I’m a progressive. In almost every way that I can imagine, I favor progress over the status quo. This is true for science, music, art, and literature, among other things. The one place where I tend to be status quo are work and personal relationships that form the foundation for my progressive attitudes. These foundations are formed by several “social contracts” that serve to define the roles and expectations. Without this foundation, the progress I so cherish is threatened because people naturally retreat to conservatism for stability.
Without deviation from the norm, progress is not possible.
What I’ve come to realize is that the shortsighted, short is demolishing many of these social contracts –term thinking dominating our governance. Our social contracts are the basis of trust and faith in our institutions whether they are the rule of government, or the place we work. In each case we are left with a severe corrosion of the intrinsic faith once granted these cornerstones of public life. The cost is enormous, and may have created a self-perpetuating cycle of loss of trust precipitating more acts that undermine trust.
Stagnation is self-abdication.
Take the Labs where I’ve worked. At one time the Lab’s were trusted with the (nuclear) defense of the Nation. This happened in a time of immense threat and danger, yet the oversight was minimal. A substantial resource was given to the Labs to pursue the mission, and the Labs performed marvelously. The Labs fulfilled their social contract with the Nation, and similarly the Labs created a social contract with its employees. Serve here, and we will take care of you. You will be given engaging work, paid well, and ultimately allowed to retire comfortably. Shape your scientific explorations in service of the National security mission, and you will be provided resources. Beyond the direct success in the nuclear work, the scientific work was part of the Nation’s preeminence internationally and produced much of the foundation for great economic success. We have almost systematically destroyed everything good about these Labs.
It takes strength and courage to admit the truth.
Even before the Cold War ended, this social contract began to unravel. The trust eroded and the money came with increasing strings attached. Similarly, the social contract with the employees became too “expensive” to fulfill. Over time the lack of trust and the associated “accountability” has spiraled out of control (we will spend ten dollars to save one). This has precipitated the no risk, no failure allowed environment that is choking innovation and progress out of our work. Increasingly the support for a career at the Labs is being removed, and it’s turning into just another job (not a bad one, but nothing special either).
These developments are paralleled by changes across the economy. They are manifestations of the short-term quarterly return mentality ruling industry. Research and development without immediate impact on the bottom line are increasingly missing from industrial research (missing from government research too). Employees are commodities whose life and career prospects is none of the business concern. The Labs benchmark themselves to these industries and share these attitudes because it benefits the short-term balance sheet.
What gets lost? Almost everything. Progress, quality, security, you name it. Our short-term balance sheet looks better, but our long-term prospects look dismal. The scary thing is that these developments help drive conservative thinking, which in turn drives these developments. As much as anything this could explain our Nation’s 50-year march to the right. We have taken the virtuous cycle we were granted, and developed a viscous cycle. It is a cycle that we need to get out of before it crushes our future.
Any defensiveness is a sign of failure. You can’t move forward if you are defensive.
We got here through overconfidence and loss of trust can we get out of it by combining realism with trust in each other. Right now, the signs are particularly bad with nothing looking like realism, or trust being part of the current public discourse on anything.