The Importance of a Community Dreaming Big, and Learning to Save

by Roger Bourke White Jr., copyright March 2013

Dreaming Big

The pyramids, the early Mormon temples in Utah, the Grand Canal in China. These are a few examples of a community dreaming big. Even while most of the community was living in mud huts, the people of these communities came together to produce a marvelous work and a wonder. These community members, rich and poor alike, felt that spending resource on their marvelous work was producing more value than spending that same resource on uplifting the average infrastructure of the community -- things such as better roads, housing and food.


In these cases the importance of unifying the community was recognized. Each of these projects gave community members the opportunity to learn about cooperating with lots of other people, especially strangers. They learned cooperation and tolerance instead of learning "just standing around watching others", or even worse, taking cheap shots at others' projects with activities such as mocking, stealing and vandalism.

This lesson in cooperating with a larger group than family and friends is one each generation must learn. It isn't instinctive, which means it isn't easy to learn. It's not easy, but it's a vital lesson for civilized living.

As vital as it is, its importance is under appreciated more often than not. The community chattering classes, who follow their instincts, pay attention to divisive issues, not those which unify the community behind a big vision. The famous media truism, "If it bleeds it leads." is an example of following instinct, and the result of following this instinct is more divisive thinking in the community. When people of the community aren't picking up the cooperator lesson, the community learns acrimony instead of cooperation, and this is death on trust, which is death on progress.

For this reason having periodic big dreams for a community to pursue is vital to the community bettering itself. If these are not developed and pursued vigorously, the community will decline... sinking into a sea of acrimony, and a status quo which accepts steady decline as part of the local living package. A personal example of seeing this happening was the Midwest Disease that sank Cleveland and Detroit starting in the 1960's. I grew up in Cleveland.

Picking the vision isn't easy

Picking a big vision to follow is vital, but it isn't easy. Kennedy got it right with the Space Race to the moon, Bush Jr. got it wrong with the War on Terror. One surprise turnabout was FDR as World War Two loomed. Through most of the 1930's neither he nor anyone else in America could come up with a good big vision. We had the Great Depression. But when he decided that fighting Fascism in Europe was more important than fighting class warfare in the US, he did an impressive about-face and came up with a hugely successful series of big visions, starting with building the Arsenal of Democracy. After a decade of learning acrimony in the 1930's, Americans learned to cooperate again during the harsh times of World War II in the early 1940's, and were rewarded with fifty years of booming prosperity following it.

For a more recent example of picking first wrong, then right dreams, check out my book Surfing the High Tech Wave. It's about Novell Inc. in the 1980's, first when it got the dream wrong, then got it spectacularly right and became a billion dollar company at the heart of a brand new multi-billion dollar industry.

It isn't easy, but if you get the dream right, and promote it right, some in the community will grumble, but everyone will get on board and love the result. If you get it wrong, a lot of people choose to watch from the sidelines and there's a whole lot more grumbling. And it will be followed with a lot of harsh "I told you so!" when the dream founders.

In sum, communities need a periodic big vision. It teaches people how to cooperate. If people don't learn to cooperate, they learn to be acrimonious. If they learn to be acrimonious the community will support status quo instead of innovation, and slow, steady decline instead of rapid, exciting and disruptive, growth.

Learning to Save: Yes, we need to learn it

This thought was inspired by a video, Wealth Inequality in America, that's been popular on Facebook. It's about the inequality of wealth distribution in the US. The implication of this video, and the various 1%/99% movements that have been popular since the Great Recession started, is that this inequality should be fixed by fixing the 1% in some fashion: They should make less and hand out more.

I thought about this: This solution is easy instinctive thinking. And it's a good intention. ...Wait! Good intention. That's a waving yellow flag for me! It means I need to think more carefully about this...

With some more thinking, I realized there's some fixing of the 99% that needs to happen, too. From the personal experience of watching how people around me live, it's clear that living hand-to-mouth is a learned lifestyle. The implication of this is that no matter how much is taken from the 1% and showered down upon the 99%, there will still be about the same amount of hand-to-mouth living going on as there is now. This will be so... until many people are educated to think differently about savings.

People need to be educated to save. This is a lifestyle lesson that needs to be learned. Saving lots of money is not instinctive thinking for most people. Preaching this lesson harks back to the images of grandma's who grew up in Great Depression era settings haranguing their kids to save more for rainy days.

It should: Again, saving is a lesson that must be taught and learned. It's not instinctive thinking for many people.

But it can be learned, and it's not too hard to do so. From what I learned while living in Korea, the East Asian cultures have a tradition of putting about 30% of their income into savings.

So, if we want to fix wealth inequality in America, we need to be fixing the 99% as much as we need to be fixing the 1%. The 99% need to be learning lifestyles with more savings built into them, a lot more.

Update: Gary Shapiro in this 6 Mar 13 Forbes article, The Federal Budget: Promises to Ourselves We Shouldn't Keep, brings up an important point of view on this learning to save issue: if we don't learn to save, we are stealing from our children and grandchildren because they will have to pay back what we borrow to entitle ourselves today.


-- The End --