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Off and Running to…?

After less than twenty days post inauguration there were already skirmish lines forming all over the American landscape. Even approaching 100 days, most issues have been due to the new president’s style, mannerisms, and behavior while others are grounded in edicts, threats and executive orders that foster deep concerns for the future.

Perhaps the most telling event took place far below the radar of most citizens but heralded what might become one of this nation’s most profound platforms for evolution and, in some ways, revolution. As reported in Time Magazine in late January, one of the nation’s most influential Republican industrialists, Charles Koch, hosted a gathering of 550 powerful business leaders to discuss their level of support for the president’s various platforms, edicts, orders and actions that do not bode well for the American economy. As quoted in Time, Koch stated, “We cannot be partisan. We can’t say, O.K., this is our party, right or wrong.” His point throughout the conference was that many promises and opening actions launched from the Oval Office are contrary to good business practice and cannot possibly end well for the U.S. The most prominent point cited at the conference was the growing erosion of trade relationships, economic partnerships and global networks that many business leaders have developed over the past three to four decades.

In addition to the business community’s view that no one ever wins a trade war is a parallel view that cutting taxes, huge infrastructure projects, more military spending and the goody bag of promised changes would do nothing but drive the U.S. toward economic recession and potential depression. Among serious, experienced global business leaders there is resistance brewing. These are not seat of the pants operators, but America’s best, who operate according to strategic plans, are collaborative, understand diplomacy, and embrace the long view. Any business owner would have serious questions about how $1.2 trillion in infrastructure projects will be financed. New taxes? That would be curious in light of the promise to cut taxes. In other words, business professionals are already wondering how all the promises can be kept and who will pay.

In this context, we are moved to look over the horizon and make predictions regarding several areas that will be in flux during 2017 and beyond. Among the most remarkable phenomena is the current administration’s lack of understanding that we live in a republic that has evolved over 240 years. The new administration is not a ‘business turnaround’ where a new group of managers is brought in to reorganize a company according to their personal experience and perspectives. While certain changes in government would be welcome, there are processes, procedures and protocols that must be followed if the republic is to remain strong. The most obvious and already brewing dichotomy is between what was promised and what is possible, practical and wise. The potential for conflict and a continuing circus atmosphere is high.

There is high probability that the prospect of regulatory shifts, more government spending and a pro-business atmosphere will energize the economy. However, the question is how long it might last before reality strikes. As stated previously in this space, what goes up always comes down. Regardless how it is postured, we live on a connected planet with interconnected economies and it is both foolish and myopic to believe that America can force anyone to do anything, outside of armed conflict. The current economic environment is one of escalating competition, growing collaboration, and evolving symbiotic relationships. This is how the world works and other countries will continue to evolve, compete, and battle for economic relevance. America must do the same. It can’t dictate all the rules.

Sooner or later (bet on sooner), citizens will understand that the U.S. is not weak, vulnerable, passive, struggling, or economically doomed. This country has a vibrant economy, millions of new jobs have been added since 2010 (227,000 in January, 235,000 in February and a 4.7% unemployment rate), thousands of new business enterprises have been formed, new alliances have been created, and far fewer live in poverty. More, violent crime is down, new trading partners are at the table and consumer confidence has been quite high over the past two years. At some point, the citizenry will no longer buy into negative rhetoric. It’s difficult to complain when there is so much to celebrate.

Unfortunately, over the next year or several years, there may be less focus on national parks, the environment, occupational safety, free speech and equality. Immigration could be crippled for years, which could have a negative economic impact and health coverage, even if the Affordable Care Act is partially unraveled without a valid upgrade could dwindle for millions who now have coverage. In this review, keep in mind that policy evolution is how reform tends to happen…it is incrementally improved, not totally removed. It has taken years for Civil Rights and American with Disabilities legislation to become what it is today…improved rather than discarded.

I have noted earlier that bombast, threats and jingoistic retorts do little to improve relationships or forge alliances. Even small trade wars will negate years of improving global relationships and possibly devolve into global recession. Trust and mutual respect are integral elements if America is to build trading relationships that strengthen its economy while fostering long-term opportunity. If Koch and his colleagues are concerned, we should all be concerned.

There are enormous forces in play but it appears that some individuals do not understand that other countries have the sovereign right to compete, grow, seek and participate. Every sign points to continued slow global growth with many struggling economies. America will also experience slow growth, but it will be steady and sustainable if it is not derailed by foolish policies and the erosion of trading and security relationships. Unfortunately, there is significant potential for polarity among U.S. citizens, especially if the economy struggles, healthcare is restricted, there is stagnant job and wage growth and inflation begins to escalate.

2017 will see a new centering of America but it will be driven by polarity, at least until wisdom and leadership prevail. It will be a comical, frustrating and troubling period that will test this country’s will, values, and spirit. The vast majority of Americans treasure dignity, harmony, good will, diplomacy and true leadership. Sadly, the new administration has so far not reflected any of these characteristics, but you can bet they will become more precious in the months ahead.

With over four decades working in and with federal, state and local government, John Luthy understands public agencies.  Known for his real world, straight talking style, he is a leading futurist specializing in city, county, state, and federal long-range thinking and planning. John is the author of Operations Planning: A Guide for Public Officials and Managers in Troubled Times, and The Strategic Planning Guide, both published by the International City/ County Management Association (ICMA). Reprints of his book, Planning the Future – A Guide to Strategic Thinking and Planning for Elected Officials, Public Administrators and Community Leaders (2010) has sold out several times. An innovative and dynamic presenter, John is frequently asked to speak and consult on how to prepare public organizations and communities for emerging challenges (public futures at http://www.futurescorp.com).

Buckle Up

Whew! Am I glad that’s over! With all the misdirection, acrimony, illusion and pranks that became hallmarks of the presidential election, it is a wonder that things are generally peaceful as we enter mid-December. While wading through all the silliness and emotion, we still managed to get through the election and begin the process of returning to normalcy—or some facsimile thereof.

It remains a mystery as to how the electoral process became so volatile at a time when the data clearly show many positives. The unemployment rate is below 5 percent, corporate profits are up, housing prices are up, personal debt is down, savings are up, the housing market is strong, gas prices are relatively low and crude remains below $50. The auto industry is fully mobilized, the dollar is extremely strong, over 3 million people have worked their way out of poverty and, as of today, the DOW is above 19,700. Does anyone recall where we were eight years ago?

As noted previously, along with many positive data points, there are also troubling indicators that seem to fan the embers of discontent. Trade imbalances are high, immigration questions remain unanswered, security is an ongoing battle and both infrastructure and education have huge, looming gaps that must be addressed. The most interesting question pertains to how this dichotomy between positive and negative progress is so different from historic norms and why so many view with such jaundiced eyes the negative without acknowledging the positive? Perhaps it is merely human nature to focus on the bad and ignore the good, but regardless of the election outcome, America would have entered 2017 with enormous momentum and promise.

The specter of ‘populism’ has emerged as a newly energized and potent force for change. Of course the central unanswered question is whether that change will be positive or negative. Along with the U.S., Greece, France, Germany, Austria, Spain and a host of other countries have seen a resurgence of popular causes, mostly characterized by hostility toward elites and established institutions. But there has also been a trending toward nationalism, protectionism, racism and isolation. For those who study history and the evolution of societies, this is confounding and troubling.

A brief review will showcase Latin America’s experience with populism, especially in Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela, Cuba, Chile, Peru and others, where that populism led to revolt against historic norms and institutions and resulted in governments run by individuals who destroyed the fabric that sustained economies, social structures, industrial networks and cultural harmony. When evaluating countries that enjoyed major shifts via a populist revolt one will mostly find rampant poverty, economic shambles, social discord, and leaders who won support from the masses without the slightest concept of how to manage a government.

Ongoing research is now reflecting that the emergent populism that is fomenting change in America does not have economic roots even when rhetoric would point to inequality as a causative factor. Surveys are now telling us that it is something deeper and more symbolic, with the primary determinant being evolving American demographics. This, coupled with other noneconomic factors—gender, race, religion, location, family history, the environment, health, etc. has provided the genesis for discontent, paranoia, and distortions of reality. Or, at least the ignorance of other, more profound and positive forces that typically provide greater balance, perspective, economic opportunity and long-term cultural sustainability.

In other words, people are demanding higher wages, fewer regulations, lower taxes, less government, more jobs and greater border security and expecting newly elected leaders and the ‘government’ (which they feel is already too intrusive) to now deliver on those promises. But the underlying driving reality is that America has experienced a profound shift from 1946 to now and is continuing to evolve as other countries catch up to its economic capacity, industrial capability and competitive spirit. Growth in the U.S. and most western societies has been slowing for several years due to global competition, resource depletion and broad product availability across nations. While a populist platform might demand U.S. trade protections and negotiating more stringent trade agreements, reality tells us that free markets will ultimately decide who buys what from whom. There will be few options to ‘legislate’ economic behavior across borders. People will seek products from the best possible source and will trade with those sources. If U.S. companies are not competitive, the market will sort it out…not congress, and certainly not the president.

The deeper message here is that enormously powerful forces are at play across the global landscape. America is strong and capable, but must understand and adjust to variables it can’t control while managing those it can. The time for rhetoric and bombast is over. For America, this New Year will dawn with opportunities to pursue prudent options that take advantage of its many strengths. The question is whether there will be the insight, patience, tolerance and true leadership to take advantage of its current status and stature.

As with recent years, I see many avenues that could lead to prosperity, security, and sustainable enterprise. And, as always, it begins with each person’s unique vision, ability and willingness to focus on their own families and businesses with sensible strategies and thoughtful implementation plans. Regardless of the current wave of populism, life comes down to good will and acceptance, hard work, focus, and the Golden Rule. 2016 gave us quite a ride but now it’s time to buckle up for a New Year that promises to be exhilarating, challenging and very interesting.

jfl-pic-blue-shirtyellow-tie.jpgWith over four decades working in and with federal, state and local government, John Luthy understands public agencies.  Known for his real world, straight talking style, he is a leading futurist specializing in city, county, state, and federal long-range thinking and planning. John is the author of Operations Planning: A Guide for Public Officials and Managers in Troubled Times, and The Strategic Planning Guide, both published by the International City/ County Management Association (ICMA). Reprints of his book, Planning the Future – A Guide to Strategic Thinking and Planning for Elected Officials, Public Administrators and Community Leaders (2010) has sold out several times. An innovative and dynamic presenter, John is frequently asked to speak and consult on how to prepare public organizations and communities for emerging challenges (public futures at http://www.futurescorp.com).

Rhetoric, Reason and Reality

Sociologists and cultural anthropologists have warned us for some time that the defining characteristic of the future will be ambiguity…that sense of uncertainty and anticipation that breeds anxiety and apprehension. These descriptors are not the best foundation on which to build trust and long-term investment strategies. Neither are they the characteristics we seek when contemplating going to college, pursuing a graduate degree, raising a family or starting a new enterprise. This environment inhibits passion for the future while depreciating much of what we have worked so hard to accomplish over the past several decades. And, if you are a Boomer, recent political and economic rhetoric does little to lift the spirit.

For close to twenty years, there have been admonitions that this particular decade, especially since the 2007/8 recession, would be transformational. Discussed often in this space, every sign has pointed to a period in global and U.S. history that would result in enormous worldwide competition, declining resources, growing populations, climate change, higher expectations, aging populations, fewer craftsmen and skilled workers, and growing concerns about water. This is not new. Since 1946 the world has struggled to regain its balance; global infrastructure had to be rebuilt, institutions re-established, and governments restructured. In historic terms, this has all occurred at an enormous pace and, for many countries, while it has ebbed and flowed, both trajectory and pace have continue to soar.

Fear, isolation and nationalism have become centerpiece topics in the recent political circus. While committed here to an apolitical stance, it is difficult due to the misinformation, misdirection, posturing and absolutely vacuous rhetoric that saturates the nightly news. In fact, America is strong. Any review of the data will show that it has a strong defense and a stable, if not fully robust economy. Wages have not kept up nor have the type of new jobs that we are used to based on historic expectations, but this is a different time…there is a transformation taking place and we are just now at the front end of this period of massive change.

The answer is not to build walls, punish immigrants, segregate religions or conjure rationale for divisive action. The path forward lies in this country’s ability to understand the emerging world, harness its amazing opportunities and create a new foundation for progress.

There are amazing new technologies that will totally transform power generation, automobiles, mass transit, communication, computing, construction and agriculture. The ability for virtually anyone to learn, understand and pursue knowledge is opening portals to new business enterprises and relationships that could bring geometric progress. Unfortunately, due to a myopic media, much of this has been overlooked while buffoonery, antagonism, incoherence and ditzy logic rules the day.

Does anyone understand that growth is never constant? That it is non-linear and that the plot always turns? Is there recognition that the U.S. has enjoyed a long, successful run that is not remotely close to being over, but is merely recalibrating? And, that there is never a forever accelerating and inclining progress curve? The U.S. is the only country that recovered relatively quickly from the Great Recession and, while full recovery is elusive, this country is in far better shape than any country in the world. Why then, when there are so many positive economic and social indicators, is the focus on those that remain negative?

One might wonder if future historians will be puzzled by the gloom and doom rhetoric when, by all objective measures, the past three decades have been the best in history, especially in terms of human well-being. While Samuel Huntington warned us about the impending clash of nations, what has actually occurred is a confluence of civilizations and cultures. Never perfect, this blending of global cultures has been accelerating for the past two decades. Consider China twenty years ago. Those of us who worked there can attest that the mid-1990’s were amazingly different than today.  And the model for China’s development?  The United States…even if the Party can’t admit it, Chinese historians and sociologists openly admit that it was the U.S. model that motivated that country’s passion for development.

There is an amazing worldview that is being obfuscated by the clueless, often savage attacks reported by the media during this political campaign. Those still caught up in ideological debates about communism, democracy, theocracy and other forms of governance seem unable to grasp that the planet has evolved to one driver – capitalism. Certainly, there is a small percent of religious fundamentalists (mostly Muslim, it would appear) who remain far outside the norm, but most populations have, in some way, embraced capitalism and have joined the global market. To forge a major platform without focusing on the vast majority of countries and their populations is idiotic. Yes, there are threats to America. They are known and are being addressed. But what about our future? What cornerstones will be used to build a nation that is sustainable, prosperous, engaged, admired, and progressive?

For the record, there is irrefutable data that verifies that the vast majority of the planet’s 1.6 billion Muslims are totally compatible with and supportive of the modernizing world. In populations of millions, there may be only 15,000 thugs who are more comparable to gangs than religious sects. They are the outliers; they are dangerous, but they must not be the basis for America’s foreign policy.

Fareed Zakaria, in his book The Post-American World (W.W. Norton, 2008), provides multiple anecdotes that demonstrate the accelerated pace at which other countries have tried to catch up with America. Even in the overleaf, there is a comment that states, “The current political debate in the United States is utterly out of touch with this broad development, obsessed with issues like terrorism, immigration, homeland security, and economic panics.” Keep in mind that this was written eight years ago and acknowledged then that, when dealing with pure fact, that the world has merely been catching up with the U.S. As a country, America is not in decline, it is merely seeing other countries finally grow into more competitive positions. Tom Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum, in their 2011 book, That Used to Be Us, cited many of the same facts and drew similar conclusions.

The real message as we approach mid-year, is that bluster, misinformation and predatory, corrosive rhetoric does not reflect the true nature of America. If we are to avoid decline and implosion, we must keep in mind that people gravitate to four things: clarity, direction, truth, and a dignified, harmonious leadership style. For the next five months, all eyes will be on this country. One would hope that, during an election spectacle that warrants worldwide coverage, we will demonstrate a leadership style that reflects the true and enduring nature of America.

jfl-pic-blue-shirtyellow-tie1.jpgWith over three decades working in and with federal, state and local government, John Luthy understands public agencies.  Known for his real world, straight talking style, he is a leading futurist specializing in city, county, state, and federal long-range thinking and planning. John is the author of Operations Planning: A Guide for Public Officials and Managers in Troubled Times, and The Strategic Planning Guide, both published by the International City/ County Management Association (ICMA). Reprints of his book, Planning the Future – A Guide to Strategic Thinking and Planning for Elected Officials, Public Administrators and Community Leaders (2010) has sold out three times. An innovative and dynamic presenter, John is frequently asked to speak and consult on how to prepare public organizations and communities for emerging challenges (public futures at http://www.futurescorp.com).

Boomer Talent

Much has been made of the fact that 2015 was the peak year for the number of Baby Boomers reaching age 65. While not remarkable by itself, it reflects the enormous number of older Americans who are at or near retirement age. But to infer that Boomers are destined to call it quits at the traditional retirement age of 65 signals a serious misunderstanding of our generation.

A recent edition of Pacific Standard (September/October 2015) contained an interesting article entitled, The Aging Advantage. This article, by Bonnie Tsui, focused on the career of Barbara Beskind, a 91year old designer at the San Francisco design firm IDEO. The story was not so much about her remarkable career, brilliance or mental acuity as it was about the value of her experience, knowledge and ability to contribute.

From experience and research, it is clear that older workers have great value. It is also clear that there is an interesting social phenomenon in the U.S. that diminishes the perceived value of those past a certain age. In most other developed societies (and many that are less developed), older citizens are highly valued but in America, they are often seen as a burden or irrelevant. Research over several decades reveals a significantly different message.

Throughout most industrialized nations the number of older citizens is increasing. While unremarkable in itself, this cohort is growing percentage-wise while there is a corresponding reduction in the number of younger, employable citizens. In China, Brazil, Japan, Germany, Italy, England, and many other countries, including the U.S., there is growing concern that there will be an insufficient number of new, talented workers to replace those moving toward retirement. More importantly, the loss of institutional memory, technical skill and deep knowledge is accelerating at an astounding rate. Within this context, most organizations give little thought to the rich networks of contacts built by older workers over four or five decades. Once retired, these workers take these amazingly complex and valuable networks with them and they are lost to the organization forever.

Clearly, those between the ages of 55 and 80 collectively possess a treasure of information, skill, awareness, perspective, knowledge and contacts. They have enormous skill and a proven ability to accomplish complex assignments. Consider the amount of on-the-job training, professional development, education and experience that is accumulated over 40 to 50 years of work. Does that just disappear when one reaches ‘retirement age?’ Hardly. What seems to be missing is the recognition that the sum total of all the training and development, education and experience is a potent and valuable capital asset. Unfortunately, this asset is wasted by the vast majority of public and private organizations.

According to Laura Carstensen of the Stanford Center on Longevity, recent studies at the Center show that older workers are more emotionally stable, have fewer conflicts, are more prone to collaborate, are better mentors, and deal with intense challenges with more patience and equanimity. They are helpful, productive and less prone to workplace politics. In many ways, older workers have already built their careers, so are more willing to help younger workers build their own careers. The challenge is getting younger workers and management teams to recognize the value of this latent and underutilized asset.

Most Boomers enjoy working with younger workers. While there are troublesome idiosyncrasies, such as their constant toying with cell phones, Facebook and Internet searches, the energy, spirit and inquisitive nature of young people is a powerful force. Mixing older and younger workers can produce highly innovative results while building collaborative cultures that promote mentoring and a natural transference of knowledge and skill. More critically, older workers become comfortable with sharing their long-established networks and introducing early and mid-career employees to acquaintances throughout their communities and industries. What is generally misunderstood is that these introductions provide professional credibility that would have not been possible without first being legitimized by the senior worker.

Older Americans are already here. They are in the workplace and are active in the community. They know how to get things done, have great contacts and have little use for workplace politics. While there are exceptions, there is overwhelming evidence that older workers are able to learn as well as their younger counterparts, are great problem solvers, and tend to know what to do when tasked with an assignment. Above all, they are experienced. There is very little they have not seen, learned how to do or had to overcome.

The message here is that America’s older workers are an untapped resource that is being overlooked and often cast aside at a time when every organization needs thoughtful and capable can-do talent. No private or public organization can afford to lose its contact networks, support systems, or deep institutional knowledge and unique skills. But, it is essential to understand that these networks and skillsets reside with people, not organizations. Give some thought to new ways to fully use and integrate older workers into the evolving fabric of your organization. If productivity, insight, harmony and preservation of institutional memory is valued, seeking seasoned talent and effectively using existing older workers will be a wise investment.

JFL Pic Blue Shirt-Yellow TieWith over three decades working in and with federal, state and local government, John Luthy understands public agencies.  Known for his real world, straight talking style, he is a leading futurist specializing in city, county, state, and federal long-range thinking and planning. John is the author of Operations Planning: A Guide for Public Officials and Managers in Troubled Times, and The Strategic Planning Guide, both published by the International City/ County Management Association (ICMA). Reprints of his book, Planning the Future – A Guide to Strategic Thinking and Planning for Elected Officials, Public Administrators and Community Leaders (2010) has sold out multiple times. An innovative and dynamic presenter, John is frequently asked to speak and consult on how to prepare private and public organizations and communities for emerging challenges (public futures at http://www.futurescorp.com).

Count Our Blessings

The blessing theme was marred late in 2015 by the horrific attacks in Paris and San Bernardino and the ensuing aftermath of revulsion, blame and resistance to accepting immigrants in dire need of support, food and shelter. One of the most unsettling things about the growing antipathy toward migrating people is the massive number of young children who have nowhere else to go. It is difficult to hold them accountable for atrocities they can barely comprehend, even if witnessed firsthand. There is no easy answer and no glib response will suffice. It just seems to be another testament to a global cauldron fueled by sectarian animosity, religious entitlement, historic grudges and a clash between civilized, future-looking populations and those with little to embrace. Even vestiges of their cultural heritage are being erased by forces immune to reason, trust and good will. This too will pass, but at what price and over what period of time? Difficult to say at this point, but the plot always turns, even if too slowly for so many who need immediate assistance. Sending dispossessed people home is a non-solution because so many don’t have homes. They are truly walking in the wilderness…pretty strange for the modern age and the New Year 2016.

While the Paris and San Bernardino attacks cast a dark shadow over the holiday season and did not provide the classic run-up to Thanksgiving, Christmas or New Years, the solidarity reflected in global responses must be taken as a positive indication of at least the prospect of more collaboration among nations against a common foe. Whether a grand scheme is created or fractious interventions continue, a more robust response is certain. Let’s just hope it begins to turn the tide and doesn’t create more uncertainty, retribution and blame.

Even factoring recent events into the yearend equation, I don’t see a gloomy year ahead. As this country has experienced for some time, there will continue to be bumps and bruises, convolutions and diversions, and a measure of economic fluctuation, as we’re witnessing during a current market dive. But overall, the interactive world will remain mobile, engaged, cooperative, and committed to progress. Those of us fortunate to be American citizens will continue to enjoy economic growth, emerging opportunities, ample goods and services, and many, many options. GDP growth should be above 2.5%- some predict around 2.8%; inflation will grow to above 2%, perhaps as much as 2.3%, which is well above the current 1.2% for 2015. Unemployment will continue to decline from the current 5% to a range of 4.4% to 4.6%, signaling steady economic growth, that is, if not spectacular, still reasonable. Commodity prices are languishing and will continue into 2016 but this also reduces manufacturing costs and keeps inflation low.

Crude oil prices are a major driver of economic progress, and crude prices are predicted to remain between $45 and $50 per barrel as we move through 2016. With massive supplies, we are now at a 12-year low at $33.88 a barrel but there is good reason to believe that crude prices will remain in the range of $40 to $50 for the next twelve to fifteen months, providing a solid base for consumer spending (3.2% annual rate), more investment (housing 6.1% annual growth rate), and lower operating costs across all industries. The Fed raised interest rates a bit in December and if things go reasonably well, will surely raise rates again in 2016 but it won’t create many problems. A greater concern is the movement toward a higher minimum wage, which will impact small business and boost inflation. Over time, it may also be good for the general economy. Overall, our economy is more stable than any other country and the U.S. continues to serve as the bedrock for global investment and economic development. This should continue through 2016 and well into 2017, unless there are major worldwide upheavals. With so much riding on stability, this is unlikely, no matter how many skirmishes, ambushes and attacks occur. Interventions will move to an entirely new level to preserve some semblance of world order.

That said, incursions and test case scenarios are escalating. In addition to the Middle East circus, China and Russia in particular will slowly test the will of other sovereign nations, especially the United States. Whether building made-made islands in the South China Sea or disputing territorial rights with Japan, Taiwan and South Korea, China will rattle its saber to test the resolve of the U.S. and her allies. However, China’s internal economy is sinking (thus the current market doldrums) and will continue to decline and domestic issues will divert its attention inward, as the enormous Chinese population seeks more freedoms, a greater voice, jobs, property ownership and less government meddling. There are too many problems there for China to spend much time or money gaming the United States. Russia will continue to make plays in the Artic and meddle in Eastern Europe and Syria, but it may also be forced into joining a more sustained, coordinated effort against ISIS. South America remains a quagmire of debt and only Brazil is digging out after years of recession. While still marginal, it is a regional leader and may see actual growth in 2016. With some luck and reasonable weather, its drought will ease and decent harvests will boost GDP.

Turning attention homeward, I see opportunity for growth and development. As noted in other articles I authored last month, it is time for new thinking, exploration and evolution to a progressive way of managing our affairs. Whether business, government or our personal lives, the convergence of technology, trends, culture, and information will bring new opportunities to those adventurous enough to seek them. Baby Boomers are working longer, Millennials are competing like crazy; new enterprises are being created and new horizons are constantly being defined. In this context, however, there also remains enormous problems with social inequality and fiscal inequity; there are more people below the poverty line than ever before in American history; educational performance remains low; far too many people have inadequate retirement savings; and, of course, Washington politicos are about to launch another totally inane election cycle. But who would want to trade all this? It is, after all, our country, our struggle, our future.

There is much to do and we have the resources to undertake any challenge. The question is, do we have the resolve, capacity, and deep commitment to think, plan, adapt and move into a New Year that has promise mixed with equal measures of sadness, anger, frustration, and anticipation? Are we ready to move forward regardless of known and unknown challenges? And, are we able to set aside latent anxieties and embrace the inherent beauty and wonder of this nation? I believe the answer is yes.

JFL Pic Blue Shirt-Yellow TieWith over three decades working in and with federal, state and local government, John Luthy understands public agencies and private organizations.  Known for his real world, straight talking style, he is a leading futurist specializing in city, county, state, and federal long-range thinking and planning. John is the author of Operations Planning: A Guide for Public Officials and Managers in Troubled Times, and The Strategic Planning Guide, both published by the International City/ County Management Association (ICMA). Reprints of his book, Planning the Future – A Guide to Strategic Thinking and Planning for Elected Officials, Public Administrators and Community Leaders (2010) has sold out three times. An innovative and dynamic presenter, John is frequently asked to speak and consult on how to prepare public organizations and communities for emerging challenges (public futures at http://www.futurescorp.com).

An Evolving Future

The past six weeks have brought confusion, distrust, fear and downright panic to many segments of the global community. This can be generally attributed to wildly fluctuating (mostly downward) markets, China’s steady decline, a collapsing oil market, continued shenanigans in the Middle East and a host of other factors. It seems mildly interesting that China’s decline, or at least its malaise, was predicted over two years ago and is another example of ‘predictable surprise,’ a term that has been presented in this space in previous articles. So too has the general phenomenon of fluctuation, meaning, simply, that what goes up tends to come down at some point. Of course, when there is precipitous decline, there is a parallel ‘pucker’ that is typically felt across generations and social strata.

As we begin looking seriously at the 4th Quarter, it may be wise to consider even longer-term preparation for 2016. From all accounts, the economy is doing fairly well, we are only vaguely playing at war, Iran seems to be placated, the European Union is holding together and most saber rattling has the feel of bluster rather than foreboding. That is not to say we should be cavalier about the next few months or forego planning for the coming year. Rather, it is merely a reflection of the global environment where we continue to battle, strip, plunder, compete, ignore and diminish while we also earn, develop, innovate, cherish, preserve, care, protect, dream and evolve. So many unanswered question pertain to balance. In time, we’ll find out which list of adjectives will ultimately result in either a horrific end-game or enlightened evolution toward a remarkable New Age.

There is both wonder and a form of ennui when one considers NASA plans for sending astronauts to Mars within a decade or so. While those of us who were around to see the first Moon landing can recall the unbridled thrill, many more will have that detached, ethereal amazement when someone finally walks on Mars. Many of this planet’s best minds are collaborating on the Mars expedition, while their countries simultaneously joust over economic sanctions, alliances, mineral resources, fishing rights and shipping lanes. Dichotomies are growing as populations soar, fires burn, drought increases and crop yields decline. On one hand we cooperate to reach for the stars; on the other we argue over meaningless ideology while people die from starvation, deprivation and annihilation. There are earthly civilizations that have devolved into barbarity, enslaving entire communities, butchering innocent citizens, selling young girls, and destroying historic monuments that were beautiful tributes to truly great civilizations. There are others that try to make peace, share, innovate, reflect and constantly build. More than any time in human history contradictions abound.

In a connected world ignorance is not bliss; there are few who do not know what is occurring around the planet and this knowledge breeds discomfort, disunity and detachment. A fundamental reality of these troubling days is that most feel helpless to intervene. Things have grown so big, complex, fearsome, costly and convoluted that we don’t know where to begin. We are asked to contribute to NGOs and voluntary agencies pleading for funds to help the less fortunate. But where do we give and how do we reach others in a manner that contributes real value? How do we create hope, prevent disease, provide shelter, pump water, and grow crops? How do we intervene in clan warfare and prevent genocide? Most are only able to share meager resources, send a few dollars, support the troops and offer a prayer.

There are around 320 million people in the United States and around 50 million live at or below the poverty line. Half of school-age children qualify for free and reduced school lunch; immunization rates have fallen, preventable childhood disease is rising, drug use among teens is escalating, graduation rates are higher than ever but still low and U.S. science literacy scores place America 28th in global rankings. These are only a few critical markers that might indicate to even the most unassuming citizen that we have work to do at home. Not saying we should become isolationists, but merely providing encouragement for more attention to detail within our own borders.

Stepping outside political ruminations and ideology, the country has paid down some debt, brought service men and women home, expanded health care to many more individuals and families (whether some like it or not), reduced unemployment to around 5.1% and generated significantly more economic vitality. Consumer confidence remains high, corporate profits are up (so far), and the cost of war has been significantly reduced. So, are we rounding the corner on recessionary times, or has there merely been a pause in the country’s long-term decline? Time will also answer that question, but, by all indices and standards, the U.S. remains strong, capable, innovative and prosperous.

I would like to see more attention paid to those activities that made America strong – education, business development, new infrastructure, sensible immigration, and meaningful regulation that protects the public while not curtailing business growth. There is much to do and we have time to do it. But this decade was predicted to be and has been transformative. America is in the midst of a transition that is rapid, complex, difficult, and for all the marbles. If we don’t get it right, we stand to lose big. This means, as always, careful planning, strategic thinking, resource conservation, and a dual effort to preserve ideals while aggressively creating a new future. It can be done, but it will take leadership, statesmanship, and a willingness to sacrifice for the good of future generations. That is not to say we must curtail the present. It merely means that we must demonstrate a deep commitment to doing what is required to have any kind of future at all. Our parents did that for us. It’s time we did the same for our children and grandchildren.

JFL Pic Blue Shirt-Yellow Tie

With over three decades working in and with federal, state and local government, John Luthy understands public agencies.  Known for his real world, straight talking style, he is a leading futurist specializing in city, county, state, and federal long-range thinking and planning. John is the author of Operations Planning: A Guide for Public Officials and Managers in Troubled Times, and The Strategic Planning Guide, both published by the International City/ County Management Association (ICMA). Reprints of his book, Planning the Future – A Guide to Strategic Thinking and Planning for Elected Officials, Public Administrators and Community Leaders (2010) has sold out three times. An innovative and dynamic presenter, John is frequently asked to speak and consult on how to prepare public organizations and communities for emerging challenges (public futures at http://www.futurescorp.com).

The Allure of Water

Despite the twisted and inaccurate fulminations of climate deniers, we are experiencing a serious decline of water resources in the western U.S. that will have enormous economic repercussions. It is not so much that some refuse to recognize drought when they see it, or that they can’t seem to grasp the origin of well-proven causative factors that frustrates and confounds. The greater concern is that the volume and passion of their denial will inhibit real progress toward solutions. Those of us who deal with strategic planning understand that declining water resources is a legacy issue. Whatever decisions we make or don’t make now will haunt many future generations. By wasting time pontificating about causation or responsibility we merely create a more substantial foundation for a serious and prolonged disaster…one that could last for decades or even centuries. Recognition is one thing, action is another. But both would be better supported and energized by common vision, shared resources, and collective will. One of the feature stories in the March 18 edition of USA Today dealt with drought in the western US. In it, data clearly indicated that state reservoirs in California have only enough water for approximately one year. Since that article, Governor Brown has declared an even higher level of emergency with mandatory water rationing. Prior to that, Bettina Boxall reported in the Los Angeles Times that parts of the San Joaquin Valley are ‘deflating like a tire with a slow leak’ due to wells going dry and the earth settling into vacated space. Overpumping has been a natural response by farmers who are desperately trying to grow crops and avoid economic disaster. Many of the less fortunate have already been bankrupted by water related crop failure. Claudia Faunt, of the U.S. Geological Survey noted to Boxall that aquifers are “like a bank account. If the money you put in is less than what you’re taking out, it’s a deficit. How long can you withstand that?’ Not only in California are surface and underground reservoirs declining or going dry. The same is true in the Midwest, Southwest and parts of the Northwest. Boxall’s comments were based on the research of USGS hydrologist Michelle Sneed, who studies earth subsidence, or its sinking into space vacated in underground aquifers. Over half of the entire central valley of California has dropped by more than a foot. Even if aquifers rebounded, this shrinkage has permanently reduced their capacity, adding even more concern for the future. If you haven’t seen the astounding pictures of Lake Oroville, in Oroville, California, or Folsom and Shasta Lakes, take a look. What were once large and picturesque lakes now look like small ponds or sand pits with rivers running through them. Just looking at the NOAA map depicting the U.S. Seasonal Drought Outlook, released on March 19, is enough to give you the willies. Talk about another fire season! California’s Central Valley extends for around 400 miles beneath the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys, holding water that entered the ground ten to twenty thousand years ago. With little snowpack, which is at a 25-year low, to provide spring runoff and much less annual rain, this and other aquifers will rapidly go dry or recede so low that it will be impossible to reach the remaining water. In the best cases, water may be reachable, but doing so will be costly, and those costs will be passed on to farmers and, ultimately, the consumer. As with all human challenges, the biological ‘pleasure/pain’ principal is prominent in the ongoing water dilemma. This principle is simply that, in biology, and certainly with humans, organisms do not migrate, evolve or actively address negative conditions until the pain becomes unbearable. Once that threshold is reached, there will be migration (think dust bowl era for us humans), or evolution, which for people means policies, process and economic manipulation. Areas with ample water and the promise of seasonal replenishing will be highly attractive for those considering migration. While Idaho, Oregon and Washington are experiencing reduced precipitation, many areas enjoy enough annual rainfall and runoff from snowpack that serious drought is not yet a huge concern. This means, for those states with interest in economic growth, that water has become the most valuable asset for attracting business investment and workers who are either victims of drought or wise enough to migrate ahead of the rush. This potential loss of commerce and workers is serious business for states reeling from drought, but just as serious for those interested in economic vitality. As I see it, water is now an enormous attribute for any state, county or city with the good fortune to have ample supplies. However, the key question will be how to balance in-migration of users with water supplies that could, based on the vagaries of a capricious jet stream, dwindle over time. While there is heartfelt compassion and empathy for what is occurring in Arizona, Nevada, Utah and California, there are emerging opportunities for businesses, farmers, and workers who seek new options. We must begin to grasp the full measure of what long-term water shortage will do to the national and regional economy and its impact on families, communities and the workforce. Water is powerful. While we recognize its power as a natural force, we must now accept its power to erode, alter or build various facets of modern human society. Throughout history, water has given rise to civilizations and the lack of it has helped destroyed them. For a while, we may have tamed rivers, built reservoirs, and harnessed the power of water. Perhaps we must now recognize that we have little control over some natural forces that will ultimately find their own course. Our best option is to respond with wisdom and prudence to salvage what we can and build on what nature brings in the years ahead. JFL Pic Blue Shirt-Yellow TieWith over three decades working in and with federal, state and local government, John Luthy understands public agencies. Known for his real world, straight talking style, he is a leading futurist specializing in city, county, state, and federal long-range thinking and planning. John is the author of Operations Planning: A Guide for Public Officials and Managers in Troubled Times, and The Strategic Planning Guide, both published by the International City/ County Management Association (ICMA). Reprints of his book, Planning the Future – A Guide to Strategic Thinking and Planning for Elected Officials, Public Administrators and Community Leaders (2010) has sold out three times. An innovative and dynamic presenter, John is frequently asked to speak and consult on how to prepare public organizations and communities for emerging challenges (public futures at http://www.futurescorp.com).