It’s a whole new world since last year’s Aspen Ideas Fest. This year’s conference focused on what those changes could mean for us long-term, both good and bad. Aspen Ideas Fest is where some of the top minds of the world come together to discuss current political, economic, scientific and cultural issues. The conference usually attracts political, business and science leaders. This year, the conversation seemed a bit stalled in the face of a fast-changing geopolitical climate. Russia, the United States, the UK and rise of populism have left many at the event unsure of what is next.
One thing I noticed this year was that there were no Supreme Court Justices in attendance as far as I know. Usually, we have at least two or three there talking about the judicial system. This is the first year that I’ve noticed none of them came or they weren’t prominent in the agenda if they did come. Is that coincidence or a sign of something else? I’m not sure, honestly.
As you can imagine, the focus of the conference was about the drastic turn the United States has taken with our new “America First” stance. How that impacts global politics, economics and our influence abroad was a major topic of discussion. One of my favorite panels talked about the US defense and military under Trump’s command. Panelists included military leaders like General David Patreaus, Professor Peter Feaver of Duke University, Julia Ioff of the Atlantic and David Rothkopf of the Rothkopf Group. The consensus was that Trump has taken a hands-off approach to the military and let the leaders make the decisions and do their jobs. That’s probably comforting in many ways, but not in others. However, Trump not micro-managing the military probably means we’re not in as much danger as some may believe.
Another topic that permeated the conference was the disappearance of the middle class. Wealth has migrated mostly to the coasts, leaving middle America in turmoil. The 2016 election reflected the disconnect in America’s heartland. Steve Case, author and former CEO of AOL, talked about how we’ve lost the middle class in America and it’s going to be very hard to get it back. Regaining the middle class will mean retraining them, new educational methods, investments in middle America businesses and infrastruture. And not just once, but repeatedly every five to ten years. As computers, robots and artificial intelligence continue to usurp jobs, we will have to constantly retrain and reskill the workforce. Currently, there are plenty of jobs that are going unfilled. That’s mostly because we don’t have the skilled workers to do those jobs. We need to retrain people, much like I talked about in my previous blog post about my trip to the Kentucky coal mining region.
Climate change continues to be a topic of concern with a new sense of urgency given America’s departure from the Paris Accord. How we continue to combat climate change in the face of deniers in power sparked discussions about strategies to combat an almost pro-pollution stance from many in power. From innovations in clean energy and clean water solutions to how states are stepping up on climate change initiatives in the absence of the federal government, various leaders presented potential solutions. Making America great and isolated lead many to conclude that China will take the lead on climate issues and may emerge as the moral power on climate after a rocky history on pollution.
The worries we all have about climate change, rural and middle class America, job losses, the widening wealth gap, and what might lie ahead with a military and political system under Trump were all discussed but mostly unanswered in this year’s conference. The smart minds in attendance seemed as perplexed as all of us, or unwilling to contribute many thoughts or comments. Many of the conferences past luminaries were noticeably absent. What this means for the year ahead, I don’t know. But I hope Aspen Ideas Fest 2018 will have more answers to the important questions that were raised at Aspen Ideas Fest in 2017.