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Hitting the “Reset” Button: An Interview with Best-selling Author Kurt Andersen

The following was adapted and condensed from an interview conducted by Florence Stone with Kurt Andersen for an AMA podcast based on Andersen’s book Reset:  How This Crisis Can Restore Our Values and Renew AmericaListen to the podcast.

AMA:  What’s the significance of the book’s title, Reset?
Kurt Andersen:  The book began as an essay I wrote for Time Magazine last winter when we were at the depths of the recession, still in shock from the collapse of Wall Street and all the rest.  As I began to expand it into a book, I became more interested in what’s coming next—not just how we got here, but where we’re going, and what, frankly, are the silver linings in what we’ve just been through.

Having been a close reader of history, especially over the last few years, I realized that moments like this are rare. They present an opportunity for a reset, when we, as individuals, as a society, as organizations, as businesses, as creators of systems, and governments can rethink, reinvent, reform, and reset where we are.  We don’t get shocks to the system of this magnitude very often.  It’s an opportunity that won’t last forever to reset the way we do business.

AMA: Are you suggesting that we can control the future a little bit?
KA:  Well, everyone in the world is capable of change, but especially Americans, I think, have shown ourselves to be capable it. We’re all wise enough at this point to know that we can’t really control anything.  But we can make choices as individuals, as groups, and as a society. Especially at a moment like this when things are in flux, we can make certain end games and end states more likely than others.  And for me, that’s the excitement of this moment.

AMA:  You write that the current economic crisis can be looked at as an opportunity.  How?
KA:  Well, in lots of different ways. Take the automobile industry. It is perhaps not so much an opportunity for the major auto companies in Detroit. For them, it’s about figuring out a new mode of operating that will simply allow them to survive.  But it presents an opportunity for all kinds of small, entrepreneurial startups to create new kinds of cars. I recently spent several months in California and talked with many of the people who are starting small electric car companies who are very excited about their prospects. It’s not that they’re happy about the recession exactly, but they honestly do see the crash of the big three automobile companies as an opportunity for them.

We in the media think that the sky is falling and isn’t it terrible. It’s a painful transitional moment for sure.  But it is also creative destruction.  We’ve talked the talk of creative destruction for 65 years, and now we’re sort of walking the walk. 

AMA: It’s not often I pick up a business book that includes a section about Wile E. Coyote.  Can you elaborate on that?
KA:  I loved the Road Runner cartoons growing up.  And, of course, what do we love most about them?  Not so much the Road Runner, but Wile E. Coyote, the maniacal schemer who is obsessed with beating the Road Runner.  He builds crazy devices and races around at maximum speed. And he always fails. The classic Wile E. Coyote moment is when he inadvertently goes off a cliff, and for a few seconds is suspended in midair until he realizes—uh, oh—and looks down, realizes he’s suspended in air, and falls.

To me, that’s a pretty good metaphor for the last couple of decades; we were kind of racing around crazily. We’d gone over the cliff, but we didn’t admit it. We saw the savings rate dropping to zero.  We saw the the mortgage crisis happening.  We saw all of the economically unsustainable things we were doing and ways we had gone over the end of the cliff.  We had our unsustainable midair moment, and then we finally looked down and we dropped.  Like Wile E. Coyote, who never dies despite all of his crashing and burning, if we play our cards right, America is not about to expire, either.  But unlike Wile E. Coyote, we have the ability to learn a lesson, at least for a while, and to change our course of behavior rather than just crazily careening around and coming to a bad end.

AMA:  Some economists have suggested that we can expect another series of “pedal to the metal madness,” as you put it. Is there any way we can avoid it?

KA:  Well, maybe little by little we’ll figure out a way to avoid it, but I’m not so hopeful.  Most Americans have sort of decided that these bipolar extremes are what we’re all about.  And there are all kinds of historical cultural reasons why that may be so.
While this last era lasted an exceptionally long time—25 years—usually these cycles last 8, 10, maybe 15 years.  So, I think we’re headed back in the other direction.  We will learn our lessons about what just happened.  We will close the barn door after the particular horses and cattle have left.  We will probably learn to regulate credit default swaps better.  We will have learned a lesson about subprime mortgages, perhaps. But there will be some new form of bubble, some new financial innovation we don’t really understand that will get us into trouble, and in 2028 there will probably be another crackup.

AMA:  In the book you cite America’s “amateur spirit” as one of the keys to our renewal. Can you talk about that a bit?
KA:  Ever since I read a great essay about the amateur spirit by the late historian Daniel Boorstin it has become a hobby horse of mine.  It really is a large part of the American spirit.  In fact, it’s almost synonymous with the American spirit.

America is unique in that it was an amateur endeavor.  The original European settlers were amateur columnists and then amateur pioneers. Our democracy was invented not by professional politicians, not by an elite, but by regular people who could judge for themselves how to set up a country and and govern themselves.  So, that’s what I mean by the amateur spirit.

I think this spirit is a large part of what accounts for America’s success.  The Wright Brothers, Steve Jobs and his garage—I mean, the sense that you don’t have to be a certified member of some guild to innovate and to create something great. 

In the last 15 years, even as things have gone a little kerflooey in many ways, we have seen the rise of what is known as the digital revolution. There is the Web itself and tens of thousands of people creating new Web applications, using open source software, making their own videos and their own music—that’s all due to this great renaissance of the amateur spirit, people doing things because they think it’s cool, because they think it’s interesting, because they think it’s useful.

Every so often some of them get rich doing it, too, and that’s fine.  But they are doing it because it interests them. And that is one of our aces in the hole, it seems to me, as a nation.

AMA:  During the last few years there’s been very little risk taking within corporate America, and for obvious reasons.  As we come out of the recession, do you see opportunities for America’s amateur spirit?

KA:  Sometimes when people are put out of jobs—and I talked to a bunch of them for the book—the necessity to figure out what to do next to earn a living and to make themselves happy over the long run causes them to look at what it is they really enjoy doing and try to do that, rather than simply getting a job that will maximize their income.  In the ideal world you want both, but it’s a good idea, I think, to start with that thing which will make you happy.

And as businesses try to figure out how to recreate themselves for the profoundly new conditions in the marketplace, in retailing, in media, and so many areas, playing it safe is in most cases not going to get you there.  Playing it safe is going to be a way to perhaps slow down your ride to oblivion, but it’s not going to be a way to succeed.  And I think individuals understand that. And I think the successful organizations are going to understand that as well.

AMA: Going forward, what do you see happening in the new, new economy?
KA:  The green economy will become even more important. The ways in which we can create ways of generating power and powering our cars that are sustainable over the long run provide a great opportunity for industrial entrepreneurs.  And if we’re smart, we can lead the way in that. 

As companies die—and as terrifying as that can be for people in manufacturing, retailing, media, and all the obviously challenged industries—people don’t stop wanting the things they provided.  They don’t stop wanting means of transportation, music, or good journalism.  So, these areas present opportunities for savvy entrepreneurs to fill the need.  As the old growth trees fall, that provides space and the sun and the sky and the opportunity for new saplings to grow.

And that’s, in the most basic way, what I see as the new, new economy. I don’t see the pendulum swinging to some kind of anti business attitude. The pendulum will both swing in a different direction and in a whole different angle.