The American Promise Initiative or Alliance as it has become known, actually started some years back and while relevant then has, as a result of this crisis, become far more relevant today. It started when a group of us, across a variety of disciplines – particularly academia and business, began to discuss and address what we saw as a serious lack of cohesive vision or purpose for our nation, coupled with extreme political polarization. So allow me to share a few details of that initiative and what we hope to accomplish. I’ll start with a little in the way of background, then cover some of our basic thinking and describe some of the work already completed. I’ll talk briefly about how this relates to the current crisis, and finish with a few suggested next steps.
So, to begin with, The Promise America Alliance was founded by two individuals: Richard Cheshire is our Chairman and Founder – Dick was the former President of the University of Tampa, and VP for the Center for Strategic and International Studies. His latest book is First and Foremost, based on three prior books relevant to the subject being discussed today.
Arthur Rashap, is our President and COO. He has had a multi-faceted career ranging from Wall Street Lawyer and Investment banker to government roles supporting arts organizations and artists for New York City and New York State. He also served as counsel to the Rockefeller Family.
Believing we had drifted from the founding principles and values as outlined in the Preamble to the Constitution, the objectives we had at Promise America were to change how we think about our well-being and to introduce a new measurement tool called “The Promise America Report” that would once again give voice to “We the People.”
In our work and that of others, we found that while multiple issues, ranging from climate change, abortion, gun control, income inequality, voting rights and healthcare have been much discussed and debated, it seems that we here in the United States, and like many western countries, had to an excessive degree, boiled the well-being of our nation down to one metric – GDP or Gross Domestic Product, a simplistic measure of economic activity. If GDP was going up, all was well. If it was going down, things were bad!
As many others have written, and while of some value, GDP is totally inadequate as a measure of our well-being, and of course fraught with numerous contradictions. We could spend an hour on this subject alone and there is much discussion that has centered on this topic. But simply put, it’s inadequacy as a measure of well-being has never been clearer than today as the world grapples with the greatest crisis since WWII, and perhaps longer since this one touches every country and every person inthe world, rich and poor, democratic and autocratic, Religious and non-religious.
Today, the “Well-Being” of our nation is literally that. Our well-being. Our health! The fact that our GDP was the highest in the world has no real bearing on the degree of pain and suffering we are currently experiencing. At another time, we can focus on subjects like climate change, whether man-made or not, that is now having and will continue to have an enormous impact on our well-being, over and above the simple economics of GDP.
Basic freedoms, such as the ability to vote and to gather together have now been threatened. Things we took for granted just a few weeks ago have been taken away, perhaps for a long time. And as the pandemic continues, the very foundation of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – food, shelter and safety are at risk for millions.
So, as the old saying goes, “Never let a crisis go to waste”. When things are going well no-one wants to change, or even sees the need to change. Often the danger is too far in the future to warrant taking the risk. I experienced this multiple times during my business career and personal life, and learned that the best, in fact the easiest time, to effect change is during a crisis. So what should we change? How can we take advantage of the crisis we now face?
At the PAA we believed well before this crisis hit us that we needed a new, well defined Vision for the Nation, akin to, but even broader than Kennedy’s “We will go to the Moon” decree of over 50 years ago. And we identified the need for appropriate metrics to measure how we were doing against that Vision. For this to happen, we needed strong leadership who would be held accountable for their actions in accordance with this Vision. Obviously this is no easy task, and incredible complex. Where does one even begin? We believe there are three fundamental elements to the process.
The first, is the creation of a Vision. On the surface this is a daunting, but we believe a good starting point lies in our Constitution, and more specifically with the 52 words of the Preamble:
“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
In these 52 words, the Founding Fathers established the basic purpose of our nation, a Vision if you will, against which we could measure our well-being. Imagine if you will, a nation who’s people feel that a strong sense of security prevails; feel safe and well protected; have good jobs, where hard work, skills and perseverance are rewarded unrelated to your sex, race or color of your skin; who enjoy the freedoms inherent in the Bill of Rights; and perhaps- above all- live with a view to making things better for their children and for future generations…our posterity. Of course, we have never fully achieved that vision, there were probably times when we were closer than others and in our opinion certainly closer than where we are today.
As a Vision is it perfect? Probably not, and given that it was written by a bunch of old white guys 250 years ago it, needs updating. But it is a start. And even as it stands, provides a framework around which policies can be written, actions taken and measurements made for how well we are performing.Assuming policies and actions are taken, the second step brings us to measurements.
As mentioned earlier, GDP, while of some value is, on its own, an inadequate measure of well-being. And back in 2010, Congress agreed. As part of the Bill that has become known as Obamacare, Congress approved the mechanism to create a Key National Indicator or Index, charged with measuring and reporting on a broad range of subjects somewhat similar to those covered within the Preamble – Justice, Defense, General Welfare etc. Unfortunately, the $78 million authorized was not appropriated and while the idea has floundered, it has not died.
Other countries and several international organizations, have, however, implemented their own Key National Indicators to look beyond simple GDP as ameasure of well-being. Some are quite objective and thorough, including those used at the OECD, The Organization of Economic Co-Operation and Development. Others are more subjective in nature– for example, the GrossNational Happiness Index or GNH that originated in Bhutan! It has literally become fundamental to, and guides the policies of, the government of Bhutan.
Here in the US, organizations such as usafacts.org, started by former Microsoft CEO, Steve Balmer, do an amazing job of collecting and disseminating huge amounts of government data. It is also organized around the principals of the Preamble. Professionally managed, its strength lies in its independence, and terrific organization of the vast amounts of data available. Its two primary weaknesses however are that it is outside government, and currently does not track data beyond that collected by the government, including critical information – for example- that is related to climate change.
Here at PAA, despite some obvious reservations about the role of government, and our firm belief that the Key National Indicator index should be strictly independent and bi-partisan, for it to have teeth andbe acted upon, it MUST be housed within the Federal Government. And it MUST become as important as GDP – reported on regularly and openly.
This leads to the third step or element of the process. We believe the vision and these measurements should be used to hold our leaders accountable for their actions and policies, from the local all the way to the national level of government. It may even form the basis for the annual “State of the Union” address, and act as a framework for measuring the effectiveness of all three branches of government. All of this may sound like a daunting, or perhaps an impossible challenge, but in fact it is eminently doable, and much work has already been done and continues to be done.
At PAA we have been working with the University of Virginia, with students and their advisors, from the Data Engineering Department to develop a model for the metrics and even definitions for what a “well-being” index may look like and how it may be used to effect policy decisions. The pillars set forth in the Preamble are to be used as the standards or key elements of well-being, but updated where needed.
For example, a study conducted last year by our students, indicated that a “strong sense of community” was a key measure of well-being, as high as, if not higher than, the more traditional or standard choices of income and wealth. IF chosen as a key element or metric, and then demanded by people the same way we demand better jobs or income, it isn’t hard to envision how policy decisions at the local all the way to the national level could be designed in support of this goal. It does not automatically mean we achieve it, but at least we’d been doing what we the people want………WE THE PEOPLE. How novel!
We have also worked with the Center for the Constitution at Montpelier and with academics in the fields of political and social science to better understand the roots of our nation’s purpose and how best to make it relevant to today’s world. And we are planning a symposium or forum later this year, subject to the pandemic in terms of its format, to bring together academics, politicians, scientists, business leader and others to further discuss what might constitute elements critical to well-being, how best to measure these, and to what extent the government plays a role in their attainment. All very meaty topics.
But back to the current pandemic, and what comes next? What have we learned, and how does it fit with the initiative here at PAA? First, it has become apparent that some countries have handled the situation better than others. Those who acted swiftly, with a clear plan of action, and with the processes in place to test, track and treat have fared best, including Taiwan, S. Korea, New Zealand, and to some extent,Germany. Those who didn’t – Italy, France, Spain, the UK -and sadly theUSA -are suffering more.
The importance of data–or in many cases the lack of data–has become a critical factor in how well we manage the crisis. As anyone who has worked in business knows making good decisions withoutdata is impossible. Within the US at least, we have seen and experienced the relativeimportance and role of leadership at the local, State and National level. The role and relative power and influence of key institutions such as the media, the judiciary, CDC, FEMA, the Federal Reserve, to name just a few. There will be books and papers written on this for years to come, with any number of varying opinions as to what happened, how and why?
But what we do know, is that the crisis has unearthed many cracks in our social fabric, here and around the world. In the US it has further highlighted the fragility of our healthcare system; the impact of income and race inequality, our dependence on a global supply chain for critical materials, and of course our need for social interaction. The list is long.
Yet, in the midst of chaos, fear and in some quarters, animosity, we have also seen incredible acts of kindness, courage and even human sacrifice demonstrated both within and across borders. Countries often at odds with one another have offered help. Scientists across the world are sharing information in search of a cure or vaccine. Neighbors are reaching out to neighbors to help.
We are without doubt all in this together. We have only just entered phase one or possibly phase two of the pandemic as some countries continue to see a rise in infections and deaths, while a few are starting to see a downturn in the numbers. But for a successful phase three, and the safe re-opening of the world, it will require the unprecedented co-operation of us all, at the local, state, national and international level. It is here that the opportunity lies. Understanding, acting upon, and measuring what we as a nation and as a world truly value as part of our well-being has never been more important.
As I said earlier, there are opportunities to turn this crisis into something good, and hopefully the lessons learned, both positive and negative, will result in a better tomorrow. What might we as a Nation look like at the other side of this? Will we simply go back to acting like nothing happened, or will we demand changes to the way we think about our Nation’s well-being? If we want change, then the time to act is NOW, while our thoughts are focused on what is truly important to us, including that sense of community and the role we want government to play going forward.
So having given you a little background, shared some of the work we’ve completed, related it to the current situation, and posed the question of what comes after, let’s talk about those next steps. How will you think and act differently, if at all following this crisis? What do you think might or should change as a result? Again, this is hopefully just the start of a longer dialog.
So my ask today is that you add your thoughts and comments to this blog, and support us with your own skills and knowledge as we further the initiative for a clearer sense of direction and accountability for our Nation, and through these actions, a renewed leadership for the world.
You can read more about our work at: http://www.thepromiseamericaalliance.org and http://www.thepromiseamericaalliance.net. And also on our The Promise America Alliance Face book page. Dr. Cheshire’s book is available on Amazon and through iuniverse via print or electronic copy.
Thank you for listening, and with your help, I look forward to continuing this important work.