Skip to content

The Aspen Ideas Festival

July 12, 2010

The Aspen Ideas Festival

I haven’t been writing because I’ve been listening … and thinking.

For the past five summers, Linda and I have gorged ourselves on about the richest diet of interesting thinkers and doers imaginable via the Aspen Ideas Festival which spans four days in perhaps the most beautiful climate and setting in the world. There is nothing like it … 180 different sessions. This year was my favorite of all these dawn to dark sessions because there is so much turbulence, uncertainty and change in today’s world. It seems like everything is up for grabs. Here are my highlights:

The Ideas Festival seeks to confront the big policy and political issues of the day. The point of view is basically rational humanist. What I heard from this year’s panel of superstar experts left me feeling deeply frightened about our economic prospects and inspired by some remarkable people who are confronting the issues with great courage. I will muse on the scary speakers this time and save the inspiring examples for my next chapter.

The session began with Harvard professor and Financial Historian, Niall Ferguson’s sobering view of the future. He declared that history indicates the U.S. is “on the edge of chaos.” Here is how writer, Brent Gardnersmith, put it in the next morning’s Aspen Daily News under the headline, “Historian warns of sudden collapse of American Empire.”  ‘Harvard professor and prolific author Niall Ferguson opened the 2010 Aspen Ideas Festival Monday with a stark warning about the increasing prospect of the American “empire” suddenly collapsing due to the country’s rising debt level.  “I think this is a problem that is going to go live really soon,” Ferguson said. “In that sense, I mean within the next two years. Because the whole thing, fiscally and other ways, is very near the edge of chaos. And we’ve seen already in Greece what happens when the bond market loses faith in your fiscal policy.”  ‘Ferguson said empires – such as the former Soviet Union and the Roman Empire – can collapse quite quickly and the tipping point is often when the cost of servicing an empire’s debt is larger than the cost of its defense budget.  ‘”That has not been the case I think at any point in U.S. history,” Ferguson said. “It will be the case in the next five years.”  ‘He said the U.S. is now deeply in the red as a country because of a combination of the Great Recession, the resulting federal stimulus and financial bailout programs, two wars, the Bush tax cuts, and a growth in social entitlement programs.  ‘And economic debt can lead to a sudden loss of military power and global respect, Ferguson said.’  Find this article at  David Gergen conducted the interviews. Magazine editor and real estate magnate, Mort Zuckerman, who was also on the panel, was convinced that America could pull out of the tailspin because “it has the most innovative and hard working private sector.”  Zuckerman’s concern was that “We really have, in the last eighteen months, some of the worst public policies in place today. There is outright hostility to the business culture that helped build the country – public policy could drown everything.” David Gergen underlined the seriousness of our situation when he said, “We were a couple of hours away from total financial collapse — twice!”

I confess to being really shaken by this session. It felt like the death of a family member – the death of expectations and a way of life.

As Toronto professor and author, Richard Florida (The Great Reset), said in a later lecture, “This is not your average run of the mill recession. What we have here is a deep fundamental change, the largest in modern times. The mass production industrial class is collapsing. It is the rise of the creative class – over two million new jobs since 1980. They are now one-third of the work force and they are only 5% unemployed … the key task of our time is to stoke the creative capacity of a broader number of people.”

Peter Drucker invented the term “knowledge worker” eighteen years ago in his prophetic book, The Age of Discontinuity. Peter predicted that work would be organized around information and knowledge and his forecast is just what is happening. A later Ideas Festival panel developed at length the idea that what used to be called the middle class would be split into two classes: first the educated – those with value-added knowledge, the ability to innovate, and adapt to the new.

The other end of the middle class spectrum would be occupied by poorly educated service workers … jobs that could be trained in a short time and lived out in a lifetime of repeating over and over simple hands-on tasks at low pay. Brains, not brawn predominate.

Joel Klein, Chancellor of The New York City Department of Education, said in a later panel, “The education system is built on three panels of mediocrity: lockstep pay, lifetime tenure, and seniority.” This was one example of saying the previously unsayable that was characteristic of several panels – an indication of the crisis we face in multiple sectors. Auto pilot business-as-usual churches and nonprofits are in the same category.

The real unemployment rate is 18% when you include people who have given up looking for jobs. Another speaker in one of the multiple sessions on education said, “Education is a creativity squelching machine. It is like putting the kids in prison.”

Is government the solution? Not much hope there either. A panel of veterans on that topic described Congress as:

  • A toxic pit
  • A perpetual campaign.
  • Negative ads.
  • Endless warfare.
  • People don’t share best practices.

  • Politics always trumps government
  • Collaboration is impossible.
  • 47% of American households pay no income tax at all.
  • A confidence crisis.

Remember, these are direct quotes from the expert panelists.

Obviously I could go on. I will take a crack at the hopeful moments next time I write. I am not usually this dark, but remember these are all quotes from others … the products of a genuine crisis. You can check these splendid speakers out for yourself at the Festival’s website cited just below. The better news doesn’t come from policy, but from people. I’ll go there next. How to participate yourself via Internet:  The Aspen Ideas Festival wrapped up Sunday, but there are many ways to find ideas and inspiration on the Festival’s website,, where you will find a vast collection of videos, each speaker’s book in the Festival’s online store, and The Atlantic magazine “Idea Report,” a lively collection of vignettes posted over the week.

Feedback vigorously welcome.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Bret Hern permalink
    July 13, 2010 9:48 AM

    Thanks for bringing me down — waaaaay down…

    The panels you cite, especially Professors Florida & Ferguson, are only articulating what, deep down, many of us intuitively understand, that this current morass/malaise is somehow different than other challenges we’ve faced, and that the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico is more of a metaphor than we like to think.

    The Catch-22/vicious cycle of the times is expressed in the income tax figure — on the one hand, clearly our government cannot keep spending money it does not have, yet I suspect most of us are unwilling to volunteer to pay it before it can demonstrate even a *scintilla* of restraint and responsibility.

  2. Butch Maltby permalink
    July 14, 2010 3:57 PM

    Thank you for these comments. As someone with an extreme high net worth (you) I am struggling to find both your empathy for the masses and your view of Jesus. By the way we have met and had strategic discussions before in your former Dallas office. I have no rancor. It just seemed like an odd diatribe. Shalom…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: