Let’s Rethink the Environment: Caring for the Commons

Global Warming: that phrase has become an emotionally charged shorthand—a handle for a whole grab-bag of controversies, conflicts, issues, problems, and—for some people—opportunities to bring the American Republic into the modern age.

Few themes in the national conversation have generated so much heat and so little light, and few topics have tribalized Americans so intensely around competing ideologies.

We need to unpack this relatively simple concept, look at its components, and get some sense of its politics—how Americans currently think and feel about it, if they think about it at all.

Let’s Use Tiger Teams to Get the Big Things Done

The appalling casualty rate of ideas and initiatives on Capitol Hill has become intolerable. We can no longer afford to watch our biggest and best ideas die of asphyxiation. These are dangerous times and the stakes are much too high.

We need another way to get the big things done—a way to bypass the legislative “sphincter” and turn good ideas into actions.

We have such a way. It’s called the “tiger team” approach, and it’s been proven in lots of successful organizations, including the US military, some federal agencies, and in business enterprises.

In a nutshell: whenever an organization is too sluggish, too ponderous, too arthritic, too incompetent, or too conflicted to handle a difficult challenge, we need to build a “work-around.” We leave the bureaucracy to its own bureaucratic paralysis and set  up a separate, temporary enterprise, laser-focused on one assigned mission.

Let’s Rethink Commerce: Survival of the Fittest or Shared Fate?

According to Milton Friedman, professor of economics at the University of Chicago business school:

“There is one and only one social responsibility of business—to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits, so long as it stays within the rules of the game, which is to say, engages in open and free competition without deception or fraud.”

The billionaire capitalist Malcolm Forbes, founder of the Forbes Magazine publishing empire, agreed with Friedman. Forbes put it even more simply:

“The only sin in business is not making a profit.”

A century earlier, the legendary robber baron John D. Rockefeller had shown the way to fabulous riches in the oil business by amassing capacity and exterminating his smaller rivals. He expressed his philosophy in equally blunt terms:

“The day of combination [monopolies, mergers, acquisitions, and trusts] is here to stay. Individualism has gone, never to return. Competition is a sin. The American Beauty Rose can be produced in the splendor and fragrance which bring cheer to its beholder only by sacrificing the early buds which grow up around it. This is not an evil tendency in business. It is merely the working-out of a law of nature and a law of God.”

Before we take up the question of whether, how, and how much to rein in corporate expansionism, let’s pause to acknowledge a very big truth:

The corporation, as an economic entity,
probably surpasses all other human inventions
in terms of the benefits it has brought to modern societies.

Our National Conversation: Healthy Discourse or Shouting Match?

Unless you’ve chosen to live a life isolated from the rest of society, you probably experience the national conversation every day, during much of your waking time. Your conversations with your family; your significant other; your neighbors; your close friends; your colleagues, co-workers, or fellow students; your casual acquaintances; the people in the shops you patronize—all influence the way you think about the Republic that you co-own and co-inhabit.

In addition to our own personal microcosm of relationships, we modern citizens live our lives deeply and unavoidably embedded in an information environment. Let’s pause for a moment to think about this all-pervasive field of ideas and influences. What can we observe about the never-ending tide of messages swirling around us? How does it affect us? And, do we have the power—and the means—to influence it?

 

Let’s Rethink Foreign Relations: America’s Deal With Our Neighbors

The Foreign Relations component of our Republic, more than most of the others, seems to involve the greatest sense of uncertainty, ambiguity, and unease in the minds of Americans.

Throughout our history our leaders, big thinkers, activists, and citizens have struggled with two conflicting streams of thought. The national conversation has almost always involved some version of the same argument: should we engage actively with the other nations of the world or should we mind our own business and stay out of their affairs?

Let’s Rethink Public Services: The Rights and Entitlements of the People

When Americans consider the matter of public services—assistance of various kinds provided to citizens by government agencies—the national conversation tends to polarize around two contrasting views. One holds that government should provide a wide range of services for its citizens, especially those facing financial hardship and the effects of disadvantaged environments. The other holds that government should stay out of people’s lives and let them fend for themselves.

On one side of the debate, the eternal bogeyman quickly raises its head: “Socialism.” The “nanny state.” “Do we want the government to do everything for us?” And, “Who pays for …

Let’s Rethink Immigration:
 Managing the “Coke Bottle”

The noted scientist and intellectual philosopher Albert Einstein liked to say,

“Everything should be made as simple as possible,
but not simpler.”

Let’s make it as simple as possible, but not simpler. I’ll state my premise out front: we haven’t solved the immigration problem because we never defined it intelligently.

We’ve misunderstood it, misdiagnosed it, and mis-framed it as an emotionally charged stalemate between two incompatible mindsets. Regardless of which side gets its way, we won’t have solved it. Until we reframe our understanding of the problem and begin to apply some systems thinking, we’ll keep repeating the same old slogans and fighting the same old battles.

Let’s Rethink Civil Liberties: Balancing Freedom with Responsibility

The Founders gave a lot of thought and debate to safeguarding individual rights. They knew well the violent history of the oppressive European monarchies, including their own ancestral homeland of England. They understood the risks of unbridled power in the hands of unaccountable heads of state.

The Federalists, led by Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, and John Jay, seemed confident that a strong central government would rule humanely. But the Anti-Federalists, led by Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Patrick Henry, had their doubts. Indeed, they first opposed the new constitution entirely, because they saw it as shifting too much power from the states and local communities to a central government.

The Anti-Federalists blocked the new constitution until the Federalists agreed to add specific amendments that would guarantee individual rights and limit the powers of the central government. Once they made that deal, both sides agreed to approve the constitution in 1788 to get the new Republic started. They went ahead with the understanding that immediately thereafter they would add a series of amendments that would finish the job.

Both sides kept their word. Shortly after ratification the new Congress, created by the new Constitution, adopted the first ten amendments that have become the legendary American Bill of Rights.

By the way, when it comes to amending the Constitution, you might like to know that the President has no role in the process. Under Article II, he or she has no authority to initiate, approve, or veto a constitutional amendment.

Let’s Rethink Our Dysfunctional Revenue System: Taxes

The World Economic Forum estimates the total number of billionaires on the planet at just above 2,200. The wealthiest 26 of them own more “stuff”—money, stocks, bonds, mansions, cars, yachts, planes, art—than the 3.8 billion people at the bottom of the economic ladder combined.

Currently a typical warehouse worker employed by Amazon gets paid about $10-12 per hour and has a net worth slightly above zero. The man who runs Amazon, according to Forbes’ estimates, has a net worth of over $200 billion.

A review of the tax returns of 250 large American corporations for the years 2008-2015 discovered that eight of them paid no taxes during the entire period. The Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy cited firms like General Electric, International Paper, Priceline.com, and PG&E as leading examples of zero-tax businesses. At least 100 firms in the study—40 percent—paid no tax in at least one of those years. Recent news reports indicate that Amazon, a firm with a stock market capitalization approaching a trillion dollars, paid no tax for the most recent year.

Does it seem like somehow, somewhere along the way, the American economic miracle got hijacked? Did the Founders miss something as they went about designing the economic model for the Republic? How did the “land of opportunity” devolve into the land of “winner takes it all?”