Austerity and crisis are not negative--they are the only dynamics that force smart thinking and the re-alignment of values, resources and strategic goals.
Unsurprisingly, the status quo position on austerity (real or imagined)--that it's terribly, horribly negative--is precisely backwards: austerity is the one essential positive motivator of productive strategic planning, prioritization and decision-making.
By austerity, I mean a broad-based definition: when resources are not up to the demands of the status quo. In other words, austerity is a relative term; for the household accustomed to a lifestyle that requires $15,000 a month, a cut to $10,000 a month is a drastic austerity budget, even though the $10,000 per month budget is insanely bloated to those managing on $3,000 per month.
The dynamic of austerity being required to force productive planning, prioritization and decision-making is scale-invariant: that is, it applies to every bit of the spectrum, from individuals to couples to households to small enterprises to communities to corporations to government agencies to nation-states.
For a military machine accustomed to expanding outlays and a $700+ billion annual budget, a cut of $50 billion is viewed as extreme austerity--even though it wasn't that long ago that the Pentagon budget was well under $500 billion.
An insightful article in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs describes how austerity has in the past forced the U.S. military to realign resources with goals via hardnosed, realistic, productive strategic thinking: How Budget Crises Have Improved U.S. Strategy.
When there is funding for every program and response to every potential threat, money is thrown around without regard to strategic planning, which is the process of assessing and ranking risks and threats and formulating a strategy that prioritizes resources and goals: in other words, smart planning.
the author of the essay neatly summarizes this process:
"In World War II, the paucity of the resources on hand actually forced U.S. policymakers to make tough but smart choices. A combination of austerity and crisis helped forge a core strategic concept, a new threat assessment, an appreciation of the indissoluble links between interests and values, and a calibration of priorities."The dynamic of austerity coupled with crisis is the key driver of smart, strategic planning for individuals, households, communities, organizations, enterprises and nations; without austerity/crisis-driven assessment, prioritizing and planning, resources are squandered on impractical, low-yield distractions that have been jumbled up with key priorities by muddled, politically-expedient thinking.
If you have enough borrowing power to fund everything that every politically potent constituency wants, you are ontologically (inherently) ill-prepared for crisis. Muddled strategic planning leads to a confusion of competing priorities, none of which are integrated in a grand strategy with clear goals, priorities and planning.
Historical analogies abound; here is one. In a previous Musings (When Risk Is Separated From Gain, The System Is Doomed, Musing Report 47, 2011), I discussed Japan's muddled plan for the Midway campaign in World War II, a convoluted political marriage of competing Army and Navy plans. Rather than clarify the goal and prioritize the means to accomplish it, the Japanese high command attempted to please every key power center by combining each constituency's ideas and goals into a complex tactical plan that worked politically but which was militarily diffused and internally inconsistent. Junior officers' well-founded critiques of the plan were suppressed by top brass fearing political blowback.
The end result was a completely avoidable military catastrophe that essentially ended Japan's hope of prevailing in the war: four aircraft carriers sunk, the cream of the Navy's carrier pilot cadre lost. These losses forced a shift of strategy from expansion and victory to defense and a vain hope for a favorable settlement of hostilities.
This failure to force clear strategic thinking was the natural result of Japan's string of early victories, which generated a widespread hubris in the leadership, i.e. the belief that available resources could magically accomplish any goal conjured by central command.
This is a precise analogy to the U.S., not just militarily, but every facet of its society and economy: politically expedient, kick-the-can-down-the-road "no limits on anything" means no strategy, no priorities, no planning and ultimately, no clear thinking at the top, which then guarantees complete failure.
This perfectly captures the essence of the Affordable Care Act (ACA or ObamaCare) monstrosity: a program intended to satisfy or placate every politically powerful constituency is a muddled, complicated mess doomed to systemic failure on multiple levels.The ACA was ultimately a political plan which ignored (thanks to a complete absence of austerity) the actual resources of the nation and its bloated, inefficient, perverse-incentivized healthcare system.
Austerity and crisis are not negative--they are the only dynamics that force smart thinking and the re-alignment of values, resources and strategic goals. Trying to fund everything to please or placate every powerful constituency ends up failing everyone in catastrophic fashion.
This essay was drawn from Musings Report 51, one of the weekly reports sent exclusively to subscribers and major contributors (i.e. those who contribute $50 or more annually).
The Nearly Free University and The Emerging Economy:
The Revolution in Higher Education
Reconnecting higher education, livelihoods and the economy
We must thoroughly understand the twin revolutions now fundamentally changing our world: The true cost of higher education and an economy that seems to re-shape itself minute to minute.
Things are falling apart--that is obvious. But why are they falling apart? The reasons are complex and global. Our economy and society have structural problems that cannot be solved by adding debt to debt. We are becoming poorer, not just from financial over-reach, but from fundamental forces that are not easy to identify. We will cover the five core reasons why things are falling apart:
1. Debt and financialization
2. Crony capitalism
3. Diminishing returns
5. Technological, financial and demographic changes in our economy
Complex systems weakened by diminishing returns collapse under their own weight and are replaced by systems that are simpler, faster and affordable. If we cling to the old ways, our system will disintegrate. If we want sustainable prosperity rather than collapse, we must embrace a new model that is Decentralized, Adaptive, Transparent and Accountable (DATA).
We are not powerless. Once we accept responsibility, we become powerful.
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