Reset, Rinse and Repeat

Editor’s note: Kurt Andersen, best-selling author and host of the radio program Studio 360, has turned his unflagging curiosity to the current economic crisis. He believes it is an opportunity to get the nation back on track. Part of the answer, Kurt suggests, lies in reconnecting to the amateur spirit that first helped create America. Regular contributor Marcia Stepanek spoke to 2009 PopTech speaker Kurt Anderson, whose talk we release today.

Radio host Kurt Andersen wrote in Reset, his 2009 book about America’s uncertain future, that the last 25 years of American life have been years in which Americans have been guilty of magical thinking – living too large, defining success as more of everything, instantly, and behaving, more or less, like spoiled children oblivious of their impact on the world. [“We (Baby Boomers) took Peter Pan too seriously; we took Bob Dylan’s lyrics too seriously,” Andersen told PopTech conferees last October in Camden (see podcast, below). “We committed to never growing up and we didn’t.” The 1980s – until the 2008 financial meltdown — “just kept going, and kept going, and kept going,” Andersen said.]

We are now, Andersen says, in a “reset moment” that presents a great opportunity “for getting ourselves and our nation back on track.” Sure, America has always moved back and forth between economic booms and busts and between the left and right politically. But this time is different, he says. “It’s a time when all of these cycles are shifting dramatically and simultaneously; when complacency is forced to end; when outdated structures are being inevitably and necessarily challenged, and when change is rapid and difficult to predict.”

Since speaking to PopTech and writing Reset in the thick of the 2008 financial meltdown, how does Andersen think the nation is faring so far in reset mode? I caught up with Andersen last week; what follows is an edited transcript of our conversation:

On last fall’s PopTech stage, you declared the 1980s era of hyper-excess to finally be over; indeed, some nine months later, here were are, still cleaning up after ourselves. Just today, President Obama signed into law the most sweeping financial overhaul since the Great Depression; BP oil spill compensation czar Kenneth Feinberg just told lawmakers on Capitol Hill that not everybody who files a claim against the oil company will be compensated for their losses. Are we, as a nation, getting on with setting a new course for ourselves, or do we still need to hit bottom – to fail even bigger – in order to bring about large-scale, mass reinvention?

ANDERSEN: It’s a good question. Having created this “reset” prism through which I now look at the news, I sort of ask myself that question every day or every week. Some days or weeks, I go, ‘Oh well, we are moving forward and actually are reconfiguring our ways of thinking about life and business in encouraging and heartening ways.’ And sometimes, I think ‘Ah, well maybe not so much.’ I guess I think that I’m more hopeful than not. I think that a couple or three years hence, we’ll look back and say, ‘You know? We didn’t shift 180 degrees and become a different place, but the idea that there is a role for shrewd, effective forms of regulation, for instance, has returned.’ There is now the idea out there that maximizing how much we earn is not synonymous with personal contentment. Those things have changed. What hasn’t changed since I started writing about this is that, I guess by now, I thought we might be ready for more of an ideological flux than we are seeing. I’m not one of those people who believe that the country is as brutally and rigidly and ferociously divided between left and right and all of that, as it sometimes seems. But I guess I was hopeful that out of the terror and flux of the financial meltdown, more people in positions of leadership and power in Washington and elsewhere would begin to abandon their old, tired, auto-pilot talking points. And that hasn’t happened as much as I would have liked. In fact, I find that the most shocking thing, I guess, is the absolute, party line-ness that still exists on things like financial reform and most other of the big pieces of legislation now working their way through the sausage factory.

Of course, it’s not the worst of times nor the best of times in Washington, but there you have some version of health care reform that may or may not do what you want it to do, and you have now some version of financial reform that may or may not do good or bad. So things are moving forward but it’s all still somewhat ambiguous. I try to be even-handed, and I don’t consider myself a party line Democrat, but when I see 39 of 40 Republicans and the Republican establishment simply refusing to play, that doesn’t seem like what ought to be happening if the reset were proceeding as one hoped that it would.

Does reset require a kind of phased-in period to take hold, kind of like the stages of grief –denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance? We seem past denial but are we getting stuck on the road to acceptance?

I think that’s exactly right. I think we’re past denial but I think that in a certain way, we’re still kind of floating, sluggishly going on, absent a full economic recovery. On the other hand, I began wondering last year if we had, indeed, pulled out of the worst economic horror too easily – that the financial system did not collapse globally. In a way, did we get off a little too easily? Maybe we weren’t scared straight enough; maybe the old ways didn’t die quite fully enough to bring about reinvention.

As you know, PopTech’s conference this fall – Brilliant Accidents, Necessary Failures and Probable Breakthroughs – is all about examining the role of failure in the process of innovation. Are we, as a nation — in this reset time — failing to fail well?

Or, did we not fail quite enough yet in order to fail well? (laughs)

Have we hit bottom? Do we need to hit bottom in more ways before we can move on?

You know, that’s the thing. I don’t think we have hit bottom. It was this vertiginous fall during the meltdown but then it turned out to be more like bungee jumping. We were kind of pulled up and we’re not now back up on the ledge. We’re still sort of floating somewhere in the middle. It’s not 1998 again but you know, we’re sort of middling along and so no, I don’t think we did hit bottom.

I think that in particular places, like public education, I think we have hit bottom and I think that’s where you’re beginning to see people come together in new ways. I see people starting to think differently than they did there and also in other places. Journalism is another good example of where things are just not going to go back to normal. This is not just a cyclical change here but a secular and more permanent one. I’m sure people in Detroit feel the same way about their industry, that there are certain parts of the economy and the culture where people don’t have the easy way out of thinking, ‘Whoa, that was close but now things are just back to normal.” So I think there are enough of those places around that people are going to be encouraged to sort of try to think the unthinkable, on the upside, to say, “Well, okay, I can’t do this anymore so maybe I can do this” or, “I can’t live this way anymore; okay, I’ll have to live another way.”

But it takes a while for those decisions — when people have lives and families and houses and all the rest —to ripple through individual lives and then, through the culture generally. So I guess I would hold off. It’s been less than two years since things started to crash or since things started obviously to be crashing. So I would give it another couple of years to make final judgments about whether or not we’ve learned our lessons properly.

For some people, it will take hitting bottom to behave like the ant instead of the grasshopper. Some people are just naturally virtuous ants, sure. But it’s a lot more fun to be a grasshopper and dance and play and sing until winter comes and you have no choice but to figure out a way to get inside.

In Reset and at PopTech last year, you talked about our collective impatience – how the quest for instant gratification has become the economic and cultural driver of our time. We want things, right now. How much of what is happening in Washington is partly due to the fact that we want bigger change to happen faster?

I’ve thought a lot about the various flavors and forms of disappointment in this administration and in President Obama. Some of it is that 30 percent of America is not going to like it and him no matter what. But some of it is, I think, to the point of believing in magic wands and instant gratification and instantaneous change. I think many people talked themselves into a kind of giddy dream after the 2008 election and through the inauguration. We thought then that ‘Oh, now everything is fine. We’ve done this amazing thing and now this new President and this new administration will change everything overnight.” So yeah, I think that the idea that whether it’s making a fortune overnight or changing a badly sclerotic, screwed up political system overnight is possible. Some people can make fortunes overnight — although we saw where that gets you if that becomes a kind of pandemic idea. And systems don’t change overnight short of violent revolutionary change. When I saw disappointment in this administration start to set in just three months, six months in, I thought, Holy Cow, what do people think? Do people really think that daddy can make everything fine suddenly? I mean, there was a kind of childish impatience to me about that which has created a kind of disjuncture between reasonable expectations and then childish expectations, of thinking that we can make everything fine all over again.

What was so interesting during the Obama campaign, especially from a technology perspective, was the participation of people via the Web and social media; that many people felt a sense of urgency and that it mattered. In this climate of nowism, of instant gratification, how does institutional leadership have to change so as to bring about a more patient attitude toward change and innovation?

I think you’ve put your finger on what we have lost and what we need to return to. When you look at non-government organizations – all of the organizations, businesses, the enterprises that all of us are parts of – you see that very few of them, almost none of them, are operated by people who have some absolutely fixed kind of ideological idea that ‘this is how we’re going to do things” and “screw you if you disagree with me” and “I’m going to ignore the facts and I am not going to negotiate with my employees or my clients.” This is how people are operating on the national level of politics, and yet this is badly out of touch with the way the that every business and enterprise is managed. Businesses would all be belly up if they operated with this kind of showboating, this kind of “I’m-going-to-stick-to-my-guns-no-matter-what” attitude that seems to pass for leadership these days in Washington.

Does the Web help or hinder reset?

Since writing the book and since giving the talk at PopTech, I have though a lot about how one of the new conditions in our political discourse is the way the electronic media operate. It’s in a way they didn’t operate 20 years ago. Before the Fairness Doctrine and talk radio existed; before cable television and 24-hour news, the political discourse was different and politicians were more able to make the deals and compromises they needed to make and to govern. And the new electronic media, which is a genie that’s not going back in the lamp, has changed things — and changed things permanently. Sure, we can look back and see partisanship and divisiveness going back centuries. Look at the 1802 election and what people were saying about Jefferson. Yes, yes. It was divisive then, too. But I do think the way that today, millions of people on both ends of the political spectrum are kept on this constant boil by television and radio and the Web, is a fully new condition, much in the way that automobiles were a new thing that transformed the way that cities and towns are developed and the way people live. There was no way to say that once the car came that this would be like the 19th century, when railroads happened. Electronic media and the Web are still so radically new that I think we don’t know yet how it’s going to play out.

Having said that, is technology, at least for now, undermining reset – or is it simply putting what ails us into higher relief so that we feel more helpless and impatient?

It is, like most historical processes, dialectical. It is not doing just one thing. It is doing at least a couple of things simultaneously. In this instance, it’s making certain people more rigid in their dogmatism at the same time factual truths can be disseminated more quickly and widely, perhaps softening the ground for the reality-based reset that needs to happen.

I think we’re seeing some changes. Look at education, public education. I think we’re beginning to see the beginnings of changes that go beyond the old public school-charter school conversations. I think that’s because the situation has become so manifestly terrible. That is what drives people to make painful change. When states and cities actually start running out of money, can’t raise taxes, they need to figure out a new way of doing things. It is only, ultimately, when people are forced to make change that they do. Two years ago, I began to see some silver linings that could come out of this meltdown. People are going to stop doing the easy fun things only when their behavior becomes so disastrous that they have no choice but to take the slower, more patient, more blood-swear-and-tearful route.

Depending on which way you look and the way you squint, I think you can be very hopeful or very disparaging.

At the end of Reset, you said Americans possess the ability to rejigger and reorder our lives but to get there we have to think the unthinkable. Is the notion that failure is good a form of the unthinkable?

It is and it isn’t. Part One of the iconic American story is comeback. It is failure and reinvention and comeback. That’s a real central piece of what we think America is and what we think America has been. So we celebrate failure exactly until and unless the organization or individual puts failure behind herself or himself and becomes a great success. So I think there is, implicit in the American ideal, a kind of acceptance of failure, of getting thrown off the horse and getting back on. Looked at correctly, that is part of our package of definitions of what makes an American; it is a central part of the American idea of itself.

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