“The only thing any of us can do completely on our own is to have the start of a good idea.”
The line — an unanticipated gift near the end of the 2018 Michael Lewis book The Fifth Risk — is simple on its face yet it captures so much of the spirit that is needed today in America. This look towards collaboration also seems appropriate as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Apollo moon landing.
Kathryn Sullivan, the first American woman to walk in space and later the administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), heard the “start of a good idea” line once and it stayed with her. The message she took from it was that exchanges of information from “odd groups, outsiders to the program under study,” were how people learn, adapt, and build exciting new tools and programs to serve humankind. Individuals seldom add value when they come into those conversations with strong agendas built on furthering their professional practice, a rigid ideology, or personal greed.
In Lewis’s telling of Sullivan’s work at NOAA, weather forecasters and the scientists at the National Weather Service are among the stars. As gifted a storyteller as exists in America today, Lewis makes the case that the 2016 election brought an ideological worldview to power that did not want to understand the government, the vital services it provides, and the risks inherent in ignoring very serious issues that affect the life, health, and safety of hundreds of millions of Americans and billions of citizens around the world. Things like nuclear weapons and nuclear waste. Food safety. Rural water and sewage plants. Accurate weather forecasting.
All involve the need to work together, as Sullivan suggests, to manage risks, build new tools to address current challenges, and serve humankind.
Willful ignorance and greed play an important role in this worldview that has come into power and brought increased risk into key elements of American life.
“If your ambition is to maximize short-term gain without regard to long-term cost, you are better off not knowing the cost. If you want to preserve your personal immunity to the hard problems, it’s better never to really understand those problems. There is an upside to ignorance, and a downside to knowledge. Knowledge makes life messier. It makes it a bit more difficult for a person who wishes to shrink the world to a worldview.” (emphasis added)
Many of the tasks government takes on for us are not very sexy and have proven to be of little interest to the private sector that wants to make money, quickly. But, as demonstrated time and again, these tasks need the attention of our best and brightest, working collaboratively to solve critical challenges. Government “steps in where private investment fears to tread, innovates and creates knowledge, (and) assesses extreme long-term risk.” This role conflicts with the worldview of those in power, however. Problems arise out of this conflict, such as when the private sector and its enablers in government begin to believe that “people who wanted a weather forecast should have to pay for it” through a private company.* Lewis asks his readers to consider the audacity of the proposals to move all public weather predictions to the private sector.
“A private company whose weather predictions were totally dependent on the billions of dollars spent by the U.S. taxpayer to gather the data necessary for those predictions, and on decades of intellectual weather work sponsored by the U.S. taxpayer, and on international data-sharing treaties made on behalf of the U.S. taxpayer, and on the very forecasts that the National Weather Service generated, was, in effect, trying to force the U.S. taxpayer to pay all over again for what the National Weather Service might be able to tell him or her for free.”
Lewis believes the rift in American life “that is now coursing through American government isn’t between Democrats and Republicans,” but “between the people who are in it for the mission, and the people who are in it for the money.”
The absolute necessity of our need to nurture and maintain the social compact for a country built on ideas and ideals is among my core beliefs. Yet Lewis is showing, as others have before him, how decisions made for short-term gain are ripping that social compact apart. One of the best works on the topic is George Packer’s 2013 book The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America. The bottom line of Packer’s compelling work: we’ve left the social compact — the caring for others that once defined America and helped build the world’s most productive middle class — in order to chase individual greed and power. The monied interests and their helpers in government have forgotten about “We the People” and instead have focused on “I, Me, Mine.”
Without a focus on the community, with the involvement of our fellow travelers, the most we’ll ever have individually is the start of a good idea. The government — so long attacked by monied interests who seek short term gain — is the mission of society. Society — that community of “odd” interests — has to work together if our start of a good idea is to grow to fruition.
Have a good week.
More to come…
*The proposal that the government not be allowed to issue weather forecasts was included in a piece of legislation once introduced by then-Senator Rick Santorum on behalf of the Pennsylvania-based AccuWeather company.