Manifesto for a
Restored America

The United States is living in a time of profound political-economic stress. And we are not alone. That stress reflects the breakdown of the old “neoclassical” industrial system due to the ecological, social and financial disruptions of its over-reaching policies, and the emergence of a new more regenerative one.

An Urgent Call

As the adverse consequences of the industrial era bear down on our economy via disruptive climate change, ecosystem degradation, corrupt oligarchic leadership, a widening gap between rich and poor, extreme debt dependency, social divisiveness and ongoing public health crises, we find ourselves at a breakdown/breakthrough moment.

The path we choose out of this chaotic period will have vast implications for the future, not only for the US, but for humanity and the ecosphere at large.

We desperately need to get onto a path of restoration: Restoration of our hard-won democratic ideals and a governance culture that regenerates the health of our people and Nature without bankrupting our nation.

If such a restoration sounds like an impossible dream, this Manifesto will set the record straight. Although scarcely recognized in US political dialogue, five Nordic countries (Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Norway and Iceland) have taken this alternative path.

Today these are counted as the world’s most democratic, prosperous, socially inclusive and healthy nations – a condition they have achieved with normally balanced budgets and a declining ecological footprint.

Key to the success of these nations are values and political-economic policies that mimic Life in the ways they function – an ideal that’s virtually opposite to the industrial era policies we currently follow. By such means Nordic countries implicitly recognize that people and Nature (living assets) are the primary source of economic value creation rather than non-living capital assets as US policies suppose. Embedded in this approach is the reality that living assets are the source of capital assets and all economic value. This is seconded by a feedback loop where healthy people and planet generate healthy economic conditions and vice versa. 

 

Given the urgency of our fraught political-economic condition today, we have no time to waste. 

Importance of Mental Models

The ways people think and view the world (their “mental models” of reality) have a powerful impact on the results they get. In earlier times as humanity awakened to the reality that the world is round rather than flat, we made incredible advances in knowledge and science. Likewise today, as we awaken to the fact that economies are sub-systems of life, rather than super-systems that transcend life, we gain new insights and strategic advantages.

As often happens during such moments in history, advocates of the older system – particularly those at the center of power – do everything they can to sabotage or discredit the new system. Nevertheless, it’s hard to argue with fact. To US leaders with a vested interest in the status quo, it’s especially hard to admit that some countries are more democratic, prosperous and healthy than we are in America; and that they accomplish this by reversing our methods of thinking and governance.

Reinforcing this emerging paradigm shift in consciousness is a parallel shift in scientific thinking from the older mechanistic model of Newtonian physics to the more inclusive models of quantum, complexity and chaos theories. 

To science historian Thomas Kuhn, who introduced the term “paradigm shift,” the evolution of these new sciences are evidence of a more contextual, nuanced worldview as humanity starts to think beyond the confines of linear, reductive science to the ways we relate to the real living world. As a conceptual model, this approach comes to terms with the increasingly complex relationships among species (including humanity) in our over-crowded, ecologically stressed planet.  

In such a world the US cannot realize its potential by doubling down on failed policies of the recent past. As we plan for the future, we must chart a way forward that recognizes the health of the whole ultimately depends on the health of people and Nature. This is not “socialism”, but a pathway to a revived democratic, regenerative free market system.

A BETTER WAY

There has to be a better way. And in fact there is: One that stands out for its inclusive democratic culture, social mobility, fit for purpose capital markets, resiliency and the world’s highest living standards. The crux of this approach, as earlier mentioned, resides in a simple shift in thinking: from imagining economies as super-systems that transcend life to mutually interdependent sub-systems of life. As a strategy for economic health and human wellbeing, this changes everything.

By imagining people and Nature (“living assets”) as our primary assets, this strategy recognizes a fundamental reality: that these are also the primary source of GDP, profit and everything we value including life itself. As a strategic ideal, this reverses the older industrial paradigm, which places a higher value on non-living capital assets. The danger of this older “neoclassical” approach is precisely the way it subordinates people and Nature to the goals of GDP growth and US global hegemony – a strategy that sabotages the very sources of our economic welfare.

Countries that have led this transformative shift in political-economic thinking are today leaders in global surveys on democracy, social progress, prosperity, per capita GDP and sustainability as indicated in the following table. The US, by contrast, has fallen more and more behind – a reality that can be verified by tracking the history of these surveys.

Even the one area where the US holds a “top ten” ranking (GDP per capita), is corrupted by the huge amount of debt it used to attain that rank. According to a Bloomberg analysis, if GDP rankings were adjusted for debt, the US would be one of the world’s lowest rated industrial economies.6

The high standings of Nordic countries on this table – particularly those of Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Norway and Iceland – reflect their abilities to live in harmony with human and natural life as global conditions change. This adaptive cultural attribute is reinforced by their low sovereign debt ratios as shown on Table Two. By spending less of their GDP to maintain their strength, they have more future options than the heavily debt-leveraged US. Rather than being socialist, this is a pragmatic way forward replete with positive feedback loops.

In reading this table, it should be noted that the foregoing debt ratios reflect credit market debt only. Had they included unfunded liabilities to government pension and healthcare programs, a form of implicit debt, the US ratio of debt/GDP would be considerably worse. Because Nordic countries fully fund such public obligations, their debt ratios are more honest and believable.

This raises the obvious question: Why do Nordic countries lead in these key indicators of national wellbeing while the US falls further behind every year? Moreover, how does the US maintain its high credit rating in view of its continually deteriorating combined debt ratio?

We’ll address the second question first because it’s the easiest to answer. The US retains its high credit rating because it can print “sovereign” money that investors and other countries are willing to accept to cover its liabilities. How long that privileged status will last if our debt-leveraged neoclassical/industrial/hegemonic strategy continues is anyone’s guess.

Nordic leadership in the key economic variables shown in Tables One and Two reflect the coherence of their political-economic strategies. By mimicking life in the ways they organize and manage, they implicitly acknowledge that the wellbeing of people and Nature are their primary economic leverage points.

We find further evidence of this strategy in annual surveys on the strength and sustainability of Nordic banks and publicly owned companies. According to Global Finance Magazine, eight Nordic banks were listed among the world’s fifty safest banks in 2019.7 In addition, fifteen Nordic companies (including the top three) were included in the 2020 rankings of the “Global 100” – a compilation of the world’s most sustainable publicly held companies presented each year by Corporate Knights Magazine at the World Economic Forum.8 These are remarkable achievements for a region that contains less than half of one percent of the world’s population.

The economic strength of the Nordic region is further reflected in their high gross national savings rates. According to the World Bank, Norway led in this metric during 2019 with a huge savings rate of 36%, followed by Sweden and Denmark (29%), Finland (24%) and Iceland (21%).9 It should be noted that the indicated savings rates of Norway, Finland and Iceland are understated due to the existence of their sovereign wealth funds, which were not included in the World Bank’s calculations. By contrast, the US, which reports a gross national savings rate of 19% is grossly overstated due to the size of its unfunded liabilities.

The foregoing comparisons lead to the obvious question: What are the common attributes of economies that mimic life that enable them to perform at such high levels? Broadly speaking, there are six – each of which describes a critical function of life that has enabled Nature to evolve over billions of years from single cell organisms to complex human organizations

The Six Attributes of Political-Economies
That Mimic Life

When considered in an economic context, each of these attributes yields distinct advantages as noted in the following summary. More importantly, when all six are combined in a unified system, they achieve extraordinary synergies such that the whole vastly exceeds the sum of its parts. That, in brief, is the secret of the life-mimicking Nordic Model. By serving the wellbeing of people and planet in integrated, mutually reinforcing ways, it has set a new standard of effectiveness.

Decentralized, Networked Organization

All life is inherently decentralized and networked – from single cell eukaryotic organisms to the human body and large global ecosystems. By being so organized, they can respond quickly to changing conditions. This capacity for adaptation and emergence also extends to human organizations, including corporations and economies. The more decentralized and networked they are, the more effective they become. Economies that mimic life have more distributed decision-making authority than the hierarchical norm of neoclassical/industrial organizations – a quality that enables them to process information more quickly and effectively. This approach to organization comes naturally to Nordic countries due to their open, egalitarian, democratic cultures. Because such collaborative structures generate mutual trust, they nourish life-centered (sustainable) innovation because trust is the utility through which ideas and information flow.

Capacity for Reproduction

Reproduction is a process of passing on important adaptive information, whether by biological (genetic) means or by cultural influence. For human organizations, shared values are an important part of this process. In economies that mimic life, this is done through education supported by value systems that affiliate with life and humanity’s biophilic instincts.10 Such awareness and empathy are integrated into the Nordic philosophy of education, which values life-long learning and self-development as methods of supporting and partnering with the rest of life on which our survival ultimately depends.11

Frugal Instincts

Nature and its living inhabitants are inherently invested with frugal instincts and behaviors so they do not waste energy and resources in their quests to survive and thrive. When economies operate frugally, they reduce costs, increase efficiency and make space for a diversity of generative new enterprise. Nordic economies advance this low-entropy approach through circular economy methods of recycling and reusing valuable materials and by radically reducing waste. On the strength of their know-how in such practices, they have become global R&D leaders in the fields of industrial ecology, renewable energy, cleantech and bio-innovation – emerging technologies with massive growth potential.

Openness to Feedback

Feedback is an essential part of adaptive learning. This is how species have evolved over billions of years into the complex, interdependent natural world we know today. In human organizations we learn and adapt by openly evaluating our successes and failures – a process that requires continually reviewing our assumptions and procedures. When we do this, as Nordic countries do, we increase our odds of success. Alternatively, when we disregard important feedback (such as climate change), we fail.

Symbiotic Vision

Symbiosis is defined as “an evolved interaction or close living relationship between organisms from different species, usually with benefits to one or both individuals.” Through this process of mutuality, Nature’s wastes and biological surfeit become food for diverse species, enabling them to multiply and evolve in systemically regenerative ways. By mimicking these processes, Nordic companies have found creative ways to convert biological surfeit and bio-wastes into bio-fuels, bio-chemicals, bio-plastics and bio-pharmaceuticals. These substitutes for fossil fuels and hazardous petrochemicals enable Nordic companies to partner with Nature while providing consumers with safer, healthier products. 

Broad Spectrum Consciousness

Consciousness is an attribute of all life: ranging from single cell organisms, which are endowed with capacities for finding food and reproducing, to humanity’s broad spectrum consciousness. At its highest level, such consciousness includes our growing awareness of earth’s biological limits and our visionary intentions of living in harmony with each other and Nature. With such empathic awareness, we develop strategic insight and a capacity for long-term planning. Nordic countries advance this ideal by investing in the health, education and welfare of all citizens – a strategy that endows them with a capacity for thinking beyond themselves to the wellbeing of the whole ecosystem in which they exist. While this approach has generated high living standards and shared commitments to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), Nordic people are often the first to admit that they still have a lot to learn: that their way of life is a pathway to the future rather than a final destination.

The Life-Mimicking Model as Enlightened Capitalism

There are clear synergies (reinforcing loops) between the Nordic system of universal care and the robust health of their economies. Rather than being a drain on public finance, universal care endows Nordic economies with an abundance of healthy, educated and committed workers. The productivity and systems awareness of those people, in turn, feeds back to the health of the system. Like the human body, the wellbeing of the whole serves the health of its parts and vice versa.

To the renowned systems thinker, Donella Meadows, the advantages of such thinking and planning compared to the older neoclassical/industrial norm reflects the evolution of humanity’s scientific thinking: from the older mechanistic (reductive) Newtonian paradigm to the more inclusive, adaptive modern sciences of relativity, complexity and chaos theory plus the modeling techniques of system dynamics.

“The goal of foreseeing the future exactly and preparing for it perfectly is unrealizable. The idea of making a complex system do just what you want it to do can be achieved only temporarily, at best. We can never fully understand our world, not in the way our reductionistic science has led us to expect. Our science itself, from quantum theory to the mathematics of chaos, leads us into irreducible uncertainty. For any objective other than the most trivial, we can’t optimize; we don’t even know what to optimize … Systems thinking leads to another conclusion – however, waiting, shining, obvious as soon as we stop being blinded by the illusion of control. It says that there is plenty to do, of a different sort of “doing.” The future can’t be predicted, but it can be envisioned and brought lovingly into being. Systems can’t be controlled, but they can be designed and redesigned. We can’t surge forward with certainty into a world of no surprises, but we can expect surprises and learn from them and even profit from them. We can’t impose our will upon a system. We can listen to what the system tells us, and discover how its properties and our values can work together to bring forth something much better than could ever be produced by our will alone.”12

Now that the US elections are over and we enter a phase of strategic policy negotiations, we and our elected representatives at every level have a choice. Whether Democrat, Republican or Independent, we must be aware that there is a democratic, free market alternative to the centralized command-and-control model we’ve been living under for the past half century.

Importantly, progressives of both major political parties appear open to the inclusive methods of the life-mimicking Nordic Model, which are compatible with the core ideals of our country: “One nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” 

The challenge before us is to see how such life-mimicking methods can move us on to this more promising path and thereby restore the lost dynamism of our sacred democracy.

Whereas advocates of the prevailing political-economic system charge that the life-mimicking Nordic Model is anti-capitalist “socialism,” the reverse is true. The humanistic, life-affirming attributes of this emerging paradigm, are in fact the world’s most effective approach to economic development because they continually refresh their democracies and free market systems from within. Based on the evidence contained in this Manifesto, we have much to learn from them.

Schedule One:
Compounding US Debt and Unfunded Liabilities

The US has a debt problem that gets worse each year as the cumulative weight of new borrowing, interest payments and unfunded liabilities compound higher. The following two charts from the US Federal Reserve Economic Data (FRED) repository in St. Louis and the Social Security Administration show how these liabilities have grown over the years.

According to the FRED database, the growth of aggregate US debts (all sectors) began to outrun GDP in the early 1970s – the same time the world’s ecological footprint began to exceed earth’s biological carrying capacity.13 While correlation is not causation, these two events are closely related, reflecting a common belief among neoclassical economists that infinite growth on a finite planet is both feasible and in humanity’s best interests; and that borrowing to make this happen is legitimate.

The US has made this debt problem worse by under-funding promised healthcare and retirement benefits. These “unfunded liabilities” – a form of implicit debt – are not reported as part of the nation’s budgeting process, which keeps them out of sight to the general public. They are, nevertheless, distressingly real.

To understand the scope of this problem, the federal government spends roughly 60% of its budget on such “entitlements.” Because of this, as the second chart shows, the underfunding problem gets worse each year. According to the Social Security Administration, the trust funds for Disability Insurance (DI) and Old Age Security Insurance (OASI, which are funded by employee payroll deductions, are expected to run down by 2024 and 2035 respectively. Employee funded trusts for Medicare and Medicaid are in similar straits.

Fig. 1: Social Security Trust Fund Asset Ratio
(Percent of Annual Benefits)

Source: Social Security Administration

Estimates on the size of federal unfunded liabilities generally top $100 trillion. According to the US debt clock, these presently exceed $150 trillion.14 On top of these deficits, state and local governments have substantial debts and unfunded liabilities of their own.

As the coronavirus adds trillions more to these liabilities, the US and other excessively debt-leveraged countries will have fewer and fewer strategic options – especially compared to Nordic countries, which regularly balance their budgets and fully fund their universal safety net obligations.

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