What We Learned from the Oughties – We Need Help

There were countless lessons learned from the first decade of the 2000’s: countries don’t like it when you invade them, bubbles always burst, and nothing is impossible. One takeaway comes in above all the rest though, while it also encompasses each of the aforementioned: we need help. Individually, our families, communities, corporations, governments – we all need help, and this is the major learning from the oughts.

Take, for example, that first big lesson: sovereign nations don’t like being invaded. When it’s framed in this way, this seems like a big “duh” moment. On the other hand, questionable intelligence and selective use of it can lead even the most brilliant foreign policy analysts into the morass of “liberation” ideology. Although the arguments for and against the wars, particularly in Iraq, are complex and have certainly been run through for years, a little help would have gone a long way in avoiding this monumental mistake.

President Bush led the country into this foolhardy war, I think , because he was fooled. Or maybe he was misled–in any case, he had bad information which led him to make a bad decision. How did this happen? He wouldn’t take any help. Rummy and Dick had a plan in mind, and despite the expertise advice of Colin Powell and others, the U.S. invaded Iraq, killing millions and spending billions. This was a big mistake, one of many, but it could’ve been avoided or at least lessened if he had listened to others, sought further counsel, and accepted the help he so desperately needed to run the country.

Even in the Obama era, even at the state level, governments need a lot of help. The financial troubles of the federal treasury are well-known; states have similar concerns about ballooning deficits and giant debts. States have been begging the feds for additional funding, municipalities are asking states for more, but the pot isn’t getting any bigger. Current policies are inadequate to address this giant set of interconnected problems, but the inertia of inaction is too strong. Governments at every level need help!

It goes beyond government, although this one’s related, too. Companies obviously need help; in the oughties, we called this a bailout. In the future, this help should take the form of government regulation. If the feds increase the stringency of regulation, corporations won’t be able to manipulate consumers, abuse customers and generally rip people off with impunity. These are bad things that currently we allow companies to get away with. We shouldn’t. Frankly, regulation helps companies, too. This is the help they need.

And individuals have realized that they need help, too. More people are in therapy of all variety, and there’s an increasing drive to look outside of our everyday lives to address issues that people have. At the family level too, we’ve begun asking others to help, and this is so important. There isn’t anything wrong with going to therapy, getting mediation for a messy divorce, or asking a consultant to help figure out how to solve a complicated problem. More centrally, we must not be afraid of working together to address the vast problems facing each of us, our families, companies, states and country.

The answer is collaboration and leaning on each other. Few of us can solve big problems by ourselves, but by working together with one another, we can add our capacity together to reach unforeseen heights. This is what makes democracy so valuable. Vibrant democratic societies succeed not only because of the opportunity all citizens have to influence public policy, they succeed when and because the quality of policy and solutions is better when broader perspectives have input. Diverse participants in a conversation lend both breadth and depth.

I hope we will see this in Tunisia and Egypt very soon. The people are desperate for self-rule, for democracy, and it looks like they will get their chance. If true democracies and strong civil societies develop, the future in both countries and across the region will be bright. But a broad cross-section of society must participate in order for the state to function at a high level.

Molding good democratic citizens is what education is all about. Recognizing our weaknesses–and our strengths–allows us to grow and reach new heights. When students learn that it’s ok to ask for help, it’s ok to be wrong, this is an incredibly powerful learning experience. Some schools of thought on teaching suggest that instructors should never admit not knowing or being wrong–I think the opposite is true. Students learn and grow more genuinely through learning with their teacher, not being instructed directly by him or her. These rich experiences are too often absent from classrooms and boardrooms alike, all because we are afraid of being wrong and asking for help.

We learned from the oughties that we–the largest conception of we–are in need of lots of help. Let’s not hesitate to go out and get it.


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