Observations on the need for societal transformation


We are going through a very painful time in our country in terms of the changing nature of work, business, technology, healthcare, education, and the role of government. Because of disruptive innovations in every sector of our society, the old rules about how people succeeded are gone, but it is unclear what will replace them.

The major changes that are horribly disruptive to people’s lives are these:

  • Because every marketplace is changing more rapidly and radically than ever before, the value of decades of experience in a job, a company, or an industry is less than it has ever been.
  • Because experience is less valuable, everyone is less secure in his or her current employment than ever before.
  • When someone loses his or her job, the path to future employment requires more substantial adjustment than ever before. Moving to the same job in a different company or industry is less and less likely.
  • For many people, the right kind of paying employment may be in an independent contractor position, as opposed to a job with an employer. In fact, many employers are going to sites like www.freelancer.com to hire workers to perform tasks, without having to create a “job” without fixed responsibilities, pay levels, benefits, and taxes. For someone to make a living, it is more important that he or she seek “paying work” than to seek a “job.”
  • Adaptability and innovation are more important than conformity, a skill most people are not taught in the educational system, which rewards conformity to what the teacher believes is the “right answer.”
  • Categories and definitions of what we think about the world are subject to challenge and are less permanent than they have ever been. The ways we describe what is going on in the world are more likely to be challenged than ever before. For example, when we use the analogy of a blueprint to describe our genetic code, a common metaphor for describing genetics, we are reflecting an obsolete understanding of genetics, since we now know that we are shaped by the way our genes are “expressed” or “switched on.” Even something as seemingly fixed as our genetic make-up not only changes during our lifetime, but the altered genetic “expression” can also be passed on to our children.
  • Education is increasingly about “learning,” from wherever source we can learn best, as opposed to “teaching.” Teaching implies that there is a fixed body of knowledge that is imparted from teachers to students. Learning changes that paradigm by inducing students to seek insight and knowledge from whatever sources they might be available, and to recognize that there are no fixed bodies of knowledge, but continually changing assumptions and paradigms within every body of knowledge.

To prepare our country to adapt to this transformed world, elected officials have to make several very important changes in the way they govern:

  • Elected officials react to dramatic stories of people who are victimized by some event or condition and create broad-based legislation, especially if the story gets significant media traction. This is a poor way to decide what legislation or regulations to enact and an equally poor way to decide when to act. We need to recognize that there will always be “victims” of whatever systems are in place. This particularly manifests itself in healthcare mandates, in which someone appears to have died because of the lack of affordability of a particular therapeutic option. Since many therapies, particularly cancer therapies, work selectively and well in some cases and are totally ineffective in many others, the notion that everyone should have the right to get these therapies is one that should never be baked into the law. Evidence and logic should dictate policy, legislation, and regulations, not anecdotes.
  • Governments need to recognize that job preservation is a poor reason to keep dysfunctional institutions in place. Post offices that lose money and are no longer the optimal place from which to deliver postal services, military bases that house soldiers to prepare for very low probability war scenarios, and hospitals that deliver substandard, unnecessary and redundant care should not stay open simply because they provide jobs. Government’s role is to facilitate the creation of new jobs, not to preserve obsolete ones. The more effort that is made to preserve what we have, the greater the obstacles to creating what we need.
  • Governments need to eliminate unnecessary barriers to entry to new jobs and professions for people losing their jobs in dying industries or companies. Approximately 1/3 of all jobs today require some form of licensing or certification, mostly at the state level, up from 5% of all jobs 40 years ago. The best evidence that many of these regulatory and statutory requirements provide no public benefit, and are in place largely to protect incumbents is that the states that do not have licensing and certification requirements for particular job categories do not suffer more public safety or detriment than those who do.
  • The highly rules-driven collective bargaining agreements that drive processes like education and healthcare need to go. Protecting the rights of workers is a laudable goal, but the best way to help workers realize their maximum potential income and career potential is to empower them to use their brainpower to serve their customers or students. For example, every student learns differently, and learns different subject areas at a different pace. Learning and teaching systems need to adapt to what works for teachers, parents, and students, not what makes a collective bargaining agreement or a civil service system easier to administer. There are many examples of innovative collective bargaining agreements that can be models for collaborative labor-management problem solving.
  • We should value loyalty and long service, but not at the expense of rewarding performance. We also need to communicate to every person employed at every organization that the most secure path to long-term employment security is to keep learning and growing, not to rely on time in the job. I am more energized by having to prove myself every day and to learn and grow from the experience than from knowing that I am totally secure.
  • We need to reward critical and holistic thinking in schools, not simply the ability to master today’s bodies of knowledge.
  • Governments at all levels need to take a zero-based look at every law and regulation, and to make a judgment as to whether they make sense. The presumption should be that a particular regulation is unnecessary, unless established otherwise.

The biggest challenge for our representative democracy is to build a body of thought around new ways for elected officials to gather public support. We have evolved to a highly sophisticated system in which politicians have learned to “buy” votes by extracting money from many people, usually the most productive members of society who cannot shelter their income from taxes, and giving it to other people. The politicians benefit from this money transfer because they can get both the transferor that wants to reduce his or her future financial burden and the transferee that wants a bigger payout to contribute to their re-election campaign. This kind of system encourages bigger and, ultimately, wasteful government. Moreover, it leads to the gradual erosion of the productive sectors of our society. It also leads to cynicism on the part of the electorate, since those who gets more of the wealth transferred to them usually are those who kick back more of their money to the elected official.

What is sometimes called “crony capitalism” is present in both parties, although the constituencies who benefit from it vary. When it is very expensive to campaign for office at all levels, it is too tempting to use power to control private sector activities to extract campaign contributions from people.

At times, I feel like we need to convene a constitutional convention and start all over to adhere to the principles our Founding Fathers set out over 225 years ago. We became independent to get away from oppressive government, but, little by little, we have created new and modern forms of oppression, usually in the guise of trying to “protect” us from the normal frictions of day-to-day living around other people.

It’s time to think about how to transform our country into a more workable system, but, unlike what our forefathers had to do 237 years ago, we cannot embark on a war of independence because, as we look in our individual mirrors, we are staring at the enemies to our freedom and liberty.