarantee of quality. I have had batches of organic cherry tomatos explode into moldy fungus rot within days of purchase whereas I have also had batches of conventional cherry tomatos last so long and well that the last few began drying down like raisins by the time I got to them. Not every organic grower understands soil mineralization, nutri-mineral balancing, etc.etc. Neither do I, but at least I have read about these things. One gets the feeling some organic growers haven’t even read about these things . . . though it seems that growing numbers of them are doing so.

  10. yttik says:

    The doom and gloom in this byline made me laugh: “One of the most unpopular and unproductive Congresses in modern history returns on Monday from a five-week recess, facing a crush of big tasks, few of which will likely get done.”

  11. HELENK says:

    something that is rarely talked about is the rising sale of guns. this has been going on since backtrack was put in office. people are afraid. lawlessness has gone up partly because of lack of jobs and not a lot of hope for the future

    • r u reddy says:

      Could part of it be due to fear of new gun control laws and a desire to purchase guns before their purchase is made difficult or illegal?

  12. Always something provocative- my reading list gets longer and longer lol. I see three tabs ope up top that I now have to go read.
    As for education

    . Our educational system from kindergarten through grad school needs a variety of upgrades and innovations

    Might I suggest that the upgrades and innovations are NOT what is needed first? How about making sure the children can read, write, do basic arithmetic, have a grasp of basic science, geography and history BEFORE we worry about innovation?
    I got sick of trying to hire cashiers who could count change. I actually gave up- no high school applicant (and most of the college age ones as well) could do it. I bought play money and made it part of their training.
    What the hell happened to basic education? Counting? And how about being able to read a frigging clock?

    • yttik says:

      Yes, I have more “conservative” ideas about education, like let’s go back to the basics and also teach some life skills maybe some apprenticeship type things. When I was in school we took typing, ten key, phones, so you could actually get an entry level job right out of high school.

      Also, “choice” is important. People, parents, kids, need to feel as if education is a choice, as if they own it. It’s a privilege, not a mandatory life sentence. It was easier in the olden days where your choices were, go to school or help on the farm digging potatoes all day. Where I live we’ve had a lot of success with promoting choice and letting kids/parents decide what program/school they want to attend. At that point school becomes a privilege, a choice, not something you have to do under threat of truancy courts.

  13. DM says:

    H/T Helenk

    M.D. tears down Obama’s “You were the change.”

    How on earth could we have let so much of what we fought for slip away? How did we allow Mitch McConnell, Karl Rove, the super PACs, the Tea Party, the lobbyists and the special interests take away our voice?

    “Only you can make sure that doesn’t happen,” the president chastised us. “Only you have the power to move us forward.”

    We’re so lame. We were naïve, brimming with confidence that we could slow the rise of the oceans, heal the planet, fix the cracks in the Capitol dome.
    What a drag to realize that Hillary was right: big rallies and pretty words don’t always get you where you want to go. Who knew that Eric Cantor wouldn’t instantly swoon at the sound of our voice or the sight of our smile?

    • AniEm says:

      MD is a bought and paid for, jaded political hack and she’s blaming ‘naivete’ on her support for Obama. No wonder she gets paid to sling shit for a living.

    • alice223 says:

      This, for me, is creepy. I may see Dowd as an increasingly desperate hack operative (and an atrociously bad writer to boot, with the sensibility of a nasty 13-year old). But the elite jet setting opinion maker overlords still see anything in the NYT as having an elevated legitimacy. It’s still the newspaper of record and astonishingly, seen to be neutral — you would, for example, put a piece from the NYT on your syllabus, and it would be Perfectly Appropriate. Maybe not Dowd, but she does inherit some of that aura. And there she is, writing what is essentially a declaration that “we” are part of the Democratic Party and Team Obama, and “we” have been disappointed in the face of “our” enemies. Yet apparently, there is no media bias. It’s so very, very creepy to me, like some cut-rate Orwell sitcom.

  14. DM says:

    Newt on Clinton’s speech

    “I actually thought parts of the Clinton speech were eerily anti-Obama, if you just listened to the subtext. I mean, here is Clinton saying, ‘I reformed welfare because I worked with the Republicans, you didn’t, Mr. Obama.’ He didn’t say it that way, but think about it,” Gingrich told CNN’s “State of the Union.”
    “‘I had the longest period of economic growth in history, you didn’t, Mr. Obama. I got to four balanced budgets by working with Republicans, you didn’t, Mr. Obama,'” Gingrich added.
    Gingrich, who was a sharp critic of Clinton during his presidency, added: “I think what it does is it actually shrinks Obama. I mean, you have a real president and then you have this guy who is a pretender.”
    Clinton representatives were not immediately available for comment.

    • r u reddy says:

      The longer the Clinton representatives remain “not immediately available for comment”, the longer Gingrich’s speech gets to just sort of hang there . . . in the air . . .

      Maybe the Clinton representatives will remain “not immediately available for comment” for days or weeks to come.

  15. HELENK says:

    toure is on his racism kick again
    what the hell I might as well be racist.
    if he were white he would not have a job. he is a one trick pony that can only talk about race

  16. HELENK says:

    backtrack the greatest competitor ever????

  17. tommy says:

    Honestly, it reminds me of the end of the British empire. You’re getting screwed without even knowing that you’re getting screwed. Either accept the truth (which in their partisan roleplay, they never will or evolve). The dems want an additional stimulus and the repubs want the Bush tax cuts. Dumb. Neither are gonna get us out of this financial foxhole. Greece and Spain have the rest of the EU to rescue their respective asses, but if we go on as we are, noone on earth can bail us out. Personally, I got wings in both my home nation and in another nation which will end up 2nd to China. Its hard for me to see our decline across the world.

  18. HELENK says:

    just because we need to get up and move around

  19. I read WRM’s article last night and loved it, except for his harping on the Veep when we’ve already moved on past the conventions. That’s what one gets for being out of the country so long. That said, his excellent points still stand. I’ll be discussing this article and more at P&L tomorrow.

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