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Report from the Aspen Ideas Festival 2011

July 7, 2011

I promised in my last chapter to describe the tone of this year’s Aspen Ideas Festival. There were 250+ speakers from every imaginable sector. Richard Stengel, Editor in Chief of Time Magazine, expressed it perfectly when he said, “This Festival is a cornucopia of ideas. It makes you feel like your head is bursting.”

Once again this year, I concentrated on the Economy. Let’s start for comparison’s sake with a pair of quotes from a year ago:

Last year’s session began with Harvard Professor and Financial Historian, Niall Ferguson, who declared that “history indicates that the U.S. is now on the edge of chaos … I think this is a problem that is going to go live really soon. 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.” Another panelist, David Gergen, underlined the seriousness of our situation when he said, “We were a couple hours away from total financial collapse – twice!”

Not very cheerful. If anything, things are worse today. Listening to the Aspen Ideas Festival speakers, conditions are more precarious now than then. We are far from out of the woods. Listen in on what I heard:

August 2 and the debt ceiling/gridlock 

I was surprised that three of the most expert voices (Tom Friedman, David Brooks, both NYT political columnists, and Robert Hormats, Ex-Vice Chairman of Goldman Sachs and now top economic voice for the State Department), actually believe there is a chance that the United States might default on its debt. All three said the consequences for international finance would be historic and catastrophic … a dramatic rise in interest rates and a rout in stocks. Friedman called the two party system “a corrupt duopoly,” also saying, “If there ever were time for a third party this is it.” He asked in his session for a show of hands for one of three choices: 1) Liberal Democrats, 2) Conservative Republicans, and 3) Moderate Independents. The count in this predictably liberal audience was 60% Independents, not at all what one might expect.

Now I would like to go to direct quotes taken either from my notes or from the Aspen newspapers. Let’s start with Tom Friedman, who gave us a preview of a new book coming out September 5. His title: That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back.


Tom Friedman 

“The first decade of the 21st century was the worst in American history … the biggest national security threat now is the health, vitality, and vigor of America. The American dream is now in play.” Friedman argued that the U.S. has become complacent and needs a “shock to the system” – we need a third party to emerge and provide a sane centrist balance between the increasingly polarized views of the Republicans and Democrats. … We have lost the ability to act collectively.”

“America is falling behind on many fronts. We are the tent pole that holds up the world. The big mistake of the last decade since 9/11 is that we have been chasing the losers (Al Qaeda) not the winners. American workers are falling behind the workforces of several other countries because of a flawed U.S. education system. The whole global curve is moving up. Being average doesn’t cut it anymore, every day there is a little more above average talent anywhere in the world or above average software or above average robotics. This is a really dangerous market right now. Everyone is going to have to ‘find your extra’ in order to compete.”

I have quoted Tom Friedman at length because his views were mirrored in the words of so many other speakers. Walter Isaacson, CEO of the Aspen Institute and former chief of Time Magazine and CNN, described Friedman as the clearest thinker in the USA today … “He reports common sense.” And now on to some others:

Alan Greenspan

The longtime Federal Reserve Chairman was also interviewed by Isaacson, Greenspan blames government intervention for the national debt and made a case for the federal government to stop interfering and do nothing. “People say do something! And the government does and makes it worse. There is no painless solution.” The former Fed Chief believes everyone should be taxed, including those in lower brackets. “I think it is a mistake to deal with taxes only above $250,000. I think it is stoking class warfare.” Greenspan then quoted American Economist, Arthur Burnes, saying that the public will rue the day when a large sector of the population doesn’t pay income taxes and they don’t have a vested interest in keeping them low.

Michael Sandel, A way-left-of-center professor of Government at Harvard:

“Young people today do want to do good but not through politics. They don’t see the political system as a way to achieve the common good. We need to reconnect ideals and the public spirit with political governance.”


Arianna Huffington, Columnist, blogger, and author of thirteen books. 

“We have long had faith that our children will be better off than we are. That promise has been broken; we have betrayed the American Dream. I would say that the American Dream has become a game of chance.” There are 400 million more people around the world able to do the middle class jobs that used to be ours.


Time Magazine / Aspen Institute Poll 

This is a preview of a 2,000 person poll soon to be released in print. The summary is: The historic spirit of optimism, perhaps America’s greatest asset, is fading. My notes:

  • 9/11 shifted the arc of American History.
  • 2/3 of Americans believe America is in decline.
  • We’re in the most sustained period of pessimism since WWII.  We’re at a tipping point toward a more European view from extreme optimism to, not so much pessimism, but to realism and maturity.
  • We have the risk of a self-fulfilling prophecy if we lose our native optimism. This period is not going to be easy or quick to reverse. The reality has to change the perception. We can’t talk our way out of this.
  • The good news is 71% of the major threats are internal not external, things we can control if we will – the deficit, debt, the economy, education.  Our future is in our own hands. “There’s nothing wrong with America that can’t be fixed by what’s right with America.”


Next Chapter 

This chapter has been unmitigated grim news. Believe it or not there was another track, titled “Happiness.” I dipped into that subject for relief from the grim forebodings. There was some good stuff there too: David Brooks’ “The Modesty Manifesto” was one of the best messages I have ever heard.  And Robert Putnam, the author of Bowling Alone, has completely reversed his ground with a new study of the role of religion in the United States.


Stay tuned and let me know what you are seeing out your window.

Cheers from Aspen. Mornings 50 degrees / afternoons 75-85 degrees.

My recommendation: Go see my favorite summer movie – Midnight in Paris, with Owen Wilson. You’ll feel better.



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