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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).

Woulda, Shoulda, Coulda-Part II

Several months ago in this space I raised questions about the lamentations of those who could not find work or were unable to make ends meet. That commentary was not to negate those in need, but to question their chosen path. While there continues to be concern for those unfortunate souls who have inadvertently tipped into a bad place, there remain many who have actively made the bed they are now occupying.

Much has happened since that commentary. 2014 was, for all practical purposes, a pretty good year for employment opportunities, with millions of new jobs and a serious uptick in virtually every sector. Even though unemployment is now down to around 5.7% (males) and 5.3% (females), there remain almost daily articles about the loss of decently paying jobs and the corresponding erosion of the middle class. In the midst of this discussion are the baby boomers, many of whom are remaining on the job due to low savings and declining retirement options. Experienced, tenured boomers, of course, tend to trump less experienced Millennials and Gen Xers, further reducing their employment opportunities, especially in higher level positions that have a future.

Even with a growing number of the 76 million boomers now able to retire, there is growing fear that this will have a profoundly negative impact on most industries and public agencies due to the loss of networks, working relationships, broad technical knowledge and proven skills on which organizations depend for effective production and seamless service. In any operation, remove the seasoned personnel or even a fraction thereof, and efficiency, quality and productivity immediately falls. That said, because 25% of all working people are 55 or older, an enormous number will be moving into retirement or assuming lesser roles in current positions. Even though some will elect to not retire, others will seek fewer hours and softer assignments- IF they stay. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that less than 40% of boomers will remain active in the labor force after age 55.

The loss of institutional memory is now being seen as a major potential blow to both private and public sector organizations. In fact, many see this outmigration as one of the most serious impediments to growth, competitiveness, and sustainability. Why is this critical? Simply because it is impossible to replace 40% of all the relationships, networks and institutional knowledge, even if you can replace some of the technical skills with younger talent. Some things can be replaced in a short time; other things cannot. In sum, the next five years could see a pronounced dip in productivity and efficiency at a time when many expect considerable growth.

Exacerbating this dilemma is the parallel issue of emerging new jobs without an adequate labor force to fill them. By 2017, there will be approximately 2.5 million new, middle-skill jobs added to the workplace, amounting to around 40% of all job growth (Economic Modeling Specialists Intl. and CareerBuilder, fall 2014). Virtually all of these jobs require some level of technical training but few will require a college degree. The kicker is that all will pay over $13 per hour and many closer to the $20-$25 range, placing workers squarely in the middle class wage range that has been considered ancient history without college. The message? Well-paying blue collar jobs have not disappeared and have not all been replaced by low-wage service jobs. They have merely shifted and require new skills that must be purposefully acquired. High and mid-range skilled jobs will comprise 64% of new jobs in coming years, offering a clear counterpoint to those who wring their hands about the decline of decently paying jobs for workers entering the workforce. The jobs are going to be there. The question is, will the workers have the skills? And if not, why not?

Because Boomers now make up around 20% of the total workforce, there is room for newly minted talent who will grow the middle class IF they have the skills. For years, concerns have been raised about the growing scarcity of technical skills, whether it be electricians, plumbers, lathe and mill operators, millwrights, welders, pipefitters, carpenters, metal fabricators, mechanics, etc. More critical is the absence of younger workers who enjoy working with their hands in team environments that still comprise the bulk of American manufacturing.

Job training, mentoring, lengthy onboarding, and collaboration with high schools and junior colleges is becoming a common factor of modern business and public agencies. Much of this has been detailed by Peter Cappelli, director of the Center for Human Resources at the Wharton School (U. of Pennsylvania) in his book, Why Good People Can’t Get Jobs (Wharton Digital Press 2012). The growing avalanche of re-shoring and manufacturing growth and general business expansion, coupled with huge numbers of technical public sector positions is creating extraordinary opportunities for those willing to work. The real question is that, as these positions become available, will the current crop of prospective candidates have the preparation, commitment, work ethic and basic technical skills to successfully compete for them? More to the point, when early- and mid-career people have been warned about job skill requirements yet have done nothing to acquire them, who is to blame when productivity lags and the best jobs remain vacant because the skills just aren’t there?

Throughout history market and economic growth cycles have produced new, better and more jobs. For those who have been told since the early 1990s about this growing trend and have done nothing to prepare, the woulda, shoulda, coulda response doesn’t play well. This is especially sensitive when we factor in mass outmigration of baby boomers, rapid re-shoring, emerging public infrastructure work, increased consumerism and a growing manufacturing sector; we need those jobs and the people to fill them. My concern is the gap between what is needed and what is available and how long it will take to catch up. If it takes too long, the recent upturn will soon devolve into another downturn-one that is predictable, avoidable, foolish and shameful.

jfl-pic-blue-shirtyellow-tie.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 four 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).

Optimism

There is an interesting connection between the passive ‘this too shall pass’ approach to life and the ability to embrace a life energized by relentlessly positive self-fulfilling prophecies. While there is historic credence in the ‘what goes up, must come down’ view, there is also value in accepting the responsibility to change things for the better. These are not countervailing visions. Because the plot always turns, there are bound to be periods of uncertainty, decline and recalibration. But every new challenge introduces opportunities to explore, innovate and evolve.

The current year represents this view. As with most New Years, it began with hope, but throughout was plagued with missteps and disharmony, misadventures and disconnects. But as it draws to a close, the American spirit must be recognized for a DOW that has set new records, the lowest unemployment in six years, millions of new jobs, escalating productivity, and growing consumer confidence. While we have not achieved the annual GDP anticipated, Q4 has been quite strong and may be a precursor to a more robust 2015.

America is a land of self-fulfillment; it is energized by opportunity, vision and latitude. As fortunate members of this society, we can seek, fail, seek again and succeed. We can try virtually anything and pursue illusory whim or calculated goal. This unlimited horizon has been and will continue to be the genesis of America’s strength and character. It is what leads us to believe that we can overcome any obstacle and win through the most arduous events. We are optimists who seem to be able to self-prescribe and heal our various maladies. Whether an external threat or our self-induced chronic diseases of congressional ineptitude, social bigotry, economic inequality, apathy and inane social media, we ultimately rally toward progress. However, the question remains, Will this continue?

Beginning with so many uncertainties, 2014 did not appear to have much chance to become a banner year. But in many ways it may become the launch point for additional progress in 2015. But that progress will compete with darker and more ominous forces. International unrest will divide nations as each seeks its own center and pursues its unique vision of sovereignty and prosperity; economies will continue to struggle due to resource, educational, infrastructure and social disparities; and those who desire to dictate the path of others will continue to assert their influence through conflict rather than reasoned discourse. It will remain a dangerously fragmented and contentious world that is growing warmer in more ways than we can imagine.

Is this to say we are not ready, excited and full of spirit? Certainly not! Looking back through history at many end-of-year scenarios, there have always been reasons for concern. But do we, as American’s, fold our tent, claiming that it is just too difficult, dangerous, or uncertain to give it our best? No.

I see slow economic growth but have embraced a ‘slow but steady’ posture. Congress will continue to be a mystery, as contention, distrust, greed, and power continue to be principal motivators, rather than vision, accountability and collaboration. The Middle East will be problematic, but, if the U.S. can begin to understand that complex mix of cultures and allow them to sort out their own social polarities, we may earn less of their attention. Innovation, productivity and job growth should continue their upward trajectory, but with fluctuations and potential DOW decline. The keys have not changed: patience, good data, strategic planning, employee development, and commitment to the ‘long-view.’ I have faith; I am a believer who is confident that 2015 will be another challenging, unpredictable, convoluted but rewarding New Year. Whether we’re ready or not, it’s here and is bringing a truckload of exciting new opportunities.

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).

Woulda, Shoulda, Coulda

This short essay may imply a tinge of retrospection that may result in revelation or at least casual rethinking. We launched into 2014 with anticipation of a reasonably productive year and maybe some real progress in several areas. The good news is that that economy does appear to be gaining overall strength even though it will no doubt fluctuate a bit as the world turns. While I embrace a measure of optimism and continue to assume the best, I am somewhat troubled by continuing reports of unemployment, underemployment and, perhaps more worrisome, the growing number of people dropping out of the workforce. The latter phenomenon skews employment numbers but the emerging stories behind this mass abandonment seem to signal a deeper, more pervasive malaise.

The central and most troubling social questions are, ‘What were people thinking all those years when times were good? Did they plan for the potential of a downturn or for the prospect that their job might not last forever? Did they save money, live within their means, and acquire additional skills while times were good? Did they pay attention to the many campaigns encouraging retraining or take advantage of myriad retraining programs?’

Stories abound of struggling breadwinners underemployed in minimum wage jobs, if they can find work at all. Displaced workers lament they have looked for months or even years for work after having been displaced or abandoned by their former employers. There is no way around the fact that this is sad and troubling. However, when one begins to explore the deeper circumstances contributing to the current dilemma, it becomes clear that many of these people were good folks who never, ever thought, ‘What if?’ Many purchased homes they really couldn’t afford, had little in savings, splurged on every conceivable toy, did not seek new knowledge and skills, and for years generally ignored admonitions to, ‘live within your means, save, and prepare for a challenging future.’

The ongoing debate over extended unemployment benefits is illuminating the plight of millions. To be sure, some were victims of scams (which, with good counsel might have been avoided) or medical emergencies that drained precious financial reserves, but on the whole, these were rarer than you would think. Others had grown up in environments that did not promote education, advancement, or a bright future. But millions of the citizens now struggling were complicit in their predicament. The underlying debate over unemployment benefits is now subtly addressing the value of continuing benefits to those who did not actively participate in their own preventive measures. Will these benefits merely extend the malaise or, worse, promote it? Are we creating a broad, deep stratum of America that takes little or no responsibility for their own misfeasance or lack of foresight?

Those advocating ongoing assistance for those actively seeking retraining or repositioning for the future are addressing this social challenge. This country must take care of those who cannot care for themselves, protect those who are unable to protect themselves, and extend a hand to those who have experienced unavoidable catastrophes. However, there must also be a clear message sent to those who have consistently had the means to change their lives but have chosen not to do so.

Another round of unemployment benefits was prudent under the circumstances. The future, however, will belong to those wise enough to recognize the value of knowledge and skill acquisition in stable or emerging industries. Education and continuous training is essential in a global market that is increasingly technical, computer-driven, and skill-specific. Those who for the past several decades have lived for the moment are now caught in a whirlwind of new concepts, technologies and expectations that are difficult to grasp, let alone master. So, with a nod to Darwin, they are passed over for those more adept in this rapidly evolving world.

There is no castigation or admonition here. Reflection and a retrospective view can, at least on the surface, seem cruel. But the real message is that most of us, at some point, and often at many points in our lives, have choices. It is said that to become wise, you have to have been unwise. The real test is whether we, as individuals or as a society, will have the wisdom to see the future and have the discipline to make sensible personal and collective decisions that prepare us to thrive in the 21st Century.

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 Problem with Inequality

The 2013 movie, Inequality for All premiered at Sundance Film Festival in the Documentary Competition section and won a Documentary Special Jury Award for Achievement in Filmmaking. Directed by Jacob Kornbluth, the film examines widening income inequality in the United States, which lately has been a major national topic among academics, politicians, and plain old folks that are tired of working more for less.

Since the 2007-08 financial crisis the issue of income inequality has gained public awareness. The foundation for much of the concern is grounded in some stark and troubling data. In the thirty years before the latest recession the U.S. economy doubled. But, according to this documentary, these gains went to a very few. As of 2013 the top 1% of earners now take in more than 20% of all income—three times what they did in 1970. Distortions are even more extreme at the very top. The 400 richest Americans now own more wealth than the bottom 150 million combined. This level of inequality poses a serious social and economic risk to all Americans, regardless of income level, due to skewing a playing field that historically allowed virtually anyone to make it big. We are now seeing much more anger and resentment from a frustrated middle class who feel the American Dream has been taken away and is being held hostage by the rich and powerful.

At the heart of the film is a simple proposition: What constitutes a ‘good’ society and what role does the widening income gap play in the deterioration of the nation’s economic health? Narrator Robert Reich, former Secretary of Labor and professor of economics at the University of California-Berkeley, distills the story through the lens of widening income inequality—currently at historic highs—and explores what effects this increasing gap has not only on the U.S. economy but American democracy itself.

Pulitzer Prize winning author Michael Hiltzik noted on February 4 in LATimes.com that discussion about the middle class being left behind has become, “part of the mainstream kitchen table debate” in America. Also cited is the new Gallup poll that found fully two thirds of adults are either somewhat or very dissatisfied with the distribution of wealth in this country.

The trend is growing more acute. Since 2009, 95 percent of U.S. economic gains have gone to the wealthiest 1 percent of the population. While stocks on Wall Street are soaring, salaries across America remain stagnant, not even keeping pace, dollar for dollar, with salaries and wages of 25 years ago. Los Angeles Times writer David Horsey noted (January 21) that those at the top of the social ladder have one overriding goal: “to protect what they have and get even more.”

New York Times columnist David Brooks weighed in with a deeper review, citing the need to understand the many contributing factors to income inequality. He noted that growing affluence among the wealthiest Americans is definitely not causing problems within the middle or poorer classes. Most issues, which have also been reported by Pulitzer Prize winning New York Times writer, Tom Friedman, result from the phenomenon of globalization and cheap foreign labor that has dampened U.S. wages. Moreover, mitigating social forces include a dysfunctional (or at least unequal) education system, insufficient technical training, an entitlement culture, and decades of largesse even among the poor have contributed to the current condition. Friedman’s book, That Used to be Us (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011), cited numerous contributing factors and forces responsible for a perfect storm of economic stagnation for the American middle class and those who remain classically poor.

In a January 26 article (The Other Kind of Inequality) Wall Street Journal writer Mickey Kaus suggested that the decline of American social egalitarianism is more worrisome than differences in how much people earn. Merely hiking the tax rate for the wealthiest Americans or boosting the minimum wage will not solve deeply ingrained problems that began over 50 years ago.

In the Land of the Free, people pursue the American Dream and, even with the wealthy taking home the top 50 percent of the nation’s income, there is no absolute barrier to success. Just ask the many private and public sector employees who began their careers among the poorest and least advantaged. There remains ample proof that virtually anyone can break free of economic, social and educational shackles to become highly successful. Those One Percenters who are calling for income redistribution miss the point. Taxes pay for the infrastructure and services we all enjoy and the rich cannot enjoy those benefits any more than the poor. They do, however, pay more for that infrastructure due to making more. In essence, this already redistributes wealth to sustain America’s framework- its roads, ports, airports, schools, bridges, public safety services, health services, military, etc

As Kaus noted recently, it is a problem without a clear solution. Some people somehow get through high school, technical school or college and go to work. Some prosper, some don’t; and, some had to work through school and some didn’t (most did or borrowed to the hilt); but of those who gravitated upward, most did it through hard work, perseverance, grit and luck. Inequality is a social norm. Even the most primitive societies tend to stratify. What could and should make America different is the role the wealthy play in helping others, teaching, sharing ideas, and contributing to institutions that open more doors to all citizens. I like the Buffet/ Gates approach-make a lot of money then use it to help others by financing innovation, healthcare, preventive medicine, research and education. Taxes aren’t the answer. The true answer lies in one’s conscience, world view and commitment to the global community.

jfl-pic-blue-shirtyellow-tie.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).

Resilience & Stability

My first blogs of 2013 were cautionary but generally optimistic, citing recent oil discoveries, job growth, growing consumer confidence and a stock market that at the time hovered around 14,000. As the year began, there were many conflicting variables, some promising a strong year, others indicating emerging options that could tip either way. And, of course, the global economy was struggling, with some doubt whether the EU could sustain itself or would spin out of control like some ill-conceived South American junta. War, political and sectarian conflict, famine, drought, floods, tornados, and just about every other conceivable calamity were part of our daily lives. Even with all the drama and turmoil available to dampen optimism, on the whole, 2013 began well and seems to be ending reasonably well.

As I write, the DOW is well over 16,000, around 2,000 points higher than a year ago indicating, at least to some degree, returning optimism. The reasons for this are diverse, but business has done reasonably well, savings have increased, consumers are cautiously spending, home sales continue to rebound, and the economy has grown around 1.7%. More importantly, the economy has gained momentum during the 2nd half, which, if continued, should carry us to 2.5% growth in 2014. While not a huge boost, it reflects a level of stability and caretaking America must have to rebuild its base.

Based on recent Kiplinger reports, we may see unemployment continue its downward drift to around 6.9% in 2014, along with a significant decline in the federal deficit, down to 3.3% of GDP from 4.1% in 2013. These alone are good signs, indicating to the observant and rational that at least some federal policies are working as intended. Of course, if you reviewed the March 25, 2011 Kiplinger Letter, you would see a growth prediction of 3.1%, which proved to be overly optimistic for 2011, 2012, and again 2013. The difference going into 2014 is that new oil reserves and supplies are driving down the cost of crude, and if some estimates prove accurate, prices will fall to the $85 range, providing a significant economic boost. Even at $90/ barrel, there will be a positive ripple effect across the economy that was not available two years ago.

The Fed has shown remarkable prescience and restraint in not only formulating a coherent fiscal strategy but in its implementation. While the financial and health care industries seemingly remain outside the bounds of rational control, there are signs that people have had enough. Whether Congress will act is another question, but monitoring is underway and new legislation, if implemented, may begin to curb the grotesque predatory practices that plague certain elements of banking and healthcare (for those inclined, read Elisabeth Rosenthal’s article, As Hospital Costs Soar, Even Stitches Cut Deep, New York Times News Service 12/3/13).

From all accounts, Europe will continue to struggle, hurting U.S. exports and continuing to limit our economic growth. This will be the third year in a row that we have not had much support from our largest trading partner and, with global economies struggling, the prospect for any more than moderate (3%-4%) export growth is slim. Overall, not dismal but below desired levels.

From my vantage point, there is reason for optimism, but only if tempered with understanding. Clearly, growth will be less than robust. However, keep in mind that the U.S. and all world economies are still undergoing a major decade-long transformation, with multiple converging variables. Powerful forces are at play and many are uncontrollable in the short term (climate change, poverty, famine, deforestation, ocean degradation, sectarian conflict, territorial disputes, etc.).  Business and government must form stronger coalitions to forge sustainable strategies and a new foundation for long-term prosperity. While desperate, ill-conceived interventions harm private enterprise, so does the proliferation of rackets, scams, accounting fraud, and avarice that are hallmarks of uncontrolled capitalism. Balance, vision, planning and mutuality are the keys to strength. They are also the keys to a future that is not characterized by destructive private or public policy but by collaboration, commitment and equality.

2014 is dawning relatively bright. Though guarded, there is optimism mixed with prudence- a good thing for a consuming public used to an endless cycle of spending, acquiring, and discarding. The prospects for a fairly strong year are growing. Janet Yellen should keep the Fed on track, business will invest as opportunities emerge, Congress may see the light (doubtful), and the public will begin to demand greater progress in the areas of health care, banking, education, infrastructure and the environment. I believe in self-determination and resilience. The Futures Corporation remains committed to achievement, to helping others fulfill their dreams and to contributing to a bright, sustainable future. It won’t be easy, but good things can happen if we stand together.

jfl-pic-blue-shirtyellow-tie.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).

Education and the Future

A tectonic shift is occurring in America’s education system. Common core standards have been accepted by 45 states and are now being recognized by many as the country’s best chance for a vibrant economic future. This flies in the face of budgetary limits and the narrow views most legislatures demonstrate regarding funding for education. While the business community and more enlightened legislators seem to understand that the 50 million children now in the nation’s K-12 educational system are the foundation of the future, others seem more comfortable with substandard test scores and achievement far below that of many other countries. This narrow provincial view is eroding America’s options for long-term economic vitality and creating limited opportunities for our young people to compete in a global marketplace.

The fourth annual NBC News Education Nation Summit was held October 6-8 at The New York Public Library. Moderated by Brian Williams, the Teacher Town Hall portion aired live on MSNBC on Sunday, October 6 and was extraordinarily powerful. To say the least, the 2-hour fact-based program was moving but probably left many viewers with feelings of anger, frustration and exasperation. From virtually any perspective, as with many other current challenges, many of the country’s educational troubles lead directly back to the Congress and state legislatures, neither of which seem enlightened enough to triage school funding to achieve the greatest gain.

It is clear that teachers are spending on average from $150 to $400 a year out of their own pockets on classroom materials due to state and local funding shortages. And, when compared to similarly academically prepared and continually educated professionals, they are paid around 30 percent less. Many districts are wholly unprepared to implement common core programs due to insufficient funding for materials and teacher training. Yet, the business community has acknowledged that national standards leading to greater skill acquisition are absolutely essential if this country is to remain competitive.

A dominant question pertains to the nation’s future workforce. With 78 million Baby Boomers either retired or heading in that direction, workforce planning and development has become a Tier I priority. However, it must be considered in concert with K-12 preparation if we are to develop the technical skills required for a globally competitive workforce. U.S. schools are losing over a million students a year before they graduate. This is an enormous number of non-educated individuals entering a workforce that demands rapidly escalating knowledge and intricate new skills. Even though the national on-time graduation rate (74.9%) is the highest in 40 years, there is a long way to go.

From a purely selfish and performance-driven view, it would seem wise to invest in education if, for no other reason, to access the knowledge and skills required to operate in complex, technology-dependent organizations. But investment requires understanding what teaching and educating is all about, which is curious because all of us have experienced the entire educational process. Even with profound personal experience, few seem to grasp that teaching is about relationships and connecting with each unique student. It is not about rote drills and introducing technology. All the new technology will not improve learning if a student is unwilling to invest the time or has been raised by parents who do not support the educational process by reading to their children, helping with homework, and generally reinforcing good study habits. It is even more essential that parents believe that education is important and valued in the family.

It is important to realize that teaching is not a program but a process. Just as important is the understanding that teaching means caring about the ultimate success of our children. Teachers don’t teach math, English, or science…they teach children, and every child is unique, complex and worth individual attention. Unfortunately, our system is becoming driven by the belief that technology is the panacea that will save the educational system by introducing a new learning environment that creates a more modern, hyper-prepared graduate. So far, the exact opposite is proving true. Children still need individual attention, nurturing, counseling, guidance, encouragement and mentoring that only professionally prepared and experienced teachers can deliver in concert with family support.

We must keep in mind that, as one teacher noted during the MSNBC program, ‘We are not going to test our children to greatness. We are going to teach our children to greatness.’ By using emerging tools, such as the Kahn Academy, teachers may be able to provide more individual attention. The conundrum is that integrating technology requires constant training and investment. It requires a broad master plan with a vision of what we are trying to accomplish. In addition to teachers, three tiers of education are required: parents, communities, and students. It must be an integrated system with broad support and financial backing. Even more critical is that legislatures and Congress are the wrong institutions to create policies and regulations. These must come from the educational community, which, until recently was reluctant to embrace performance reviews and higher practice standards. This is rapidly changing and will continue to require patience, innovation and vision.

The future depends on educated people who can compete and prosper in an evolving world. Is the U.S. ready to refine, upgrade and promote its educational system? There are good signs, but financial support is sorely needed. Before this happens, I predict that more integrated private and public sector involvement is essential. It’s time to define the desired educational outcomes needed to meet predicted challenges and build a system to suit. Moreover, we need responsible citizens who understand freedom and know their history, geography, science, English and math. We can build a remarkable future through education but must begin now. The title ‘Education Nation’ is worth adopting. Becoming such a nation will require much more effort and commitment.

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).