Private & Public Abundance: The Fuel Behind the United States’ 20th-Century Rise

I just returned from a (smooth and perfect) two-weeks cross country trip through Panama, my home country.

The trip had multiple purposes including reconnecting with parts of the country I had not visited in over 15 years. But, an unexpected result from this much planned journey came from an unlikely source.

While driving to the airport the day of our departure for Panama, I read James Fallows’ article in The Atlantic How America Can Rise Again, which I highly recommend any U.S. citizen to read.

Fallows’ article gives us historical reasons why “not to worry” about “Falling Behind” and raises critical points, questions and ideas about what we should be really worrying about when it comes to U.S. biggest problem:

We lead in many categories the private economy can handle by itself. <strong>But where you need any public-private coordination, we’ve become handicapped. Robert Atkinson, Information Technology and Innovation Foundation

During the entire two-weeks trip through Panama, and while seeing how incredibly fast this small country has progressed in so many areas, Fallows’ points about U.S. decaying infrastructures, broken system and what’s to be done about them kept gaining strength.

My fascination with collaboration between public and private sectors was born when I first came to the U.S. as a teenager and quickly recognized that the root of the U.S. success was the tacit (e.g. incredibly road infrastructure) and explicit (e.g. government funded technical innovations) partnerships between the public and private sectors.

I have now been in the U.S. for over 20 years, studying, working and volunteering with all sorts of corporations, non-profits and government programs. I’m sadden by the fact that the roads are no longer impressive, but are old and broken, and that public funding of technical innovations, where the risks are too high for companies to absorb, aren’t being supported.

One of the most important point Fallows makes, which I believe anyone who has grown under dictatorships or in underdeveloped countries can quickly relate to is:

I have seen enough of the world outside America to be sure that eventually a collapsing public life brings the private sector down with it.

The important point here is how we define and live a “public life.” I believe it should be defined in terms of social responsibility and balance between the socio-economic and political forces that build an economically driven system.

I wish to believe that one doesn’t have to visit other countries and experience other cultures to recognize that not only balance between these forces should exist, but that these forces themselves should exist (reducing either government, non-profit, or for-profit segments while increasing the others is a guarantee to eventual collapse as history demonstrates over and over.)

It is difficult to completely discount Fallows’ detailed explanation of what is the biggest problem we face in the U.S.

Even if one is not fully educated on how many markets were created by research and innovation originally conducted with public funding (the Internet, genome, GPS…) it is hard to argue against Fallows’ point that without government’s programs that established the Internet before it’s founders were even born, Google wouldn’t exist today. A private company, whose self-centered interests are measured on quarterly results, couldn’t have created a public platform such as the Internet.

As I mentioned in previous posts, I have been researching collaborative initiatives to narrow down those where the three segments (government, for-profits and non-profits) come together to solve social challenges. I continue to find what it seems a never ending lists of collaborative initiatives, but they are mostly unilateral efforts, often to gain profits or power of some sort. The more I learn, the more I find that the wedge between the public and private sectors is expanding, even though social software and technology adoption keeps increasing amongst and between them.

I’m afraid in my little world of evaluating these different efforts I share Atkinson’s worry”

I worry that our companies can adapt, but our system can’t.

What is this all about?
The Collaborative Society Directory’s goal is to collect and understand information from different collaborative projects that bring together as participants entities from the three forces that shape our societies: public, private and non-profit. The goal of The Collaborative Society is to explore if such information can provide us with insights of what could be the characteristics that make a society or a community healthy.

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subroto mukerji

There is no question that America can rise again. The only question is how and when? In fact America is going through a bit of a change right now and its happening under our noses. In Tennessee, the first tea party was taking place. This is a significant occasion simply because it is an attempt by the people to wrest control from a government that they believe is bloated and unresponsive. This is one of the few places in the world that this routinely occurs.

As to the public private collaboration of government to enhance jobs or grow a specific sector, I am very doubtful that it can work. While it is true that the Internet was created by DARPA, there was a very concerted effort to leave the Internet alone by not taxing it or having some sort of central control. There was no policy making board making rules and regulations. The Internet developed because companies were free to experiment and make lots of mistakes. Only the efficient survived. For every Google and Microsoft there are hundreds of company that fell by the wayside that contributed to the success of Google and Microsoft. This is something that government is not capable of mandating and neither should it.

This is a lesson that other countries never seem to understand. In my country India, there has been tremendous growth but there still remains a significant part of the population that remains essentially untouched by the wealth. Similarly so in China, there is tremendous growth but it is government mandated growth and somewhere along the line the debt incurred for that growth will catch up with them.

The function of government still remains what the founders said: establish justice, insure general tranquility and provide for the common defense. And that should be the role of government: enforce the laws, provide the infrastructure and fight the wars. And that’s really hard to do because its sets limits on government.