The Deficit: A New Charge to Cooperative Extension Educators

Following my previous discussion about the looming deficit crisis and its implications, I’m sharing  a column that I mined this morning off Worldnet Daily, a conservative Web site.

To his immense credit, the writer, columnist and erstwhile presidential candidate Pat Buchanan, is speaking as an American rather than as a partisan political commentator.   His advice should be heeded by all public intellectuals and policy makers irrespective of their political convictions.

As Buchanan stresses, something must be done immediately to rein in our ballooning federal deficits.  Otherwise, the consequences will be dire: China’s decision last December to unload $45 billion of its $790 billion in T-bills is likely only a harbinger of the economic upheaval that could follow if a solution is not found, he says.

Even so, a workable solution seems more elusive than ever given the strong likelihood of the hardened political gridlock that will follow 2010 midterm elections, Buchanan says.

One thing is certain: The budget must — and ultimately will — be cut and one immediate consequence regardless of what forms the cuts take will be a reduced federal domestic presence for the foreseeable future. 

Laying gloom aside for a moment, I will say that in the aftermath of this reduced federal presence, grassroots, self-empowerment agencies such as Extension may be called upon to serve an invaluable role.

Actually, a number of factors in addition to the deficit likely contribute to this trend.  In the last couple of decades, policymakers —state and federal lawmakers as well as most municipal leaders — have been forced to rethink the way they serve their audiences. Many causes account for this change in thinking — advances in communications technologies, the rise of the global economy, declining tax bases and rapid social change, to name only a few.

Whatever the causes, the sort of top/down bureaucratic approach used throughout most of the last century to address domestic has been deemed unworkable, not only by conservatives but also by many centrist Third Way advocates, such as former President Bill Clinton and former U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair.  The worsening deficit crisis will only work to underscore this reality, I believe. 

Indeed, these trends already have given rise to a new domestic policy approach — one built on a foundation of dialogue and empowerment between the various levels of government and the people they serve.  In a sharp departure from earlier forms of domestic policy, individuals and groups traditionally served by domestic programs are being called upon to address change directly rather than waiting for things happen to them.

This is why I’m convinced that Extension is especially well equipped to fill a larger role in the future.

We have the skill sets to match these new policy requirements: We are knowledge enablers who use dialogue and personal empowerment to serve our diverse audiences.   Along with knowledge, we provide a practical understanding of how this knowledge can be used to improve our clients’ lives. 

Yes, I believe Cooperative Extension educators have a new charge to keep in the 21st century.   The newfound appreciation for dialogue and empowerment that inevitably will follow this crisis presents us with a unique opportunity to show how our traditional emphasis on practical knowledge is as value today as it was in the early 20th century.

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