The impressive growth of the Internet, and its inspired use, has made this possible for practically anyone. And you don't have to sit through the increasing number of stuffy lectures available online from reputable universities. Just visit the website of the Khan Academy to see the amazing range of accessible content. To succeed in the world of today and tomorrow, the average citizen also needs to have a broader global perspective, a better understanding of different cultures, and deeper intellectual curiosity about how best to reconcile different perspectives. Again, the Internet is a great help here, and one that can provide a foundation for many that are currently excluded.
Higher productivity and better growth prospects are absolutely necessary for improving the economic outlook. But they are unlikely to be sufficient. Improved financial literacy will also be essential if the next generation is to manage the consequences of the enormous debt they are inheriting. School curriculums have a lot of catch up on here, starting with offering better asset-liability education and more emphasis on how to navigate the confusing financial landscape faced by consumers.
Finally, there is the issue of social awareness. It is depressing to see the extent to which popular narratives have been distorted and oversimplified. The rich and privileged need to stop hiding behind the façade of the American dream. A little bit of hard work is clearly not enough for every citizen to escape poverty. At the same time, however, less well-off segments of society should be careful about placing all the blame on "the system" for being rigged against them. Both views are harmful exaggerations, and both ignore the reality of how interconnected American society is.
But what of our collective future? Individual efforts to enhance human capital will pay big dividends if politicians pivot toward more collaborative behavior. Shared responsibility must become a defined norm, along with shared sacrifice, and fair burden sharing -- no small task for politicians motivated by short election cycles.
Many will tell you that the required course correction contravenes some basic notion of atomization that has served the country extremely well throughout its history. Others will add that it's simply too hard to modify the American selfish gene syndrome that, guided by Adam Smith's "invisible hand," has delivered superior outcomes.
I am not so sure. And there is reason for you to be equally skeptical.
Recent unthinkables like Congress's handling of the fiscal cliff should not be treated as noise with little information content. Rather, they should be thought of as a signal that the system is struggling to accommodate some pretty meaningful shifts in the underlying parameters of economic and financial interaction. By better understanding the forces in play -- through clear-headed and less dogmatic discussions of the pros and cons of alternative scenarios -- we can go a long way in taking better control of our destiny and overcoming what is a debilitating sense of anxiety and helplessness.
Call me naïve, but I believe that we can overcome this issue through better information sharing and clearer advocacy. And in saying this, I draw courage from what happened in my home state on November 6: Californians came together and voted for a higher tax rate in order to provide more funds for education.
As he starts his second term, President Barack Obama has an important opportunity to convert into positive energy the nation's high level of anxiety about its economic and financial outlook. Let us hope that the political parties can help him by overcoming their pettiness and, thus, enable the nation's broad-based aspiration for a much better future. If not, our collective anxiety will continue to rise and the payoffs from inspired individualism will fall far short of what is possible, desirable and, indeed, necessary.