Yesterday, on TV, I exploded. I spent two minutes giving a primal yell at our political system, demanding the extraction of our money and dignity end. It was my most heartfelt and emotional moment on television, ever.
And the emails poured in. I hit a chord, because it’s something we all feel. Take a look.
With the markets in turmoil and the global financial architecture groaning under the weight of fraud and corruption, it’s a good time to think about what leadership would look like. Believe it or not, we have had good leadership, purpose, integrity, and aligned interests in this country.
In 1961, President John F. Kennedy faced a dilemma — how could he direct our intense competitive passion with the Soviet Union in a direction other than war? The answer was his call for America to beat the Soviets to the moon. Kennedy understood power; if he did not lead us towards peaceful productive competition, that same animus would have turned violent (see this key memo on the real rationale for the space race). So he took the passion and focus of our society, the technology of war and missiles, and turned it into a great mission to explore space. He gave us a shared goal.
But that’s not the full story. Kennedy also demanded we use the finest scientists and engineers to design the rockets, and made sure that the path to the moon was based on the best possible solution to get there. For large rocket boosters, he was open to chemical, nuclear, liquid fuels, or any combination. He did not put a commission of astrologers in charge, and he did not put political cronies with no scientific background in charge of designing the rockets.
We had a shared goal, and we had a problem-solving process with integrity and aligned interests. Kennedy was the leader of this initiative, but Americans at that time, possibly because of a shared experience in World War II, had a shared purpose. They believed in prosperity as a goal, and they had a shared set of problem solving values to get there. They believed in education, in health and welfare, in mutual security, in dignified work and in Americans making things. The moon shot didn’t just avoid war with the Soviets, it created the largest surge of American students into math and science in history.
Today, we face the same demons as decades past. We have passion, and focus, and we want to compete. What we lack is a set of shared prosperity goals, and a shared problem solving values to get there. There’s no consensus, for instance, on the need to solve the problem of climate change. But even where we have some consensus, say on creating jobs, there’s no integrity or aligned interests in how we’re approaching the problem. It’s well-known in DC among lobbying firms that every policy initiative must be wrapped in the shared goal of creating jobs. It’s unclear whether anyone there has that as an actual goal, but even if they did, there’s no integrity in the way they are going about creating jobs. We still trust the same corrupted economic establishment, an establishment with no ethos of the importance of problem solving. Astrologers (like S&P) are in charge of job creation.
So now we are locked in a war of ideas and mechanics in a battle for power. But power to what end? The political solutions proposed by DC today are the opposite of Kennedy’s moonshot. We are taking our collective passion and focus and turning it toward manipulating power for the self-preservation of a few instead of working together towards shared goals with shared values knowing our ideas and mechanics will change as long as we try to get there.
Whether it’s full employment, clean energy, building a bridge, whatever — there’s no mutual consent to a set of shared goals, integrity on how to achieve them, or aligned interests. Even where there are policy discussions on, say, how to cut our debt load, it is the opinions of discredited ratings agencies that seem to matter. So our choices are organized around austerity measures that we know will not cut debt loads. Again, it’s using astrology to get to the moon.
I’ve realized, over time, that it isn’t policy ideas we need. We need, as citizens, a shared purpose. And we need a commitment to integrity of process, and aligned interests so the incentives exist for all of us to contribute. You can talk to billionaires — and I have — who are scared for their children, for their country, and for the world. And if billionaires can’t create the changes we need in the machine, if Congress can’t, if the President can’t, then we must look to ourselves.
When Kennedy called for the country to go to the moon, he said that “no single space project will be more impressive to mankind… and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.” The difficulty and expense were great problems to overcome, not reasons to shrink from greatness. He said we would experiment with different rocket technology, “until certain which is superior.” Every engineer, politician, and bureaucrat focused on the overall goal — not how to look like America was getting to the moon to get power and credit, but how to actually do it. And it was not his project, or even the project of the astronauts who went there. “It will not,” he said, “be one man going to the moon… it will be an entire nation. For all of us must work to put him there.”
This is shared purpose — Americans paid taxes, worked on rockets, trained as astronauts, cleaned NASA buildings, or did whatever they could do — to get each one of us to the moon using shared values to solve problems that got us closer to our objective. Later on, the space station in the 1970s, using even more advanced technology that could have been used for war and weaponry, helped us develop a new cooperative posture with the Soviet Union, cooling off the Cold War. This remarkable problem-solving value set helped create not just leadership in the space program, but the technological spinoffs we enjoy today.
This is the spirit we need today. We need to fight against the great ideological machine that lacks purpose, lacks integrity, and lacks aligned interests. The first step is to recognize our own place in it. If we believe that our problems are all due to the Tea Party, or Obama, or corporate power brokers, or liberals, then we’re lacking the integrity necessary to reach any goal. The reality is, by boxing ourselves into a tribal two-party state, we are all part of the machine. And so, in order to change it, we must simply change our own minds. We must reorient our own ways of thinking, to a leadership driven model of citizenship. It isn’t enough, or even necessarily important, to care about which politician is in charge. We must seek within our own lives and our own politics, food, culture, families, and schools, values. We must share a set of prosperity goals — full employment, clean energy, patient driven health care, high-quality universal education — and push our leaders and ourselves to achieve them.
Ultimately, peace and prosperity will not be made because we get rid of the animal instincts within us, the competitiveness, the passion, the need to argue. It will happen because we will use those instincts, as we did with the moonshot, to build a society that lets us take care of each other and solve our problems. And so we must figure out how to stop giving our consent and legitimacy to an unthinking mechanical beast that runs our lives, a beast which enslaves us to accounting mechanisms like debt ceilings instead of the shared prosperity we seek as a culture and society. We must figure out how to restore the integrity necessary to actually solve our problems and we must understand how to align all of our interests so we each have the incentives to solve them. That way, we can ensure our bridges don’t fall down and our job creation initiatives actually create jobs.
I have no doubt that by rededicating ourselves, another moonshot is inevitable. That’s just what happens when problem-solving people dedicate themselves to prosperity as a goal, make sure that integrity is the keystone of how they achieve it, and align their interests so it is doable.
For more on Jobs, check out Jobs Wanted: A Special Report on Trade, Taxes, and Banking.