It would be an incredible understatement to say there is a lot going on in the world today. Revolutions are spreading, established businesses are disappearing, and comfortable assumptions about the future are becoming more and more uncomfortable by the day. Whereas we once had to wait a lifetime to be able to see significant and recognizable changes in our world, our change cycle can now be measured in the time between the releases of the 5.12 and 5.13 versions of some little bit of software in an iPod.
The $64,000 question: Where is all of this taking us?
“Taking us” is the proper description for what is happening today—we are unwilling passengers on ride we can neither control nor slow down. What is happening around the world today isn’t the normal desultory plodding of our planet in its typically aimless manner. Human history has become a rocket ride into an uncertain future.
The question is why. I suspect we have at least three major factors to blame (or thank) for where we are now: the ease and power of information technologies of all types, a worldwide debt crisis of monstrous proportions, and a global professional workforce of educated English language speakers who can do our jobs as well—and sometimes better—than we can. Each is, in its way, distinct, but each also reinforces the others, so we end up—armed with only our quaint 20th century notions of tame technology, easily avoidable choices, and securely American jobs—trying to tame a three-headed monster that is rampaging across the planet.
The national battles over the future of public sector unions—and public sector jobs—are a perfect example of how the three heads of the monster speak to one another.
Although it is certain that the battles of the Democratic and Republican parties, juiced by Tea Party anger, are driving a fair part of the fury, this clash is not simply a political drama. If we keep in mind that a lot of public sector jobs revolve around storing, manipulating, and disgorging information, it’s hard to escape the notion that we could, just as we have in the private sector over the past decade, do a lot more with a lot less—there are far too many people still fiddling with steel file cabinets in cavernous government offices buildings, and a lot of jobs, ranging from Recorder of Deeds to school guidance counselor, could easily be turned into an app on an iPhone.
By the same token, everything and everyone can now be outsourced via the near-incomprehensible improvements in computing technology and power over only the past decade. Just ask the lawyers who have lost their jobs to more “cost-effective” legal talent in India (who are now, in turn, losing those same jobs to intelligent legal software) or the engineers who were replaced by sub-contractors in Brazil, Germany, and Taiwan. Let us now extend a belated welcome to the global marketplace to everyone drawing a government paycheck—nothing will ever be the same for you again. Just as is in the private sector, a great many public sector workers now will have to show value in relation to the many talented and educated individuals all over the world who are just a mouse click away.
Sooner than we all might imagine, outside companies could be able to handle every aspect of our driver’s license renewals here in Illinois, or a start up in the proverbial garage might create a dynamic Internet-driven learning system that replaces all but the most demonstrably irreplaceable public school teachers across the nation, ending the teacher shortage—and many careers. It might not be right, it certainly isn’t desirable in many ways, but a lot of government services are on their way to becoming just like the rest of the economy—if we can get it cheaper, we will. Taxpayers will always demand maximum value for the dollar, but the terrifying financial chasms in our budgets and public pensions produced by decades of avoiding hard fiscal choices will require that we use all available technology to reduce costs whenever we can. Given our current predicament, it seems the only sensible path to take.
However, the seemingly common sense notions of low cost and fiscal restraint—I will not spend money I don’t have on things I don’t need—are not so simple when the paychecks and careers of our friends and neighbors are on the line. Although we are swimming in debt at all levels of government, it is still horrifying to contemplate the number of government workers who will need to be fired to put our budget ledgers back in balance, and the huge protests prompted by the new national austerity budget across the pond in the United Kingdom are probably a preview of our own—very near—future. Given that stark increases in taxes are politically and economically a non-starter, we will have to engage in a fairly forthright and terribly painful national debate about what—and who—we can no longer afford if we are to avoid a fiscal meltdown, and we are going to need a new breed of bluntly honest and compassionate leadership to shepherd us through the deep and traumatic public sector job cuts that will soon be forced upon us.
It’s a Brave New World that is going to be an awful shock to many, but complaining about the changes that are crashing down on our heads will be much like complaining about the weather—a nice topic of conversation but ultimately useless when it comes to changing the inevitable future. Politics in the years ahead will, as a result, be very different, and the 2012 elections will likely belong to those who can recognize that the old ways of doing business are over. Indeed, the career will probably be short and not very sweet for any politician who fails to recognize that the bounced check for decades of trading votes for dollars now must be paid—whether we like it or not.
Understanding that rapid and unpredictable change is our “New Normal”, we need to rethink and retool our economic and political cultures. Perhaps now is the right time to relearn the lessons of frugality and restraint that helped the United States to survive an uncertain future a long, long time ago. If we do, perhaps we will be able to look back at the end of our lives and enjoy a well-deserved sense of accomplishment for successfully guiding our nation through the perilous waters now ahead, and our own children and grandchildren will someday celebrate the wisdom we demonstrated during these troubled—and troubling—times of incomprehensibly swift change.
Also published in The News-Gazette (news-gazette.com) April 10, 2011