walter russell mead peter berger lilia shevtsova adam garfinkle andrew a. michta
Published on: January 26, 2010
Radically American

Like a new car once it’s spent a few weeks ferrying the kids to school and soccer practice, 2010 no longer feels like such a fresh and shiny new year.  Our new year’s resolutions aren’t surviving that much better than the ones for 2009 or 2008 did, for that matter, and the holiday season feels like it was over eons ago as winter stretches bleakly ahead into the indefinite future.

This is not my favorite time of year.

But the new decade is still just starting out, and it’s a useful exercise to think about what kinds of problems and opportunities it is likely to bring.  For the last couple of weeks I’ve been writing about some of the major global trends that are likely to be driving events in the new decade.  Now I want to shift gears and write about America’s situation going forward.

This is one of those moments when it’s fashionable to be gloomy about America’s prospects.  The Obama administration has lost that fresh New President smell and the President, once widely hailed as The One who was coming to transform Washington, is preparing for his first State of the Union in dismal political circumstances.

But what is going on in America is much bigger than the political problems of one leader.  Our country is heading into a period of rapid and radical change for which we are not well prepared.  This is a global phenomenon, not an American one; as I wrote earlier this month, the acceleration of technological, social, economic and political change is the most important trend of our times.

All things being equal, this accelerating change will be good for the United States.  For hundreds of years, our comparative advantage in world economics and politics has been our society’s breathtaking ability to generate change, adjust to change, harness change and thrive on change.  Today as the United States and the world confront massive waves of accelerating change, we have a better chance than anybody else of surfing the incoming waves rather than being swept off our feet and carried out to sea.

But there are no guarantees.  In fact, there are two important reasons why the incoming changes will be harder for us to master than just about anything we’ve faced before.

First, the changes are bigger and faster moving than ever.  The continuing revolutions in IT and communications technology are not only driving social and industrial changes like the rise of the internet and the crisis of the old media companies.  They are making financial markets harder to understand and regulate.  By facilitating the development of global supply chains they have accelerated the rise of manufacturing in the developing world, producing not only political and economic problems in the US, but changing the global balance of power.  By allowing the automation of many skilled jobs, they are challenging the economic foundation of professions like law and accounting.  More, because faster, more powerful computers stimulate, facilitate and expedite the work of scientific discovery and technological innovation, the explosion of computing power is turbocharging the overall process of scientific and technical development.

Even by the standards of the last 300 years, this is a lot of acceleration and change.  If we are struggling to cope, that is partly because there is so much to cope with.

The second factor is that this new wave of change is affecting the people and the organizations whose job it is to understand and manage change.  It is hard, for example, for journalists to think clearly and positively about a wave of change that is destroying their livelihoods.  Professional civil service workers in government cannot be expected to embrace with enthusiasm technologies that make their jobs obsolete.

The learned professions in the United States — lawyers, doctors, nurses, accountants, educators, journalists, government bureaucrats — are under the gun.  The IT revolution is going to put them all through the wringer — the way it has already put blue collar America through the wringer by a combination of automation and outsourcing. The upper middle class did very well in the last generation, even as blue collar incomes stagnated and in many cases fell.  The next phase of change will challenge the institutions and the livelihoods of America’s managers, professors, lawyers and others in the same way that it has already thrown journalism into the maelstrom.

These changes are necessary and in the long run benign.  Dramatically and thoroughly restructuring the professions will ultimately make the vital services they provide much cheaper and much more widely available — just as the destruction of the old manufacturing guilds in the industrial revolution eventually made manufactured goods much cheaper.  But just as the spinners and weavers fought the new machines, so we can expect a lot of our intellectuals and managers to fight the challenges to a system that has worked very well for them.

This means trouble.  The upper middle class is disproportionately powerful and influential in American society.  It’s going to fight, hard, to defend the status quo.  At the same time, the upper middle class is the part of our society which is supposed to do the thinking and the innovation that equips us for change.  But instead of eagerly anticipating change, fighting for its adoption and developing clever plans for overcoming resistance and implementing change, the upper middle class is going to be devoting tremendous brainpower to resisting, subverting and delaying it.And the problem won’t just be their resistance; it will be their inability to grasp and their unwillingness to exploit the enormous opportunities that new technologies and new institutional arrangements create.

America’s success in the next generation will be largely dependent on our ability to master social and economic change.  Those best placed in our society for this job, and those whose responsibility it would normally be to lead the change process will be unable and unwilling to do their job well.  This will make the change process more disruptive and painful than it has to be and it will distract and divide our society at a time we will need to focus our attention on a world that will be having an even harder time than we are.

There are some who think that to cope with all this we are going to have to change who we are, and become less ‘American’ — less individualistic, less risk oriented, less religious, less ambitious, less concerned about economic growth, less nationalistic and so forth.

Well, we can always improve, and our national character is not without faults.  But in dealing with our emerging challenges I think we are going to have to be more American than ever; the qualities that got us this far are the ones we will have to draw on in what is going to be both a terrifying and exhilarating ride through the white water rapids ahead.
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  • adam garfinkle


    It is by now almost banal to say that we are living in a rapidly changing world, and it can also be misleading: The real challenge is to understand HOW the world is changing, not how fast it is changing. The intellectual compartments we are accustomed to using—society, politics, economics, culture; foreign and domestic; international, national and local; corporate and not-for-profit, private and public—are flowing in and out of one another before our eyes in ways for which we lack firm precedent. They are also doing so on a planetary scale arguably for the first time.

    It may be true, as well, that the frequency of exchanges of all sorts has grown thanks to the technologies associated with the information revolution. I don’t say you’re wrong about that. Even so, we sense that changes in global social dynamics are happening fast not so much because of technology and what it allows, or not just because of that, but because much of what is occurring is unintelligible to us. This reproduces the same false sense of rapidity we experience upon hearing spoken a language we do not understand.

    The analogy to a foreign language is not decorative: We lack an adequate vocabulary for the world into which we are moving. Just as Newton had to invent calculus in order to think coherently about the physics he was contemplating, so we need new language to think coherently about security and peace in our social and political future. We are not entirely helpless in this, however, for history, if carefully parsed, can offer guidance even in times when reality outruns vocabulary.

    I could continue with this, but I won’t, for now. I just want to register a caveat about the speed thesis.

  • Brad Mead

    Personally, I find the most disburing trend in light of your prediction(s) for change is an actue and dwindlwing lack earnestness and humility in the American character.

    Extreme attitudes at both poles of any continuum of disagreement tend to benefit by way of a monopoly of attention. Lacking, is the disposition that mutiple sides of an argument may retain merit on a facet of the problem domain and/or produce a beneficial impact regardless of the socio-politcal and economic preferences of the observer/partcipant.

    To put it another way.. it appears many appreciate the game only for the win and less for the art, practice or enlightenment. To me, it seems we’ve begun to fall in love with hubris and now disdain the cold, tedious and boring process of weighing all sides dispassionately.

    A Mead :)

  • David Wollstadt

    If I were advising a young person on career choices today, I think I’d suggest that he learn how to become a plumber or electrician.

  • Chris

    Very well said Mr. Meed. Many times in the last few years I have pondered this very theme. You see, I am currently shoving my way into that proverbial upper middle class. Coincidentally, I am in the field of I.T.. I currently hold the position of Director of Application Development and it is my responsibility to look into my crystal ball and predict what new technologies our company should adopt to remain competitive, and then to make sure they are implemented successfully. However, my heart is no longer wholly invested in my profession as I am in the process of starting my own Computer Forensic practice – to cater to businesses, lawyers and even individuals who find themselves in need of Computer Forensic expertise. (One personal goal is to charge my attorney 50% more per hour then he charges me. ) The point of my post is twofold, first to confirm your assessment that those who wield the most influence today will be reluctant to relinquish it. I have witnessed this reluctance firsthand; I see it in the faces of Lawyers and Corporate executives, my new clients. Well into their fifties and accustomed to being the Alpha male of their professions. Our meetings are not comfortable for them, here they are the masters of their universes, long vested captains of their industries and they find themselves requiring my services. Here I am, thirty five years old, only a lowly bachelors degree to my name. It was just over fifteen years ago I broke from a family tradition of machinists and struck out on a new course, I.T.. I like to think I was able to see the writing on the wall even then. Perhaps it was providence or even just dumb luck that guided me to IT but I find myself at the crossroads of many attractive career paths. The second point is a little more profound, almost a Matrix style apocalyptic fear. At what point will we become completely dependent on the machines? I believe we passed that point of no return long ago. I find myself doing seemingly strange things at times to serve as a reminder that I do not always need to rely on a microchip, trivial things like chopping firewood, using hand tools, taking the stairs instead of an elevator. The capitalist in me is determined to grow my practice to achieve financial independence. The pragmatist in me knows that there may come a point when those who where my clients will be the authors of a backlash against the very technology they are dependent on, yet incapable of mastering.

  • Dr. Horrible

    You had me up until you placed journalists under “learned professionals.”

    Anyone who has spent 30 seconds in a college journalism department or class knows why that’s a ridiculous idea.

    Might be better to describe them as “guild professionals” – obsolete dinosaurs who will hang on longer only by use of political manipulation.

  • Richard Kalwa

    Your argument, if such it is, might be stronger if you presented some examples of how “technological change” is going to replace the need for a heart surgeon, patent lawyer, or English teacher. Just wondering.

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