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The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.
By Benjamin H. Deitchman
December 13, 2016
“The babies being born in America today are the luckiest crop in history,” wrote Warren Buffett in a letter dated Feb. 27, 2016 to shareholders of his company, Berkshire Hathaway. As somebody who became a father earlier that month, the analysis of the renowned investor resonated and furthered my optimism about the future of modern society. There are, however, myriad problems and frustrations across the country and around the world, with ample blame bandied about for the challenges that face humanity and the planet. As we reflect on the seismic shifts of the transformational 12 months of 2016, citizens, scholars, and public administrators need to consider the path to reach Mr. Buffett’s conclusion; namely that “yes, America’s kids will live far better than their parents did.” We must fortify institutions, communication, and temperaments to meet the challenges of the 21st century.
The primary institutions of governance today are established and stable. The Constitution of the United States has operated for over 228 years. Many of the organizations that formed in the wake of the Second World War, such as the United Nations and World Bank, have now existed for over seven decades. Protocols, procedures, and processes of the agencies that maintain modern civilization and facilitate human ingenuity and opportunity are orderly and understood. A key question at the center of our political discourse, one for which there is no singular answer, is whether these bureaucracies best serve the public interest.
Governments, nongovernmental organizations, and the private firms that provide compulsory services toward maintenance and prosperity in the capitalist system are all imperfect. One of the key failures to correct is the need to foster and facilitate public participation. Multinational groups, be they creatures of governments such as the United Nations and the European Union or just large global firms, often lack the engagement or representativeness of domestic institutions, even as the multinationals continue to play an expanding role in our globalized world. Whether or not one agrees with the principle that the expansion of transnational integration is a positive development for humanity and the planet, the ceding of traditional national authorities without a clear mechanism for the direct voice of the people is a concern. Without democratization of the key institutions of globalized governance, voters may continue to reject further development, whether directly through a referendum or indirectly through the election of political leaders with isolationist rhetoric.
Communication failures in these institutions among others in our “post-truth” world must improve. Technology has allowed for more readily available communication than ever before and we have seen a proliferation of everything from Tweets to peer-reviewed journal articles. Tweets are easy to compose and quick to read, but it can be impossible to convey the full context or the author’s key message in 140 characters. Refereed journal articles provide rigorous analysis at the forefront of knowledge and understanding of complex data, but are often too arcane to influence beyond experts in the narrow field and may fail to further general understanding of the topic. The vast quantity of communication, be it simplistic or sophisticated, is not ameliorating the quality of communication. Understanding that a one-way column in a professional organization’s biweekly newsletter is a rather hypocritical forum to assert this opinion, communication needs to become multi-way conversation to further our collective goal of a better world.
We also all need to approach communication with an improved temperament. Conspiracy theories abound, for example, because there is a severe lack of trust in our highly digital, increasingly impersonal society. It is not just world leaders, but also those of us simply trying to make the most of our everyday lives who need to consider our relationships with one another. We need to not just respect our friends, families and colleagues, but care for the billions with whom we inhabit a resource constrained planet. Once again, a preaching essay in an online publication is not the most appropriate means to make such a statement, but current generations can protect the evidence-based assertion that, in general, babies born today are the most fortunate of all time through ongoing understanding and empathy beyond our own experiences and daily challenges.
Improving institutions, communication, and temperaments will not be a simple panacea for building a better world for my son and his generation, but as then-Senator Barack Obama orated during his 2008 presidential campaign,
“You see, the challenges we face will not be solved with one meeting in one night. It will not be resolved on even a Super Duper Tuesday. Change will not come if we wait for some other person or if we wait for some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”
We remain the ones we’ve been waiting for. All the best to you, dear reader, for a great holiday season and a healthy, productive and successful 2017!
Author: Benjamin Deitchman is a practitioner in Atlanta, Georgia and the author of Climate and Clean Energy Policy: State Institutions and Economic Implications, available this month. His son, Isaac, was born in 2016. Dr. Deitchman’s email address is [email protected].