Reflections at the beginning of the new year

As we end 2012 and enter 2013, I have some observations about the world as I see it.

The economic environment

This is a very difficult economic environment for people of all ages, but particularly for young people leaving college, graduate school, or professional schools, except for those with very specific trade-based skills in which demand exceeds supply or for men and women with science, technology, engineering and math degrees.

Our colleges and universities are run highly inefficiently and tuition, book, room and board costs are wildly inflated.  They burden our students with huge debt loads and force them into long term financial servitude with education that, in many cases, is of marginal value in terms of their earning power.

However, what makes the situation worse is that what we reward throughout traditional education, including college, is the mastery of a bodies of knowledge as defined by school boards and individual teachers and professors, not the skill to use that knowledge to solve problems and propose solutions.  Our young people coming out of school are generally clueless on how to navigate the worlds they enter, whether those are business, government, the educational sector, or the nonprofit sector.  Part of this navigation process is recognizing that knowledge gets obsolete fast, but adaptability and emotional intelligence skills need to continue to improve.

The most destructive aspect of our education system is that it teaches both conformity and the creation of regulatory and legal obstacles to engineer risks out of our lives, and, while it achieves destructive conformity, it can never succeed in getting rid of life’s inherent risks.

Young people who succeed are usually those who have parents that guide them more quickly to the practical lessons of what it takes to succeed, or those who understand that there is another body of practical knowledge that they need to grasp alongside the useless knowledge they secure in school.  The most resourceful young people succeed today faster than ever, and earn more money than ever because, paradoxically, although we have more well-educated people than ever from around the globe competing for jobs, there is a shortage of street smart people of all ages able to cope with the complex and fast-changing world in which we operate.

In short, there is more opportunity than ever for people of all ages, but only if they abandon much of the conventional wisdom that has constrained their ability to succeed.

Technological changes

The world in which we live provides more technology tools than ever that increase convenience and reduce costs and friction in our lives in big and small ways.  I am amazed at what I can do today that was not possible five years ago.  I cannot figure out where to begin in describing this new, wonderful world of technology.  For me, the biggest changes are:

  • The e-books I can carry with me everywhere, including on my walks, with my Kindle and I-pad devices.  Being able to read anything anywhere is a big deal for me.
  • Applications that help me as a driver, whether they are location services that guide me to addresses, gas stations, restaurants, and parking areas, or services that alert me to traffic congestion problems.  They amaze me.
  • I love the ability to walk into an increasing number of retail outlets and to pay with a swiped credit card and to check out my own items.  I hate waiting in lines, and like self service generally.
  • I love the number of places that have Wi-Fi services that enable me to get online in coffee shops, restaurants, airports supermarkets with seating areas, and public spaces.  My biggest pleasant surprise has been the increased penetration of W-Fi service on airplane flights.  These capabilities give me more time to do more.
  • The ability to do web-based demonstrations and presentations to customers and investors has reduced the wear and tear of travel for me and my co-workers, and has given us more ability to reach people earlier in time than ever.

However, the negative aspects of our dependence on technology has also become clearer:

  • We depend more than ever on recharging battery-power devices, and have to be on the lookout for electrical outlets in unlikely places.  I can always tell how recently an airport terminal or gate area was built or renovated by the number of electrical outlets it has.  I have had to buy a battery pack to carry around with me, and a converter from the direct current power my car generates to the alternating current power my computer will accept.
  • Our dependency on electricity makes us more vulnerable than ever to power outages.  During Super Storm Sandy, the absence of electric power prevented people from withdrawing cash from ATM machines, from getting gasoline for their gas-powered back-up generators or their automobiles, from getting water from their electrically power wells in more rural parts of cities and towns, from using credit cards in retail stores, and from operating many basic technology tools that kept them connected to the outside world.
  • There is an increasing gap, often generational, between those who comfortably use technology and understand its implications and those frightened by it.  The ways in which we describe and understand the world need to change, and many people are bewildered by the change.  For example, many older people in positions of power do not understand the value of a downloadable application, even if they are savvy about the value of information available online.  It is a big difference for someone to have a highly customized application to locate information, to be given alerts and notifications, and to be given the equivalence of online coaching, on the one hand, as opposed to merely making information available online.

The fragmentation of our society

Having highly customized information delivered to our fingertips is both a positive development, in terms of having us get more of what we want and need, and a negative one, in terms of having us experience a different world from our neighbors and friends.

The world in which we live increases our ability to have communities of interest across geographies, time zones, ages, organizations, and families.  It also increases our ability to be isolated from people different from us.  Not only do we not understand the points of view of people of a different political orientation or persuasion, but we are frightened by what we do not know about them because we do not talk to them.

The concept of “red” and “blue” states and “red” and “blue” Congressional districts in recent elections alerts us to the fact that we are an increasingly siloed society.  President Obama won the election because he did a far better job picking up the marginal voters in the states in which Democratic and Republican voters were of nearly equal proportions, and because he brought more of his supporters to the voting process than did Mitt Romney.

What President Obama proved was that successful political candidates of the future for high-level offices will need to build, maintain, and even grow permanent infrastructures for campaigning well before formal election campaigns begin.  The only candidates who can build an infrastructure within 18 months of an election are those with so much money, like Michael Bloomberg, that they can spend whatever it takes to build quickly.

We saw this in Connecticut.  A highly popular and well-respected elected official, Christopher Shays, who, in my opinion, had a far better chance of beating the Democratic candidate Chris Murphy and was a well-qualified candidate, waited too long and started too far behind Linda McMahon, who never dismantled her campaign apparatus from her unsuccessful 2010 U.S. Senate against Senator Richard Blumenthal.  She was a less attractive general election candidate, but the Republican Party perceived that she had the infrastructure and the money to run a campaign.  The fact that she was a weak candidate was less important than that she had unlimited money to run ads and build a get-out-the-vote system.

The most troubling aspect of where we find ourselves is that the elected officials who represent us are far less representative of the majority of us than they were in the past, because only the most ideologically inclined and single-mindedly motivated individuals can survive their party’s primaries.

I believe we will muddle through the next four years with a miserably dysfunctional federal government and state and local governments of varying quality.  Paradoxically, although both parties are focused on “helping” their core constituencies, their ideological rigidity will end up hurting the most vulnerable members of society, although in different ways.

Democrats who extend safety net benefits, such as health insurance under the Affordable Care Act, will find that they have ended up delivering poorer access to affordable healthcare than if they had simply done nothing.  Republicans, who are heavily driven by pro-life and religious values, will see more people drift away from them because of the harshness and insensitivity with which many members of their party discuss and manage big issues.

I do not worry about the future for my children, because they will find a way to take care of themselves.  I worry about the children of less advantaged families who will live in a world of increasingly diminished opportunity because of a dysfunctional government that cripples the ability of businesses and nonprofits to do their jobs.

As a citizen who believes strongly in public service, I will fight for the empowerment of all people, particularly in the healthcare, education, government services, and entertainment industry spaces.  I believe strongly that the battle for empowerment is winnable, but that those who care about other people cannot be spectators in the battle.  Everyone who cares will need to contribute his or her best efforts every day!

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