The future feels uncertain right now, but we may be able to glimpse it through a child's blue sweater. The child, a little girl, wore the same blue sweater to school every day. She loved it because of the African scenes with zebras in the front and mountains across the chest. The time came when the girl grew too big for the sweater. One day after she had been teased about wearing a sweater that was two sizes too small, her mother convinced her that it was time to let go. With a few tears, the blue sweater was donated to a thrift shop.
Years passed. The girl grew up to be a woman, and her interest turned to development work in Africa. It became a passion with her. She was motivated by the enormous gulf between the rich and poor countries of the world.

One day she arrived in Kigali, the capital city of Rwanda and noticed a little boy wearing a blue sweater. Her heart began to pound. She went over and asked if she could see the collar of the sweater, where she found her own name written on the tag. She took this stunning coincidence as a sign that we are all interconnected — that our actions and inactions impact people we may never meet and never know.

The woman is named Jacqueline Novogratz, and she has written a visionary book called, appropriately enough, "The Blue Sweater," which is devoted to providing opportunity to poor people in all countries in an interconnected world. Which is where the future comes in.

While America was sleeping for the past eight years, it became clear that the future will take one of two paths. Either the rich countries will find a way to pull the poor countries up to a decent standard of living, or the poor countries will pull the rich down. This didn't used to be such a stark choice. We've lived for centuries in a world where the rich countries could preserve an imbalanced way of life. They had the money, the oil, the bombs, and the political leverage to keep poor countries at a safe distance.

That's no longer true. Instead of separate worlds, everyone now lives in an entangled world. Economies are entangled in a complex web of trade. Immigration and refugeeism have entangled how populations look. Terrorism has made security a global issue. A planet suffocating in greenhouse gases makes national borders meaningless. No matter where you go in the world today, you will find your old blue sweater — that is, you will meet conditions that directly touch your life.

Rich versus poor used to be a moral issue. Morality tends to lose out to money, and so the divide between the richest and poorest people grew much more severe during the past decade as markets boomed. If a poor country like Thailand found itself ruined because of currency speculation on Wall Street, a moral calamity was overlooked in the worship of the free market.

Now that's all changed, and our best hope is that Barack Obama sees the change ahead of time. He is fortunate in a strange way. His own entangled identity, which made him exotic and strange in the past (strange, that is, compared to a white Protestant American), has transformed into his greatest strength. With an identity that transcends old boundaries, he can lead us across boundaries. Of course if we follow, a large section of the country will have misgivings. Change has come too rapidly, with shocking collapses and bewildering plans for a new future. A segment of the right vehemently opposes any future that doesn't resemble the Reaganite past.

But just as no society comes out of a war the same as it went in, the U.S. isn't going to emerge from this recession the way it went in. Not just Wall Street will change, and not just financial regulation, health care, and education, massive as those things are. We've been clinging to a rich, indulgent way of life like a little girl to her precious blue sweater. We need to let it go, with every hope that we will meet it one day on the other side of the globe. If that hope comes true, it signifies that we had the courage and vision to raise the rest of the world up to our level instead of letting the great problems pull us down.

Published in the San Francisco Chronicle

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