Thursday, October 6, 2011

VOR’S Turn: Change Is Not Accomplished By The Reasonable

Image representing NeXT as depicted in CrunchBase

Image via CrunchBase

By all accounts, Steve Jobs was a difficult and demanding man. Just as well; or he would never have accomplished a fraction of what he achieved in his far too short life.

Change is not accomplished by the reasonable.

People are way too established in their comfort zones, too short term in their thinking, too selfish, too greedy, and too fearful of the new. And bureaucracies, in particular, whether corporate, government, or academic, seem to have a remarkable ability to detect the iconoclast – the pioneer - and crush him or or her. Visionaries, while alive, are rarely popular and have a tendency to end up as economic road kill. To be a visionary is to embrace a high risk occupation. People rarely understand, and they fear change. And they lash out at what they fear until the vision becomes the new normal..

Jobs, himself, despite his extraordinary abilities, was a victim of such a fate when he was fired from the very company he had founded. What happened to him was outrageous. He went on to found Next and Pixar, and to vindication; but his dismissal from Apple must have been devastating.

Jobs is widely and justifiably described as a visionary and a genius. What strikes me with some vigor is how rare such qualities are in relation to dealing with our day-to-day problems – particularly here in the U.S.. Here, I am primarily referring to our political structures, and our seeming inability to deal adequately with such such basics as hunger, poverty, education, employment, health, and how we govern ourselves. And yet we are the richest and most powerful country in the world. There is something very wrong here. The blatant corruption of our political system by the Rich and Corporate Interests is certainly part of it, as is the ignorance and inertia of much of the electorate, but there are other issues at work here.

Above all, we seem to be astonishingly lacking in imagination when it comes to the great issues of governance and the wider issues of how we live. Whether it comes to energy policy, moving to a more sustainable lifestyle, or re-building after Katrina, we seem to be bereft of ideas and instead enmeshed in more of the same: crony capitalism; political indifference; and a truly alarming lack of innovative thinking. Running a pipeline from Canada’s tar sands to Texas isn’t innovation. It’s business as usual.

In contrast, while we have been luxuriating in complacency for the last forty years, much of the rest of the world has been showing what vision, combined with passion and commitment, can achieve.

China has proved that central planning – combined with capitalism - actually does work; Taiwan has implemented an extraordinarily effective healthcare system from scratch; the Scandinavian countries have managed to combine the best of government with the best of capitalism. Singapore has reinvented itself completely. Brazil is booming. Arab nations are being re-vitalized by the Arab Spring. The list goes on and on. In contrast, we’ve been losing ground in practically every sector; and we are continuing to do so.

Why is this so? Are American children somehow innately less creative than their peers elsewhere so grow up into docile citizens? I doubt the genetic element. However, I do think we have evolved a corporatized consumerist culture which stunts creativity, stresses conformity, and penalizes those who deviate from the social norm. And it includes strong elements of insecurity and fear because if you lose your job in today’s America – which is a constant threat given the pervasive lack of social concern of the corporate world – you lose income, credit, health, and quite possibly your car and your home. This is social control worthy of Big Brother, and it is backed up by a legal system that imprisons a higher proportion of its population than any other country in the world. And then there is the fact that much U.S. media, which the Founding Fathers thought would keep us informed, is more concerned with manipulation and distraction (entertainment) than with information.

All of that might be tolerated (though one would hope not) if such a system was delivering reasonable prosperity for the vast bulk of the American people. But it isn’t; and hasn’t for decades.

What Steve Jobs accomplished was prodigious, and he will be sorely missed, but what we need next – rather desperately – is a similar vision, passion and commitment to change applied to the American Way of Life.

We need a political visionary of integrity with the same qualities as Steve Jobs but applied to the great issues that concern us. Better yet, we need a number of them. Best of all, we need a movement committed to reform.

Once, many thought Obama was a visionary, but if he has a vision for America, it is – so far - a well kept secret. Further, his unwillingness to get to grips with Wall Street is disturbing. And the Republican vision seems to consist solely of catering to the Rich and Special Interests.

So who comes to mind next (pun intended)? Best remaining bet: Elizabeth Warren. I don’t think she has articulated it in full as yet, but she clearly has a vision of the kind of country we should be.

“"There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody. You built a factory out there—good for you.

"But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers that the rest of us paid to educate...Part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along."

Elizabeth Warren




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