I know all Democrats don’t agree with me on this one, but I think New York Times columnist Tom Friedman is a national treasure. In a recent article entitled “It’s a 401K World“, Friedman makes an excellent summary of how our new world of technology and globalization “empowers individuals to access learning, retrain, engage in commerce, seek or advertise a job, invent, invest and crowd source — all online.” Friedman goes on to say, “But this huge expansion in an individual’s ability to do all these things comes with one big difference: More now rests on you. If you are self-motivated, wow, this world is tailored for you. The boundaries are all gone. But if you’re not self-motivated, this world will be a challenge because the walls, ceilings and floors that protected people are also disappearing. That is what I mean when I say “it is a 401(k) world.” Government will do less for you. Companies will do less for you. Unions can do less for you. There will be fewer limits, but also fewer guarantees. Your specific contribution will define your specific benefits much more. Just showing up will not cut it.”
Your typical conservative is pointing at us Democrats right about now and saying, “Yeah, I told you so. You liberals who believe in an entitlement society have got it all wrong.” More than any other of the lies told about us, this one makes me tear my hair out! Democrats do not believe in an entitlement society! No one would be more thrilled than me if that single mother out there had the tools to provide food, clothing, shelter and medical care for her children without government assistance.
The difference is in the best way to get there. Conservative philosophy seems to be pretty simple; everyone’s on his own.
Democrats have a different view. I am currently enrolled in a class on the Toyota Production System at work. One characteristic of the coursework is you get to learn a bunch of Japanese words. One of these is “nemawashi”. It’s the word for properly preparing the soil to plant a tree. The tree won’t grow if you don’t prepare the soil. The application of this principle in the business world is obvious, but in our changing society, it especially applies to people. We can’t expect those being left behind by our new economy to grow and thrive without some soil preparation. If you just plunk them down in the dirt, they will perish just as surely as all those trees I’ve tried to plant out in the crappy, alkaline soil in Plain City.
So, back to Friedman’s column: “I find a lot of this scary. We’re entering a world that increasingly rewards individual aspiration and persistence and can measure precisely who is contributing and who is not. This is not going away, so we better think how we help every citizen benefit from it.
It has to start, argues Ryan Burke, the director of jobs and workforce for Hope Street, with changing our education-to-work system to one that enables and credits a variety of viable pathways to needed skills. But for students and workers to take advantage of the opportunities open to them in a ‘defined contribution’ world, they will need much better information to inform their decisions. Right now it’s much easier to evaluate a choice about buying a car or picking a mutual fund than to find the competencies employers are looking for and the best cost-effective way to obtain them.”
This isn’t going to be easy. It will take work and creativity, Which means simplistic answers won’t do. One final quote, from Friedman’s book Hot, Flat and Crowded: “There was a lot about Reagan’s economic policies that made sense when it was first introduced. We did need to unlock talent, energy and entrepreneurship that had been bottled up in our economy. But like all good things in politics, for everything there is a season and limits. Reaganism, which coincided with the collapse of America’s mortal enemy, the Soviet Union, ushered in a period of history in which more and more public officials denigrated government and offered painless bromides for prosperity. The market was always right. Government was always wrong. And any government proposal that involved asking the American people to do something difficult – to save more, drive more fuel-efficient cars, study harder, or to be better parents – was ‘off the table’. You could not utter such phrases and expect to be elected to any high office in America.”
The time for those “painless bromides” are past. They won’t work. It will take a lot of effort and sacrifice to prepare the soil in America so all her citizens can be self-sufficient and prosper in the new economy.