The System is Broken: A Call for Widespread Intervention Now

John Renesch's picture

One of the advantages of being around for a long time is perspective. In particular, perspective in the field in which I chose to work many years ago – organizational and social transformation. I’m not talking about transforming a company or a city; I’m talking about transforming the whole world.

A group of us had this in mind when we formed an association of business people back in the 1980s. But that group has never gotten close to reaching the potential we envisioned. I recall talking with Michael Ray, then an endowed chair at Stanford Graduate School of Business, about a “new paradigm” with the hope that we’d start seeing a shift in how people thought about each other and their relationship with the earth in a few years. Our vision was premature.

As systems thinkers, many of us have watched as one human system after another has slipped into dysfunction to the point where now virtually all our social systems are failing to do what they were intended to do. Healthcare, security, politics/government, business, media, the law and legal system, public infrastructure, education….you name it and it will not get a high grade – at least not in the U.S.

Those who understand systems behavior know that systems cannot go on forever losing functionality and waning in their ability to get anything done. I, along with like minded others, would have thought prudent people in key roles within these systems would see what was ahead and intervene accordingly. This hasn’t happened. True, the occasional whistle-blower or intervener might have the floor for a short time but their vote gets cancelled pretty quickly; system forces are powerful and largely underestimated. And, each time the system’s immune system reacts in this way, the system gets stronger so future attempts to change things will take even more effort.

Every once in a while over the past several decades I have seen some call for action, someone saying the obvious. Each time I would get my hopes up - Perhaps this will draw enough attention for those in positions of influence to do something.

Recently, a friend sent me a link to a column in a Wall Street Journal blog that grabbed me, since it was written by a finance guy and wasn’t written in the extreme polarizing rhetoric that we are seeing more and more of these days. The columnist pointed to a gap that is widening as we continue to become a divided nation and a divided world – on almost any issue!

The column, which appeared in the March 20, 2014 issue of “Market Watch,” was titled "March Madness meets ‘Revolution’ and economy collapses." The columnist, Paul Farrell, is a former investment banker with Morgan Stanley, executive vice president of the Financial News Network, executive vice president of Mercury Entertainment Corp, and associate editor of the Los Angeles Herald Examiner. With that kind of background, I figured he would be pretty grounded in conventional thinking. But I was surprised.

Whilst I encourage you to read the entire article, I’d like to share with you the following excerpt as a teaser. One of the absurdities Farrell highlights in this column is how two of the “greatest economic minds” of our day, Michael Spence and Joseph Stiglitz can come to such opposite conclusions in how they see the future unfolding. Spence the “optimist” and Stiglitz the “realist” as Farrell defines them.

No wonder Main Street America is polarized, angry, mean-spirited, raging. Why not? So-called thought leaders like Spence and Stiglitz just echo a deeper confusion. And our so-called political leaders are worse than useless. So we are forced to watch endless skirmishes from the media sidelines ... watching anarchy driving these endless dead-end battles between opposing “armies,” like Big Oil and their climate science-denying cohorts versus environmental activists… No wonder so many Americans are mad as hell. And it seems the media is just spewing high-octane jet fuel, accelerating the rage. Relentless twitter-blips, press releases, selfies, pseudo-news about hot stocks, wars over Russian oil. Snowden. Billionaires leaving China, sick of toxic pollution. GOPs demographic death spiral. Globalized industrial giants leveling South America’s irreplaceable rain forests for new cities. Arctic glaciers melting, opening new lanes for more and more oil tankers. Endless news choking what’s really important.

Yes, you should be mad as hell. Spence and Stiglitz, two of the 21st century’s greatest economic minds ... and they’re worlds apart. This failure of leadership at all levels, in all arenas, is tearing America apart at the seams.

What seems particularly odd to me as a non-economist is that these men are two of three co-recipients of the Nobel Prize for Economic Sciences in 2001. Spence sees a bright global economy growing with huge leaps in standards of living for billions of people in the years ahead while Stiglitz, on the other hand, looks at the same world, same statistics, but is anything but optimistic. The column quotes Stiglitz as writing the “American dream is a myth … the gap’s widening ... the clear trend is one of concentration of income and wealth at the top, the hollowing out of the middle, and increasing poverty at the bottom.”

So, please do read the entire column. See if it resonates with your view of things. If you feel inclined, forward to a friend a link to either this posting or The Wall Street Journal column column it refers to and see how they react. And if you have anything to share with me, post a comment below.

About the author:
John Renesch is a businessman-turned-futurist who has published 14 books and hundreds of articles on organizational and social transformation. He is the principal of Renesch Advisory Services and founder of FutureShapers, LLC.


Broken? Or a seed seeming to break, but sending out shoots?

Thanks for this, John. I share your concern and Paul Farrell's, and agree we need a positive vision to lead us out of apparent and maybe actual peril.
For what it's worth, here's my take on a positive path, leveraging key positive trends:


Richard, thanks for your note and link. As you might imagine I am particularly focused on trend #6 in your post - superconsciousness.

John Renesch
author, The Great Growing Up
Founder. FutureShapers, LLC
owner, Renesch Advisory Services

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