The Outraged Societies Syndrome (OSS)
Editor’s Note: This blog is part of an ongoing series of contributions from participants in The German Marshall Fund’s flagship leadership development program, The Marshall Memorial Fellowship (MMF).
Detroiters are proud of themselves. They have good reasons for that. Having been one of the largest and most dynamic cities in the world and being able to recuperate from a massive bankruptcy is not within everyone’s reach. Nevertheless, the tangible recovery in downtown has not yet percolated to other areas of the city and to all racial communities, leading to rising shame, outrage, and division. Forgotten Harvest is nongovernmental organization focused on hunger relief in the Detroit metropolitan area. One of the main challenges that its volunteers face is that Detroiters do not want to accept the fact that they need help from a nonprofit organization. It is not easy to publicly admit that you need an extra hand when your neighbor does not; when your crumbling porch coexists with a luxury mansion down the corner.
Hal Doughty, the fire department chief in Durango, Colorado, spent the last months campaigning for a tax increase that helps to finance all the actions under his team’s umbrella: medical emergencies, fire-fighting, natural disaster prevention, etc. Passing a tax increase in the United States is not an easy task — it has never been, and it is even harder now. Communities feel that their representatives are too far removed from their real concerns, which sometimes leads to voting outcomes far from social and economic optimums — even when the goal is as upstanding as the one pursued by Hal and there are no other real alternatives to finance a basic public service.
George Abbey served in top position in NASA from 1967 to 2001, including director of the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. He was one of the people that put the United States up in the stars, not only metaphorically. Since that last promenade on the moon, NASA has seen how funding and interest for the space program have lost relevance progressively. “Not getting attention or money is not the problem,” Abbey points out. “We are missing all the positive spillovers that aerospace investment has on applied technologies, competitiveness …” Research in this field is much more than travelling to Mars, it is about creating the industries, jobs, and welfare that the country will need in the following 50 years.
The Outraged Societies Syndrome (OSS) presents similar symptoms all around the world: inequality, communities feeling removed from their leaders, and distrust in a future marked by the lack of public initiative on fundamental issues such as research, education or long-term investment. Pop-economists and populists’ homeopathic agenda to alleviate the OSS is simple: isolationism, protectionism, and a retreat from the liberal world order created after the Bretton Woods agreements.
The real treatment is, however, much more complicated. First, communities that are left behind must feel recognized and attended. Their situation requires a balanced combination of improved redistributive policies from the state side, and enough room for private actors to boost growth and create jobs.
Second, angry societies need leaders that, like an engine, can drive and focus all the energy of the country into the same direction: globalization, internationalization, and social development; keeping growth strong and empowering those who are being left behind. Outrage must be turned into a renewed trust on institutions, politicians, and an economic system that has pushed 1.7 billion people out of poverty in the last 50 years.
Finally, universities and research centers require public and private support to lead the treatment design and to expand our horizons. Not adequately creating and disseminating scientific knowledge provides an opening for populists who want to thrive and get the advantage, through rumors, half-truths, and fake news, of those who are struggling.
The challenge is huge. But Detroiters have proven that with a little flexibility, communities can grow without forgetting those who are struggling. The citizens of Durango have shown that it is possible to put common interests above individual ones by overwhelmingly voting in favor of a tax increase. Houstonians have demonstrated that building bridges between academia, government, and firms is the best way to boost their future prosperity. Resilience, generosity when needed, and a competitive business community are the basic principles needed to design an effective vaccine for OSS.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.