I have great respect for President Barack Obama and his team, and I understand the extremely daunting obstacles they have to navigate. I’m under no illusion that more ambition on President Obama’s part would, by itself, correct the problems. But I think it is necessary. We are still in the early months of his second term and I still hear the words he used in his inaugural address and the words he used in his Union speech. I was encouraged last week by his Organizing For Action organization – they put out a pretty pointed video on climate. [The video was aimed at climate skeptics] I think he has yet to decide how a big priority climate will actually play, but I am continuing to encourage him to give it the priority it deserves and I hope that he’ll do something.
Technology: threat or salvation?
Well, it’s both, but which of those possibilities will dominate? It depends upon our ability to accelerate the emergence of sufficient new wisdom to make choices in how we use these technologies. Look at the connection between new technology and structural unemployment. One of the surprises I had in researching this book was the weight of evidence now supporting those economists who are questioning the Luddite fallacy now that technology is extending not only our physical capacities but also our cognitive functions. But it is no longer as clear as it’s been for the last 300 years that new technologies always create more new jobs than they displace, at least it’s not clear they will do so in the market sector. And the dividing line between private goods and public goods that has shifted since 1989 and the triumphalism with which democratic capitalism reacted to the disappearance of communism as a serious alternative. That has shifted the line by pulling more and more functions and decisions into the market sphere but for all its efficiency, power and magic, the market sphere can’t make some decisions as well as the democracy sphere: how we educate children, how we deal with mental health, how we build communities.
Do you believe the United States is still relevant?
There’s a lot of evidence that, at least in relative terms, U.S. power has been declining. In part that it is inevitable consequence of the structural changes in the global economy. China and India were the dominant economic powers for most of the last two millennia and then the Industrial Revolution led to a quarter-millennium breakout by the West during which the United States became the unquestioned world leader. But we are seeing a reversion to the mean, a reversion to the traditional role that China played in the global economy for the last two millennia. And the United States unfortunately accelerated the potential for losing relative power by a series of uncharacteristically bad decisions: the invasion of Iraq, the decision to undermine its moral authority by employing widespread torture, the decision to agree with the large banks that no regulation of derivatives is necessary. These and other unfortunate decisions led to a crisis of confidence in U.S. leadership both in the democracy sphere and in the market sphere.
But it is still true that there is absolutely no alternative to U.S. leadership. Maybe over time one will emerge, but it has to be values-based and it has to be connected to economic and political and military power, and the United States has been unique in possessing all those characteristics.
I am an optimist in predicting that the United States will recover its balance. I do think that this large structural shift from television and radio to Internet-based communications that’s inviting the participation of individuals will find its beneficial effect in the United States – but it’s far from assured so we have a struggle in the years ahead.
This interview has been edited and condensed.