Obama’s challenge: Thinking big

By David Ignatius, Washington Post,  November 2, 2012

“Why We Can’t Solve Big Problems” says the provocative headline in the current issue of MIT Technology Review. This package ought to go in President Obama’s reading pile as he ponders his January inaugural address and second-term agenda.

Jason Pontin, editor-in-chief of the MIT review, introduces his theme by recalling the high age of space exploration — the incredible decade in which the United States, from a standing start, achieved President John F. Kennedy’s promise to put a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s.

“The strongest emotion at the time of the moon landings was of wonder at the transcendent power of technology,” writes Pontin. That sense of awe has diminished, if not disappeared. There hasn’t been a human being on the moon since 1972. And as Pontin writes, “big problems that people had imagined technology would solve, such as hunger, poverty, malaria, climate change, cancer, and the diseases of old age, have come to seem intractably hard.”

The point of Pontin’s exercise, as you might have guessed, is to say that these big problems are, in fact, solvable, if the United States and other advanced countries will widen their ambitions, their public research budgets and their willingness to take risks.

The MIT review gathers a series of manifestos for big-think ideas that are feasible, now. The list includes plans for: carbon capture to slow climate change; genomic medicine to target the array of cellular malfunctions that go under the heading of “cancer”; solar grids to bring electricity to the world’s poorest people; robotic manufacturing and online education to mass produce knowledge and good engineering techniques; a new assault on Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia; and, yes, a mission to Mars.

Why aren’t these big ideas funded today? Pontin identifies one important factor as the decline in spending for energy research and development, which has fallen from 10 percent of total R&D spending in 1979 to just 2 percent today.

A second, more interesting cause is what Pontin says is a tendency among venture capitalists and other investors to look for small tweaks rather than big, disruptive technology breakthroughs. He quotes Bruce Gibney, a venture capitalist at the San Francisco-based Founders Fund, who offers a harsh explanation: “In the late 1990s, venture portfolios began to reflect a different sort of future. . . . Venture investing shifted away from funding transformational companies and toward companies that solved incremental problems or even fake problems. . . . VC has ceased to be the funder of the future, and instead has become a funder of features, widgets, irrelevances.”

Investors would respond that they’re still looking for the big ideas, so long as they are attached to a reasonable business model. (Indeed, the person who alerted me to the MIT discussion is Pradeep Ramamurthy, a former Obama administration official who now works for a private equity firm called Abraaj Capital.)

Here’s where Obama can make a difference in setting expectations about the future. As he reminded us so often during the presidential campaign, the past four years were largely about rebuilding the damage of the recession and managing orderly retreats from costly foreign wars. This was a period of low expectations, low returns on investment and low tolerance for risk. The president’s own cautious style was a mirror for that of Wall Street investors, who, whatever they might claim, were thinking even smaller than the president.

Can America think bigger during the next four years — not in the usual terms of expansive foreign policy but in terms of rebuilding its economic and technological mastery? It’s likely that Obama will get a budget deal that builds a sound macro-economic foundation for growth, but how will he build on it?

Here’s where a new White House partnership with business can be crucial: It would signal to the country that the president and the leaders of the nation’s biggest finance, tech and manufacturing companies are all going in the same direction. By the end of Obama’s term, America will be approaching energy self-sufficiency and will be a low-cost producer for products that use energy. It’s not crazy, given these fundamentals, to talk about an American revival.

But thinking big about the American economy will require stronger political vision. Except for occasional glimmers, Obama hasn’t shown the quality of sustained, strategic leadership that would make him a transformational president. His team won a political victory that was a piece of genius. Can the White House translate that momentum into a real agenda for governing and growth?



Is This Election A War For America’s Soul?

by Richard Crespin, Forbes, The CSR Blog, 9/21/2012 

Decoding South Park’s Lessons for Voters

What South Park & the Ancient Greeks can teach us about presidential elections

Over the Labor Day holiday, our house was overrun — I mean blessed — by the arrival of my in-laws. Conversation stayed mostly banal but suddenly turned political when my brother-in-law summed up his view of the present election as a choice between two different versions ofAmerica. Is America a place that helps me when I can’t help myself or is America a place that lets me become the person I work to become?

He’s not alone. The latest New York Times/CBS News Poll picks up this theme of two competing versions of America, drawing a distinction between “…the president’s vision of a country that emphasizes community and shared responsibility,” contrasted with a vision of “…self-reliance and individual responsibility, a distinction at the core of the debate between the Republican and Democratic tickets about the proper role of government.”

Both Mitt Romney and President Obama, inadvertently or not, underscored which version they support, with Governor Romney telling an intimate gathering of supporters that he stands with the self-reliant in opposition to those that rely on government and then State Senator Obama calling for redistribution of wealth “…to make sure that everybody’s got a shot.”

How we frame this question, though, is more important than the answer, because the nature of a question dictates its answer. The question — as posed by my brother-in-law, the New York Times, and the candidates — is about a change in the absolute condition, the very definition, or soul, of America.

It’s a flawed premise, a flaw perhaps best articulated by Trey Parker and Matt Stone from the cartoon SouthPark. In their retelling of American history, they demonstrate that it is the fact that these visions compete that gives America its strength. The tempering influence of the doves allows the hawks to claim a righteous cause when going to war. Our self-reliant ethic prevents our communalism from dulling our competitive edge.

We not only need these two visions in constant conflict, we need them to continuously trade places in power. A better restatement of the question facing us in this election is which version do we need in power right now?

The temporary nature of the question makes it possible to do two things: first, concede the legitimacy of the other side during the election, and second, come together enough to make progress after it.

When we cast things in absolutes, we make it impossible to compromise. It’s the absolutist part that makes the Israeli-Palestinian question so intractable. If it was simply an argument over “land for peace,” then the matter could be put to bed quickly. Just make the trade. But if God told me that land is mine, then to compromise is to sell my soul, to betray God.

Same thing in the present election. If I’m voting about the very nature of America, then by definition no matter which side I pick, the other side must be a bunch of heretics with ideas dangerous to the soul of America. Tamping down the permanency of the question means that I’m really just choosing between which of my own instincts to give the lead at the present moment.

Looking at the question this way, the decision comes down to this: are we in a time of crisis — like the Great Depression or WWII – that requires collective action and shared sacrifice? If so, then we take one course for now and when the crisis is over, we can revert back to self-reliance and shameless pursuit of selfish interest. If not, if we simply find ourselves in a bad economic cycle, then we just need to take certain steps to kick-start growth.

Regardless of which conclusion you draw, by rephrasing the question and emphasizing the temporary nature of the decision we preserve the legitimacy of the other side and leave enough room to work together regardless of the outcome of the election.

Any one who seeks to casts these decisions in terms of absolutes should look both at the modern Middle East and the Ancient Greeks. The modern Middle East, with its tendency to rapidly degenerate any question into violence, shows what can happen when the ability to compromise disappears. The Ancient Greeks show us what happens when we overreach, trying to win too much. Greek tragedies followed the cycle of koros – hubris – ate – nemesis.

The tragic hero, having gained great power, would get greedy (koros), grow over-confident to the point of overwhelming arrogance bordering on moral blindness (hubris), go mad with power (ate), and then get brought low (nemesis). In our modern setting, I’ll pick on Karl Rove. He set out to create a “permanent Republican majority” and now we watch as the Republican party becomes a reductio ad absurdum shade of its former self: representing a smaller and smaller sliver of true believers.

I pick on Mr. Rove as an archetype. These tragic heroes exist on both sides of the aisle, pulling us into a continuing spiral of hardening absolutist positions. The only way out is by reframing the original question.

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Global Consciousness

Healing or Stealing Commencement Address by Paul Hawken to the Class of 2009, University of Portland, May 3, 2009
…you are going to have to figure out what it means to be a human being on earth at a time when every living system is declining, and the rate of decline is accelerating….what I see everywhere in the world are ordinary people willing to confront despair, power, and incalculable odds in order to restore some semblance of grace, justice, and beauty to this world…Humanity is coalescing. It is reconstituting the world…No one knows how many groups and organizations are working on the most salient issues of our day: climate change, poverty, deforestation, peace, water, hunger, conservation, human rights, and more. This is the largest movement the world has ever seen. Rather than control, it seeks connection. Rather than dominance, it strives to disperse concentrations of power….
At present we are stealing the future, selling it in the present, and calling it gross domestic product. We can just as easily have an economy that is based on healing the future instead of stealing it…
One is called restoration and the other exploitation. And whenever we exploit the earth we exploit people and cause untold suffering. Working for the earth is not a way to get rich, it is a way to be rich…
We are vastly interconnected. Our fates are inseparable…Our innate nature is to create the conditions that are conducive to life. What I want you to imagine is that collectively humanity is evincing a deep innate wisdom in coming together to heal the wounds and insults of the past…

Bolivia’s Morales Calls for New Era of ‘Peace and Unity’ to Break Greed of Capitalism

Conscious evolution for thinking people by Andrew Cohen, EnlightenNext magazine  – Millions of people around the world find themselves searching for a more meaningful, relevant, and profound way to engage with life. Not only do they want to become more conscious as individuals, they want to personally participate in the creation of a better world….The fourteen-billion-year project that is our evolving universe has reached a critical juncture where it needs conscious, creative human beings to help build the next step, together.

“The most remarkable feature of this historical moment on Earth is not that we are on the way to destroying the world — we’ve actually been on the way for quite a while. It is that we are beginning to wake up, as from a millennia-long sleep, to a whole new relationship to our world, to ourselves and each other.” Eco-philosopher Joanna Macy, Ph.D.

“We have an opening in this crisis for a deep transformation in American politics…But it requires people – this is the hard part – to get out of their sort of passive resignation…and engage among themselves in a much more serious role as citizens…to force the changing values of the system.” William Grieder being interviewed by Bill Moyers, July 24, 2008

The Big Theories Underwriting Society Are Crashing All Around Us — Are You Ready for a New World? by Terrence McNally, AlterNet, January 27, 2010…Many of the ideas and institutions that define our culture are breaking down — and that’s a good thing…today’s crises are part of a natural process — clearing out what no longer serves us to make room for a new way of being…We can no longer afford to indulge outdated worldviews. In order to deal with the crises we now face, we’ve got to act on the new realities and understandings revealed by science…Rather than focusing on what’s coming apart, we want people to understand that this crisis makes it possible to move to a much higher level of evolution….Every cell counts. Every human counts.

The Earth Is Full by Thomas L. Friedman, New York Times, June 7, 2011
You really do have to wonder whether a few years from now we’ll look back at the first decade of the 21st century…and ask ourselves: What were we thinking? How did we not panic when the evidence was so obvious that we’d crossed some growth/climate/natural resource/population redlines all at once?…we are currently growing at a rate that is using up the Earth’s resources far faster than they can be sustainably replenished, so we are eating into the future…

We May Be Witnessing the First Large Global Conflict Where People Are Aligned by Consciousness and Not Nation State or Religion By Naomi Wolf, Al Jazeera English, Posted on AlterNet.org, November 1, 2011
 …Suddenly, the United States looks like the rest of the furious, protesting, not-completely-free world. Indeed, most commentators have not fully grasped that a world war is occurring. But it is unlike any previous war in human history: for the first time, people around the world are not identifying and organising themselves along national or religious lines, but rather in terms of a global consciousness and demands for a peaceful life, a sustainable future, economic justice and basic democracy. Their enemy is a global “corporatocracy” that has purchased governments and legislatures, created its own armed enforcers, engaged in systemic economic fraud, and plundered treasuries and ecosystems…

How the Common Good Is Transforming Our World by Douglas LaBier, HuffingtonPost.com, October 17, 2010 
… a steadily growing consciousness and behavior that refocuses personal lives and public policies towards promoting the common good.
By the “common good” I’m referring to a broad evolution beyond values and actions that serve narrow self-interest, and towards those guided by inclusiveness — supporting well-being, economic success, security, human rights and stewardship of resources for the benefit of all, rather than just for some.
It’s like a stealth operation, because it hasn’t become highly visible yet. But polls, surveys and research data reveal several strands of change that are coalescing in this overall direction….It’s an awareness of interconnection of all lives on this planet, and a pull towards acting upon that reality in a range of ways. They include rethinking personal relationships, the responsibility of business to society, and the role of government in an interdependent world.

The Great Turning: The End of Empire and the Rise of Earth Community by David Korten, January 27, 2008 …finding a pathway to a viable human future. It is the Great Work of our time…Our environmental, social, and economic systems are collapsing around us….This is a defining moment for the human species. We have a brief window
of opportunity to navigate the passage from a self-destructive Era of Empire, characterized by 5,000 years of violent domination, to an Era of Earth Community characterized by peaceful partnership….This is arguably the most exciting time to be alive in the whole of the human experience. Creation is calling us to reinvent our cultures, our institutions and ourselves. It is in our hands. We have the power. We are the one’s we’ve been waiting for.

A New Consciousness For a World In Crisis by by Jessica Roemischer, EnlightenNext magazine – Geopolitical activist Dr. Don Beck shines new light on our greatest global challenges …Dr. Don Beck…developed and championed Spiral Dynamics—arguably one of the most accurate models of cultural development…he tirelessly committed himself to helping catalyze the peaceful transition out of apartheid. Willing to risk his own safety to create open channels of communication across highly polarized racial divides… Beck’s ongoing conviction is that we must understand the fundamental and often widely differing ways in which both individual human beings and entire cultures think about things and prioritize their values. Only then can we address the root causes of social fragmentation and conflict and create a form of global governance that will guide the emergence of a new society in the twenty-first century.
…There are now six billion of us, and while we are more culturally fragmented than ever before, we are also more interconnected. Everything is both global and local—everywhere….our problems of existence have become more complex than the solutions we have available to deal with them.
While on the surface it often appears that conflicts are tribal or involve competing empires, or ideologies, or even national interests, the real issues are in the underlying worldviews—the deeper human dynamics that can dramatically differ from one culture to another. It is these underlying cultural dynamics that shape the actions and choices we make, that determine how we live our lives, how cultures subsequently form, and why they often collide.
…the two key words for my work, and for my new Center, are human and emergence. Because ultimately, what we’re trying to do is create better ways for six billion earthlings to survive. That is the ultimate bottom line—the health of the whole, based upon an understanding of human complexity and emergence…I realize this endeavor has a grand scope, but such is the nature of major paradigm shifts in our culture.

A New Axial Age – interview with Karen Armstrong, by Jessica Roemischer, What is Enlightenment? December 2005–February 2006 issue -Karen Armstrong on the History—and the Future—of God

…The period 800–200 BCE has been termed the Axial Age because it proved pivotal to humanity. Society had grown much more aggressive. Iron had been discovered, and this was the beginning of the Iron Age. Better weapons had been invented, and while those weapons look puny compared to what we’re dealing with now, it was still a shock.

The first Axial Age also occurred at a time when individualism was just beginning. As a result of urbanization and a new market economy, people were no longer living on lonely hilltops but in a thriving, aggressive, commercial economy. Power was shifting from king and priest, palace and temple to the marketplace. Inequality and exploitation became more apparent as the pace of change accelerated in the cities and people began to realize that their own behavior could affect the fate of future generations.
So the Axial Age marks the beginning of humanity as we now know it. During this period, men and women became conscious of their existence, their own nature, and their limitations in an unprecedented way….it is the time when all the great world religions came into being. And in every single case, the spiritualities that emerged during the Axial Age—Taoism and Confucianism in China, monotheism in Israel, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism in India, and Greek rationalism in Europe—began with a recoil from violence, with looking into the heart to find the sources of violence in the human psyche…Their experience of utter impotence in a cruel world impelled them to seek the highest goals and an absolute reality in the depths of their beings…That essential dynamic of compassion is summed up in the Golden Rule, which was first enunciated by Confucius around 500 BCE: “Do not do unto others as you would not have them do unto you.”…
Today we are amid a second Axial Age and are undergoing a period of transition similar to that of the first Axial Age. Its roots lie in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries of the modern era, when the people of Western Europe began to evolve a different type of society. Since that time, Western civilization has transformed the world… All over the world, people are struggling with these new conditions and have been forced to reassess their religious traditions, which were designed for a very different type of society….they are attempting to build upon the insights of the past in a way that will take human beings forward into the new world they have created for themselves.
We have, from the very beginning of our existence as a species, created works of art and created religions to give us the sense that, against all the aggressive and spirited evidence to the contrary, life really does have some ultimate meaning, value, and sacredness…Religion is highly pragmatic, despite its other-worldliness. It should not only transform us, but it should also transform the world. Religion should make a difference. And as soon as it ceases to be effective, it will be changed. So we should be working now to make our religion and our faith effective in this lost, suffering, and terrifying world….
I think the sages and prophets of the first Axial Age knew very well about our destructive potentials…They had to look into their own hearts, discover what gave them pain, and then rigorously refrain from inflicting this suffering upon other people. In order to counter aggression, they taught their followers to cultivate the habit of sympathy for all living things…

Sartre says, “The imagination is the ability to see what is not present, what is hidden.” We must exercise this faculty fully, whereby we apprehend, in a new way, the inscrutable and ever-elusive divine.

The 21st Century: In God’s earthquake, Domination—or Community? by Rabbi Arthur Waskow,  … if we are to shape new forms of community, the medium and the message, the means and the ends, must be integrated…Can…new parallel paradigms, these movements for religious and spiritual renewal, share a purpose, a mission, a task beyond themselves? Are they simply a reaction to the world transformation, or are they prepared to enter the process of transformation as a proactive rather than only reactive community?  

A Matter of Life and Debt by Margaret Atwood, New York Times Op-Ed, October 22, 2008… we’re deluding ourselves if we assume that we can recover from the [economic] crisis of 2008 so quickly and easily…The wounds go deeper than that. To heal them, we must repair the broken moral balance that let this chaos loose… We are social creatures who must interact for mutual benefit, and — the negative version — who harbor grudges when we feel we’ve been treated unfairly… …Is there any bright side to this? Perhaps we’ll have some breathing room — a chance to re-evaluate our goals and to take stock of our relationship to the living planet from which we derive all our nourishment, and without which debt finally won’t matter. full text

Global economic crisis also values crisis – Davos poll – by Tom Henegan, Religion Editor, New Frontiers  |  Davos – PARIS, Reuters, January 27, 2010 - Two-thirds of people around the world think the global economic crisis is also a crisis of ethical values that calls for more honesty, transparency and respect for others, according to a World Economic Forum poll…

Our Human Family

 We’re all in this together

Five Lessons in Human Goodness From “The Hunger Games” By Jeremy Adam Smith
 YES! Magazine, Posted on AlterNet.org, June 28, 2012

Change Agent Karen Armstrong argues for practical compassion — interview with Heidi Bruce,  published in YES! Magazine, posted on Christian Science, April 17, 2012

How the Common Good Is Transforming Our World by Douglas LaBier, HuffingtonPost.com, October 17, 2010

The Commons Moment is Now – How a small, dedicated group of people can transform the world—really by Jay Walljasper, CommonDreams.org, January 24, 2011


The Compassionate Instinct by Dacher Keltner, Greater Good Science Center, Spring 2004

The Empathic Civilization by Jeremy Rifkin, Interview by Amanda Gefter, New Scientist.com, February 17, 2010

The Empathy Ceiling: The Rich Are Different — And Not In a Good Way by Brian Alexander, MSNBC, August 10, 2011

Generational Justice

Our Three Bombs by Thomas Friedman, New York Times, October 7, 2009

The Decade of Lost Children by Charles M. Blow, New York Times, August 5, 2011

Why our children’s future no longer looks so bright By Robert J. Samuelson, Washington Post,  October 16, 2011

Human Nature

The Fascinating Scientific Reason Why “Money Doesn’t Buy Happiness” By David McRaney, Alternet.org, January 25, 2012

The Social Animal by David Brooks, New York Times, September 12, 2008

Human Rights in History by Samuel Moyn, The Nation,  August 11, 2010

Global economic crisis also values crisis – Davos poll - by Tom Henegan, Religion Editor, New Frontiers  |  Davos – PARIS, Reuters, January 27, 2010


Humanity Must Stabilize Population, Consumption or Face ‘Downward Vortex’ of ‘Ills’ by Common Dreams staff, Common Dreams Report, April 26, 2012

How Right-Wing Conspiracy Theories May Pose a Genuine Threat to Humanity by Joshua Holland, Alternet.org, December 25, 2011