Time to Work the Pivot Points

07/02/2012 05:53 pm ET | Updated Sep 01, 2012

2012 is a pivotal time for the United States. The decisions we make and the actions we take in this election year and in the remainder of this decade will determine the future of America and the American dream.

Some might want to call this a tipping point, a turning point or a talking point. We strongly prefer the term "pivot point." Let us explain why.

In science, a tipping point is the "point in which a system is displaced from a state of stable equilibrium into a different state." A turning point can be defined as "an event marking a unique or important historical change of course on which historical developments depend." A talking point is a "succinct statement designed to support one side taken on an issue."

Tipping and turning points refer to a moment when something changes. Talking points, especially in the political sense, are used primarily for propaganda purposes and to make the same argument over and over again, to ensure that nothing changes.

The United States is definitely at a tipping point. We have moved from a state of relatively stable equilibrium to one of uncertainty and instability. We are also at a turning point, of somewhat indeterminate length, that has been marked by the "great recession" and a sluggish and erratic recovery. But most importantly we are at a critical pivot point.

We define pivot point as: an area that can be leveraged and addressed in order to effectuate change and achieve outcomes or results. The manner in which pivot points are handled:

  • defines the character and shapes the destiny of a nation and its people
  • establishes the rules of the game and influences the attitude of the public
  • creates an upward or downward trajectory and accelerates or decelerates forward movement and progress.

To understand the significance of what is done at a pivot point let's look at two examples -- one from early in the country's history, the other from last year.

In 1787, when the delegates to the Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia, the United States and many of the individual states were essentially bankrupt. The Articles of Confederation which had been adapted in 1777 created an extremely weak form of federal government and gave Congress virtually no power to regulate domestic affairs and absolutely no power to tax or regulate commerce.

The delegates were presented with two competing plans to improve the Articles. The Virginia Plan called for a strong national government and a new Congress. The New Jersey Plan kept federal powers quite limited and slightly enlarged the role of the Continental Congress. Over the course of three months, the delegates worked out a series of compromises that resulted in the adoption of a Constitution that provided the solid framework for America's growth and development and has stood the test of time

Compromise and the reconciliation of competing plans were central to forging a Constitution that created a stronger national and federal government. If this had not have been possible, the most likely alternative would have been a "tweaking" of the "confederation model." This would have strained an already financially strapped nation and most likely would have led to the end of the Republic, survival of a few of the strongest states, and different results in the War of 1812.

The Constitutional Convention represents compromise at the pivot point with extremely positive outcomes. In contrast, the debt ceiling debate of 2011 represents conflict at the pivot point with highly negative outcomes.

The debate ended on Aug. 2 with an Act that extended the ceiling to 2013 and calling for spending cuts of $2.4 trillion to be made by a Super Committee. Without going into the gory details, the Super Committee failed in its assigned task and on Nov. 21 released a statement saying, "We have come to the conclusion today that it will not be possible to make any bipartisan agreement available to the public before the Committee's deadline."

This failure and inability to act was damaging in itself. Even more damaging was the impact that the debate's histrionics had on the psyche of the American public and the already tarnished reputation of our elected officials.

The Pew Research Center did a national survey in late July right before the debt ceiling legislation was signed. The survey found that, in general the nation's citizens were distraught and distressed by the spectacle that had been the debate characterizing it as "ridiculous, disgusting, stupid and childish." These responses cut across party lines.

These two cases illustrate the importance of pivot points. Pivot points matter in terms of policies, programs and perceptions. Pivot points can be major, moderate, or minor in nature.

How we manage the major pivot points will determine the country's future success and that of our citizens. In our opinion, the major pivot point areas for the United States going forward include:

  • The deficit and debt crisis
  • Revenue deficits
  • Congressional dysfunction
  • Citizenship dysfunction
  • Individual economic well being
  • The deepening divide between old versus young
  • Global competition
  • Manufacturing
  • Entrepreneurs and small businesses
  • Immigration
  • Education
  • Innovation

Each of these pivot points needs to be "worked" in order to turn things around. We need citizens and leader from all sectors to commit to working together to create shared solutions in these areas and then to collaborate in advocating for and implementing them.

Near the end of our book Renewing the American Dream: A Citizen's Guide for Restoring Our Competitive Advantage, we observed, "The real work starts when the words stop." Let us modify that a little bit here.

Only one letter separates word from work. Words, ideas, thoughts can become the basis for work. By concentrating on and working the pivot points, we can translate concepts into action and get America working again. Let's get to work!