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America: The Best Country in the World at Being Last -- How Can We Change That?

The data is piling up to confirm that we’re Number One, but in exactly the way we don’t want to be—at the bottom. Where did we go wrong and what can we do about it?

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I believe this paradigm shift in the nature and operation of America’s political economy can be best approached through a series of interacting, mutually reinforcing transformations—transformations that attack and undermine the key motivational structures of the current system, transformations that replace these old structures with new arrangements needed for a sustaining economy and a successful democracy.

The following transformations hold the key to moving to a new political economy. Consider each as a transition from today to tomorrow.

• Economic growth: from growth fetish to post-growth society, from mere GDP growth to growth in human welfare and democratically determined priorities.
• The market: from near laissez-faire to powerful market governance in the public interest.
• The corporation: from shareholder primacy to stakeholder primacy, from one ownership and motivation model to new business models and the democratization of capital.
• Money and finance: from Wall Street to Main Street, from money created through bank debt to money created by government.
• Social conditions: from economic insecurity to security, from vast inequities to fundamental fairness.
• Indicators: from GDP (“grossly distorted picture”) to accurate measures of social and environmental health and quality of life.
• Consumerism: from consumerism and affluenza to sufficiency and mindful consumption, from more to enough.
• Communities: from runaway enterprise and throwaway communities to vital local economies, from social rootlessness to rootedness and solidarity.
• Dominant cultural values: from having to being, from getting to giving, from richer to better, from separate to connected, from apart from nature to part of nature, from transcendent to interdependent, from today to tomorrow.
• Politics: from weak democracy to strong, from creeping corporatocracy and plutocracy to true popular sovereignty.
• Foreign policy and the military: from American exceptionalism to America as a normal nation, from hard power to soft, from military prowess to real security.

We know that systemic, transformative change along these dimensions will require a great struggle, and it will not come quickly. The new values, priorities, policies, and institutions that would constitute a new political economy capable of regularly delivering good results are not at hand and won’t be for many years. The truth is we are still in the design stage of building a new operating system. That system won’t be yesterday’s socialism, by the way, but it won’t be today’s American capitalism either.

It follows that effectively addressing the many serious challenges America faces will take a lot more time than we would like. Meanwhile, America’s decline will persist—“decline” here not referring to losing world power relative to China and other countries, but to decline in human and natural conditions. That is a very depressing conclusion, but we must face it. More importantly, we must use it as a framework for understanding what we must now do. Indeed, there can be a very bright light at the end of this gloomy tunnel. There is the great gift of plausible hope that we can find our way forward.

In this period of decline, the imperatives we face as citizens are threefold: to slow and then halt the descent, minimizing human suffering and planetary damage along the way and preventing a collapse, the emergence of a fortress world, or any of the other dark scenarios plotted for us in science fiction and increasingly in serious analysis; to minimize the time at the bottom and start the climb upward toward a new operating system; and to complete, inhabit, and flourish in the diversity of alternative social arrangements, each far superior to ones we will have left behind.

But if we are failing at modest, incremental reform, how can we hope to achieve deeper, transformative change? The decline now occurring will progressively delegitimize the current order. Who wants an operating system that is capable of generating and perpetuating such suffering and destruction? One good thing about the decline of today’s political economy is that it opens the door to something much better. People will eventually rise up, raise a loud shout, and demand major changes. This is already happening with some people in some places. It will grow to become a national and global movement for transformation, demanding a better world.