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What makes a sea change, and are we there?
In many sectors, experts say we're at a point of dramatic departure from what we've known till now. How did we get here?
Tides are turning in many ways, we are told. Did we do this, and are we prepared? (Photo by Silas Baisch on Unsplash)
Right around Christmastime, a prominent investor caused a stir in the business media when he declared that the climate for investors, which has been pretty rosy for years, was headed for a “sea change.”1 Then, a couple of days later, an economic policy expert suggested that President Biden’s emerging policy toward China represented a “sea change,”2 and right around then came a raft of news coverage of the “sea change” facing higher education in America.3
These are turbulent times, surely. But are we actually at an inflection point that will yield dramatic change in so many realms? Or is it just our human tendency to egotism that’s responsible for the sense that these times are different from what has gone before?
Seas do change quite regularly, of course. To be precise, there are two high tides and two low tides every 24 hours and 50 minutes on ocean coasts, owing mainly to the gravitational forces exerted by the moon. That kind of change, though, isn’t what people are talking about when they use the term. Nor is it only in financial markets, international economic relations and higher education that big change seems to be at hand: it’s coming from almost every direction, we’re being told, and more quickly than we have imagined, involving everything from housing to communication to interpersonal transactions.
Actually, the most potent phrasing of the turning point at which we may find ourselves came, surprisingly, from Olaf Scholz, the low-key German chancellor, who is not known for rhetorical flourish. (“He doesn’t know how to express himself or show emotion,” the German broadcaster Deutsche Welle declared flatly as Scholz campaigned for his job in 2021.) In an article in Foreign Affairs this month, Scholz wrote, “The world is facing a Zeitenwende, an epochal tectonic shift.” He went on to argue persuasively that we’re at “the end of an era” of relative peace and prosperity that has prevailed for the past three decades.4
Zeitenwende! Imagine: We’re living at the close of an epoch — that is, a distinctive period in history — with such big change at hand, at least geopolitically, that it’s like the earth shifting beneath our feet. Maybe we should, you know, pay attention?
We could be forgiven for failing to notice when somebody predicts change. Anybody who follows political campaigns in America knows that what candidates most dependably promise and most routinely fail to deliver is, yes, change. Voters claim to want it, prompting even the most vanilla of would-be officeholders to pose as fiery agents of a new direction. But if it were truly popular, change wouldn’t be so hard to come by. Powerful institutions — corporations and banks, trade associations, governments — naturally resist departures from a status quo that has bestowed their power. As for ordinary folks, most of us really would prefer that we be allowed to get by and get along, without disruption to what’s familiar to us.
When it happens, then, change tends to kind of sneak up on us, disguised as reactions to discrete events, arriving only incrementally and at the margins of the way things are. To carry on that analogy of the sea, it’s more like the tide rising and falling than a huge wave crashing on our shore.
Take our financial well-being, for example. The middle class, which for more than a century was the comfort zone of most Americans, didn’t shrink overnight, but rather declined steadily over a half-century. The share of total household income held by the middle class dropped from 62 percent in 1970 to 42 percent by 2020, with most of that middle class money being diverted to the upper class.5
It was a series of decisions, year by year — by politicians elected by individual voters in one election after another — that shifted that wealth upward. The impact on American communities has been enormous — yes, a sea change, you may say — but it didn’t sweep over our neighborhoods like a tidal wave; it rather lapped up on our shores, inch by inch, so that we hardly noticed it at the time.
That’s what makes the current predictions of sweeping transformation so notable: they come with the suggestion that they’re breaking upon us abruptly. And they come at a time of global peril as a result of diverse forces: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, China’s economic distress, inflation shockwaves, polarized politics threatening to paralyze American democracy and disasters caused by climate change — altogether, creating what Ian Bremmer, the head of the research and consulting firm Eurasia Group, describes as the most risky situation the globe has faced in a quarter century.6
To be sure, some of the risk factors that present the prospect for change are the result of big, singular events. Covid-19 disrupted the world economy, with ramifications we will feel for years to come. And the relative geopolitical stability of the world since the end of the Cold War was unsettled abruptly by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a display of revanchist imperialism that many of us wrongly thought civilization had moved beyond.
Mostly, though, that’s not how big change happens. Instead, it comes through the accumulation of decisions and actions day by day, or even hour by hour. And it is those little decisions that finally emerge as the truly significant factors in our lives, both individually and globally, as they add up.
Look at Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine through that lens, then. It came. many analysts say, only after Putin calculated that the West wouldn’t stick together to oppose him, a conclusion he might reasonably have made because Donald Trump threatened to blow up the NATO alliance — which nobody would have noticed if Trump hadn’t become president of the United States, an event that was itself utterly unimaginable but for years of alienation of a large segment of Americans due in no small part to that previously noted middle class stagnation and (not to be overlooked) cynical messaging from well-financed right-wing political elites and their media enablers.
What if Hillary Clinton had never uttered the phrase “basket of deplorables” in 2016, thus perhaps denigrating enough voters to have swung the winning electoral votes into Trump’s column? Or what if Barack Obama had paid more attention during his presidency to economic redevelopment in the Rust Belt? Would Trump have been in a position inspire Putin’s delusion that the world-shaking invasion of 2022 would be a cakewalk?
“What-ifs” are appealing but ultimately useless, of course. Yet the exercise in this case reminds us of how big changes typically occur: as the culmination of so many lesser events. Which is why the decisions we make daily matter so much.
And speaking of a sea change, we might want to consider that literally. You cannot turn the tides, of course, but decades of indifference to the relentless march of global warming — caused by countless daily human decisions without any corresponding political will to change — have led to rising and warming seas, which are blamed for superstorms in all seasons, even as climate change has brought devastating drought to the Horn of Africa and China, plant and animal extinctions in varied ecosystems, and the prospect of famine and political unrest in the global south.7 The seas are indeed changing, as is the rest of the world, but like most change, it is coming as a result of countless decisions made by millions of us — year by year, day by day, hour by hour.
That term, “sea change,” by the way, is one of the many gifts to the English language from William Shakespeare, along with phrases like “naked truth” and “one fell swoop” and “give the devil his due,” which are now commonplace. But clever words aside, the stage of Stratford-on-Avon four centuries back yielded many useful lessons. Shakespeare gave the character Portia a line in Merchant of Venice that’s worthy of considering here: “How far that little candle throws his beams!” she remarks.
If, in. fact, there are sea changes about to sweep over us, it is useful to consider that they tend to arise more from the tiny currents we set in motion than from powers abruptly directed our way. Or, as Shakespeare had it, “It is not in the stars to hold our destiny, but in ourselves.”8
Although that phrasing is typically rendered thus, the line Shakespeare gave to Cassius in Julius Caesar actually is written, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars / But in ourselves, that we are underlings.” (Julius Caesar, Act I, Scene III, L. 140-141).
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NEWSCLIPS FROM THE UPSTATES
Dispatches from our common ground *
Wherein each week we look around what we call the nation’s Upstates — those places just a bit removed from the center of things — to find illuminating news and intriguing viewpoints, which you might not otherwise see.
This week, we share reporting published here:
Tuscaloosa, Ala. (Tuscaloosa News, tuscaloosanews.com)
Great Falls, Mont. (Great Falls Tribune, greatfallstribune.com)
Hoosier National Forest, Ind. (Indianapolis Star, indystar.com)
Burlington County, N.J. (Burlington County, N.J., northjersey.com)
NOTE: The complete “Newsclips from the Upstates” section is available only to paid subscribers. Thanks for your support!
A (fiscal advice) desert blooms in parts of America
Here’s career advice for financial planners: Go South and West. Researchers at the University of Georgia have completed research into areas where citizens have little access to financial advisors and retirement planners — so-called financial advice deserts — and found 10 states, including Alabama, that have “startlingly low” numbers of both. That’s according to reporting by Hadley Hutson in Gannett’s Alabama newspapers. The study found that people in those states are less likely to save and thus less likely to be able to retire. Of the 10 states, five are in the South and five in the West.
Unprecedented demand reported for food and housing
Unexpectedly, the easing of the Covid-19 pandemic has not reduced the demands on Montana services for those most in need, reports David Murray in the Great Falls Tribune. In fact, the situation has worsened for people most in need, Murray reports, as a result of rising prices, a continuing housing shortage and a decline in charitable giving. The Great Falls. Community Food Bank, for example, has seen demand for food jump by 70 percent over the past nine months, while contributions to its winter campaign are down by about one-quarter. In some cases, churches are stepping in to help. “We believe that the greatest Commandment is that we love one another with genuine gospel hospitality,” said Carrie Parker, who coordinates a feeding program serving 1,000 families a week through the First English Lutheran Church of Great Falls. “That means no judgment. That means no conditions. That means everyone is equal and everyone has a right to have their basic needs met. That’s why we keep showing up.”
Plan to harvest and burn forest provokes controversy
The U.S. Forest Service envisions a years-long program aimed at restoring the resiliency of a section of the Hoosier National Forest — which would require harvesting trees on about 4,300 acres and controlled burns on another 13,500 acres in southern Indiana. But as Karl Schneider reports for the Indianapolis Star, the plan has upset citizen groups and divided environmentalists. The Indiana Forest Alliance says the plan would affect water quality in Lake Monroe — which is already challenged by farm and housing runoff. But the Nature Conservancy of Indiana and other environmental groups note that without such forest management, there will likely be a decline in the oak-hickory ecosystem and in biodiversity across the landscape. The USFS plans to move ahead with the plan, Schneider reports.
Teaching how to discern truth in New Jersey
New Jersey’s governor has signed a new law that requires schools in the state to teach a curriculum based on media and information literacy, according to coverage in the Burlington County Times by Mary Ann Koruth. It took six years of lobbying by groups including the state library association, but now kids will get age-appropriate instruction (probably starting in middle school) in how to tell what is true or false in an era of an abundance of misinformation. Koruth writes, “The new law will teach the differences among facts, points of view and opinions, the economic, legal and social issues surrounding the use of information, and the ethical production of information.” Hearings and curriculum design will get under way soon.
When nobody pays attention to the shouting
It has been both fun and horrifying to watch the unfolding story of George Santos, The Young Fraudster Congressman. You like the idea of a smug right-wingnut liar getting his comeuppance — renew thy judgment again and again, O Lord! — but you cannot help but be distressed by what this says about both our political ecosystem and our journalistic institutions.
The Democrats of Long Island’s North Shore were guilty of felonious political malpractice, to be sure: How could so many fabrication in Santos’ published biography and on his financial records have been overlooked and not brought to voters’ attention? But I’m a journalist, and as a young reporter, I covered a long-ago congressional race on that turf, New York’s 3rd District, which Santos now represents (though its contours aren’t the same). So I feel a bit personally touched by the journalistic missteps in not trumpeting this story, and that’s what makes me especially sad.
My experience gives me no insight into that district today, nor into the newsrooms that cover it, but I do understand the horror and embarrassment that Long Island reporters must feel now at having not picked up the story. The crux of the Santos scandal was, after all, published long before the election in the tiny North Shore Leader, a community weekly. It’s not uncommon for big newsrooms to pick up the reporting of a small news organization, confirm it, and then build upon it to carry the story forward to a broader audience. (That’s a big piece of the model for “60 Minutes” on CBS, you know.) In an editorial, The Leader concluded that Santos was “so bizarre, unprincipled and sketchy” that it couldn’t endorse him (though it prefers to back Republicans) because “he’s most likely just a fabulist — a fake.” Reading that, wouldn’t you want to follow up for more information?
But there are far fewer reporters at work these days than there were four decades back, when I was let loose on Long Island’s cluttered roadways, and the audience for their work is both smaller and more cynical. That makes intense election coverage less vital for news organizations than it once was. Who can say that a politician’s integrity matters anymore, after all — you know, after voters elected (and the Republican party backed) a likely congenital liar, potential financial felon and accused rapist as president? When a huge share of the electorate prefers the entertaining distortions of Fox News to the truth, what value attaches to honest journalism?
There’s a lot of great journalism being practiced in America, and the truth-telling of our most ambitious watchdog journalists holds public institutions and officials to account every day. We should be proud of that and pay to sustain it. But as media giants increasingly turn to entertainment and revenue-raising sponsored content — or tailor their content to match the biases and preferences of consumers, to maximize interactions and thus, yes, make more money — democracy is put more at risk. If we can’t trust our government, we won’t support its protection from those who want to tear down its foundation. We need aggressive and independent reporting to keep an eye on that government — and on those who want to influence it — so that we can know what’s worthy of our trust. There are few higher callings than keeping at that crucial task, and there is little much sadder than watching the results of failure in its execution.
Thanks for reading The UPSTATE AMERICAN this week (and special thanks to our paying subscribers!). We’re grateful that you’ve given us your attention as we do what we can to support *our common ground, this great America, from all our Upstates.