The ‘Next America’
Posted December 4, 2018 7:43 p.m. EST
I have this feeling that the 2020 presidential election in the United States will be unlike any in my lifetime, and not only because it will likely involve Donald Trump running as an incumbent — he alone is a one-man, three-ring circus — but also because the huge issue that should have been the focus of the 2016 election will be unavoidable by 2020. That is: How do we govern the “Next America’’?
“You know William Gibson’s line, ‘The future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed’? Well, the future is here, and now it’s starting to really get distributed. This is the Next America. But our institutions and political parties have not adapted to it," Gautam Mukunda, a Harvard Kennedy School Research Fellow and the author of “Indispensable: When Leaders Really Matter,’’ remarked in an interview. By 2020, it will be impossible to ignore the Next America. “The basic premises of how the economy works have shifted under our feet and the government will have to respond.’’
This Next America will raise a whole web of new intertwined policy, legal, moral, ethical and privacy issues because of changes in technology, demographics, the environment and globalization that are reaching critical mass.
Where do I start? A good place is with 5G — fifth-generation wireless systems. With the two telecom giants Verizon and AT&T now beginning to deploy 5G technology across the country, the metabolism of business, entertainment, education and health care will dramatically accelerate in the Next America, beginning around ... 2020.
Getting the most from artificial intelligence and machine learning — like deploying self-driving vehicles — requires quickly transmitting massive amounts of data with very low latency. We will have that capacity in the Next America. With 5G, a Hollywood movie that now takes six or seven minutes to download onto your iPad will take six or seven seconds and microsensors in your shirt will gather intelligence and broadcast vital signs to your doctor.
As AT&T notes in one of its 5G ads, “Think of this as the next frontier in untethering, giving you the ability to take the ultrafast experience you have in your home or business with you virtually anywhere.’’
It could be as revolutionary as the internet. But it will require all kinds of new regulations to govern applications from self-driving cars to drone delivery systems to robots that will work as security guards and home health aides.
An Associated Press report on Monday said that the government estimated there were currently “about 110,000 commercial drones operating in U.S. airspace, and the number is expected to soar to about 450,000 in 2022.’’
All of this new technology will have important implications for the education-to-work pipeline. My friend Heather E. McGowan, a future-of-work strategist, puts it this way: “The old model of work was three life blocks: Get an education. Use that education for 40 years. And then retire. We then made the faulty assumption that the next new model would be: Get an education. Use it for 20 years. Then get retrained. Then use that for 20 more years and then retire.’’
But in fact, in the Next America, argues McGowan, the right model will be “continuous lifelong learning’’ — because when the pace of change is accelerating, “the fastest-growing companies and most resilient workers will be those who learn faster than their competition.”
That means that in addition to our traditional big safety nets — Social Security and Medicare — we will need new national trampolines.
We will need to make some level of postsecondary education free to every American who meets a minimum grade and attendance requirement, so that every adult and every high school graduate can earn an associate degree or technical certificate free of tuition at a community college at any time. Tennessee has already done that.
These same technological transformations mean the Next America will require changes in antitrust policy. Since the 1980s, antitrust policy judged if a company was getting too big largely by one question: Was the loss of competition hurting consumers through higher prices or fewer services?
“But that definition is increasingly irrelevant in an age in which the most powerful companies in the world offer products and services for ‘free’ in exchange for personal data,” Rana Foroohar, the Financial Times technology columnist, noted in a June 24 essay. “This has provoked calls for a return to the definition of monopoly in the 1890 Sherman Antitrust Act, which emphasizes the need to ensure that the economic power of large companies does not result in the corruption of the political process.”
That’s because we are more than consumers, “we’re citizens," notes Mukunda, “We have interests that stretch far beyond consumer pricing, and it’s the job of the government to protect citizens’ liberty, not just consumers’ interests. It says so right in the Constitution, and we’ve forgotten that.’’
Just one person — Mark Zuckerberg — controls Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram. The fact that he has shown himself to be much more interested in scaling his platforms than combating those who abused them for political and economic gain — and that his lieutenants were ready to go after their high-profile critics, like George Soros — should make breaking up or regulating Facebook a front-and-center issue in 2020. But just the raw political weight of behemoths like Facebook, Amazon, Google, Microsoft and Apple needs a closer look.
The Next America is more than technology. It literally will be born in 2020. The U.S. Census Bureau has predicted that by 2020, for the first time, “more than half of the nation’s children are expected to be part of a minority race or ethnic group.” That will begin a process by which by 2044 “no one racial or ethnic group will dominate the U.S. in terms of size,” NPR reported.
Alas, though, the fiscal tools we need to build the Next America have been weakened by Trump’s tax cuts. The federal deficit was not supposed to hit $1 trillion until 2020, but the White House now says it will hit that number in 2019. We’ve had deficits this size in response to the 2008 financial crisis, but we’ve never run one so huge during a boom.
That means the Next America may have to be built in the face of higher interest rates on more debt, with less fiscal ammunition to stimulate the economy should it slow down or face a crisis. So the Next America may very likely have to raise taxes or trim military spending, or Social Security or Medicare — just when all the baby boomers are retiring.
In sum, the Next America requires addressing each of those issues, and many more — from climate change to zoning rules — and how they interact. So the next election must too. The craziness around Trump has delayed much of this discussion. But 2020 won’t let us do that again. The Next America won’t wait.
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