General Robert Kehler, head of the U.S. Air Force Space Command, was one of the brightest and most engaging of our national leaders. Under his command was a unit devoted to cybersecurity, a relatively new mission at the Space Command’s headquarters. He told the airmen in that unit, “When you log on each day, you are entering a battlefield.” The fact is that the battlefield they were on is a part of a global war which is fought 24/7 and where the adversary is constantly changing and often difficult to find and define. So the airmen Kehler led were truly engaged in a world war everyday, a war that does not make headlines, but one that may be definitional of the challenges posed by the new economy and the new technology of the 21st Century. What was true then is still true today.
The challenges of new economic circumstances fueled by new technological advances are the world in which this year’s budget battle in Washington is taking place. And what is amazing is how little the proposed public policies tied to the budget proposals really recognize the changed world in which we live.
Much of the present economic crisis stems from the reality of revolutionary change. The American people have a sense of that reality in their own lives which is why the change theme played so powerfully in the 2008 election season. There was a gut instinct reflected that life was being altered substantially, but public policy was not.
As usual, the people were ahead of the politicians in their common sense analysis. Things have changed big time. We are at war that we cannot see. Our 300 year tradition of information flow being anchored by newspapers is struggling. Jobs we thought of as permanent are being eliminated, replaced by new “gold collar” jobs that demand new forms of preparation in new educational settings. Health care is being transformed by technological advances while being strangled in a blizzard of paperwork created by growing bureaucracies. The dream of suburban living is being replaced by gentrification of our cities. The economy has gone global and with it the ability to make purely national decisions about economic matters. And the list can go on and on. Yet public policy seems oblivious to the stunning nature of the change around us and the comprehensive way in which people’s everyday lives are affected.
The case can be and should be made that the worldwide economic crisis is a predictable outcome of the magnitude of the revolutions sweeping the globe. The transformation from an industrial economy to an intellectual economy was going to shake out at some point. A century ago when the agricultural economy was giving way to the industrial economy we experienced a similar catharsis. Social upheaval took place, banks failed, jobs were eliminated and transformed and the end result was the rural based economy replaced by an urban based one. So, too, today we are seeing the opening stages of a similar transformation.
The question is whether the political decisions that get made will recognize the new realities. Politicians are too often behind the curve of transformational change because the chief demands they face come from those who want to be protected from the consequences of the changing landscape. The future has few political advocates while the past and present have long-standing relationships that help them make their case. So Democrats in the midst of a recessionary climate harken back to the New Deal as the model for their solutions. The Republicans cling to the Reagan Revolution as their policy foundation. Yet neither model is really adaptive to the present and coming 21st Century challenges. And thus the budget proposals put forth on Capitol Hill in Washington tend to be a collection of old ideas wrapped in new numbers but with little potential for real change.
What would real change look like? It would emphasize the empowerment of individual citizens who now have the technologically sophisticated means to make their own decisions in their own ways. It would put emphasis on helping people find ways to affirmatively act for the common good in community based programs and policies. It would recognize that government organized to meet the needs of a bureaucratized, industrial economy is dysfunctional in a society where individuals often know more than policymakers. It would see the need to assure security of the citizenry from international threats, but also see the security issues as individual (as in privacy matters) and local (as in protection from predators and criminals). It would see the need for fundamental educational reform based on two primary concepts, individualized instruction and lifelong learning. It would make it’s major investments in innovation. It would demand integrity from all who seek to lead in every economic and political sector. And, above all, it would recognize that the greatest form of justice is in creating the opportunity for everyone to succeed without trying to use the levers of power to guarantee that success.
General Kehler’s airmen had some understanding that the nature of warfare and the battlefields on which the war is fought have changed. The political establishment has talked a lot about change, but has often failed to propose solutions that really constitute change. The solutions suggested by everyone have the look of a collection of long sought special interest proposals lacking relevance to the future. We need something better.