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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).

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