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The Good Times

Last year I wrote a Blog entitled, We Don’t Know Hard Times (March 2009) that addressed the public lament connected to economic frustrations. Barely a few months into recovery, there was fear of a serious depression approximating the 1930s and many signs pointed to hard times ahead.

My premise then and now is that things aren’t so bad. In that Blog I referenced Timothy Egan’s delightful book about the American dust bowl years (The Worst Hard Time, Mariner Books 2006). From a comparative perspective, there is no reasonable comparison of today’s situation to the dust bowl years. Los Angeles Times writer Michael Shermer has recently noted that these are the good old days. He reported that the average ‘urbanite’ in America earns approximately $40,000 annually and over 25 percent of American families earn over $75,000. Homes have doubled in size since the 1950s, the air and water are cleaner, and the average American has four times as much leisure time as in the 1880s. (A cynic might assume, however, that this number is inflated due to all those leisurely souls who are out of work.) But in almost every category, people living in the U.S. (citizens and visitors) enjoy a pretty good life, even if poor. Have you seen the many recent programs on the plight of Haitians? Even before the earthquake, life for most of the people in Haiti was difficult. The same is generally true for two thirds of the people on this stressed planet.

As reported several times in this Blog, times are different more than they are difficult. America and its communities are in transition. Over the next decade there will be conflicting inflationary and deflationary trends that will both define and reflect a new ‘normal.’ Resources are being consumed far too fast for any thoughtful person to argue that commodity prices will not increase. While there were many new oil field discoveries in 2009, many of those reserves are hard to reach and exhibit conditions that make extraction difficult and expensive. And, many are in countries that are not friends of the United States; they will not sell us cheap oil. Minerals, water, oil, and manufactured products will grow more costly. Inflation will occur; it is being kept in check by careful monitoring and manipulation of interest rates and other market constrictions. Is this bad? No. In fact, it is good because it buys this country time to decide on a course of action.

Public servants in Greece have violently demonstrated to protest a proposal that their pay be reduced to help the government recover its economic footing. Would the same happen in the U.S.? If every public employee took a 3 percent pay reduction for three years, would it help the recovery? What if every new car purchased by an American was made in America? Would that help? What if there were restrictions on how much Wall Street can skim off deposits and earnings from funds that were earned and deposited by working people? What would the increase in returns do for the average investor?

Economists quietly report that the cost of living in this country is generally exacerbated by citizens’ insistence that they have larger homes, better food, two cars, selected toys, a lot of recreation, and government programs for every conceivable service. If we were more self sufficient and could eliminate the more arcane services, would that help?

The point here is that we are not in new territory. But for most of us, we are merely in an unfamiliar place. For those of us who were born after 1945, we have never seen really tough times. We need to learn about ourselves and the Country needs to evolve to a model that fits a new global, hypercompetitive age. These are not necessarily hard times…but they are indeed challenging.

Do we have leaders who understand this new world and its emerging challenges? Will they prepare us for the challenges ahead? And, more critically, will we prepare ourselves for those same challenges? We will not return to ‘normal.’ We must define an entirely new concept of normal and do so before we actually experience hard times.

John Luthy is a leading futurist specializing in city, county, state, and federal long-range thinking and planning. With over three decades working in and with federal, state and local government, he is known for his real world, straight talking style and understanding of public agencies.  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). 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).

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