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Transformations: Systemic Challenges & Solutions in 21st Century America

A sun about to either rise or set behind a mountain range.
  • Transformations: Systemic Challenges & Solutions in 21st Century America
November 22, 2017

Transformations: Systemic Challenges & Solutions in 21st Century America

Gus Speth

Gus Speth

Distinguished Next System Fellow more

The United States now confronts a daunting array of challenges in the well-being of our people, in the conduct of our international affairs, and in the management of our planet’s natural assets, at precisely the moment that it has become unimaginable that American politics as we know it will deliver the needed responses. The plainest truth is that conditions of life in America have deteriorated across a broad front and are headed straight to a place we would not want for our children and grandchildren.

When big problems emerge across the entire spectrum of national life, it cannot be for small reasons. We have encompassing problems because of fundamental flaws in our economic and political system. 

In recent decades America failed to build consistently on the foundations laid by the New Deal, by Franklin Roosevelt’s Second Bill of Rights, and by the United Nations’ 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Instead, we unleashed a virulent strain of corporate-consumerist capitalism. This system of political economy—the basic operating system of our society—rewards the pursuit of profit, growth, and power and does little to encourage a concern for people, place, and planet. “Ours is the Ruthless Economy,” wrote Paul Samuelson and William Nordhaus in their famous text Macroeconomics. And indeed it is. 

To deal successfully with all the challenges America now faces, we must therefore complement reform, incrementalism, and working within the system with at least equal efforts aimed at transformative change leading to a new political economy—a new operating system that routinely delivers good results for people and planet at home and around the world.

What then are the American challenges that should trouble us most? Here are ten.

  1. failing democracy and governance
  2. race relations and institutional racism
  3. climate change and the loss of a clean, safe, and beautiful environment
  4. the power of Wall Street banks
  5. the hollowing out of our local communities—the places we live
  6. the plight of the American family and American children and the tough future they face
  7. vast economic insecurity and the concentration of wealth in the 1%
  8. the abuse and power of America’s giant corporations
  9. the dearth of meaningful work at decent wages
  10. working long hours or two jobs to make ends meet or in order to buy, buy, buy, with no time left for the things that really matter

This list of American challenges is certainly not complete.

The Next System Project is pleased to offer a new series of policy-oriented papers that explore the theme that meeting America’s gravest challenges requires systemic change and, relatedly, that many of the measures needed to address our major challenges would themselves be system changing, including what have been called non-reformist reforms. This new series of papers, “Transformations,” will show that, while there are short-term measures that will help in these areas, their best and only lasting resolution will occur by moving to a new system.

I would like to thank each of the authors in this series for their contribution to this important discussion, and also Kathy Courrier and Joni Praded for their invaluable editorial assistance.


Crossing escalators in a shopping mall, with a solitary consumer.

A New Hedonism: A Post-Consumerism Vision

We know we have to consume less. But a real systemic alternative would make this the more attractive option. read more


Two chess pieces, a king and a pawn, atop unequal stacks of coins.

Reversing Inequality: Unleashing the Transformative Potential of an Equitable Economy

The US economy’s deep systemic inequalities of income, wealth, power, and opportunity are part of global inequality trends, but US-style capitalism and public policy make inequalities more acute. What are the systemic interventions needed to deconcentrate wealth and move towards a more equal America? read more