May 12, 2013

In praise of optimism

Colin Read, Everybody's Business

— Our nation has suffered a lot in this greatest recession since the Great Depression.

On top of this recent plight, rural regions in this country, especially in the North, have been suffering a gradual decline in population and livelihood ever since the recession of the 1980s. Our Adirondack Coast has suffered a bit less, despite the loss of a major air force base, partly because of our proximity to Canada. But, our relative good fortune has not translated into contagious optimism.

While we have escaped the fate of some other counties in upstate New York, we still have some great challenges. 

Visitors to our region often marvel about our ability to work together in the best interest of our region, across political lines. I am surprised, though, when some of our own community resent the efforts, the hope or the modest success of others. They sometimes become cynical and, worse yet, try to trip others up or engage in destructive competition.

The difference between constructive and destructive competition is easy to describe. We celebrate athletes who compete fairly to run faster, hit the ball farther or move more gracefully. We abhor those who do so by taking performance-enhancing drugs. Even worse, though, are the Tonya Hardings who try to triumph by harming a competitor.

No ethical or economic good can come from one who tries to hold back another. For the benefit of all, we ought to embrace competition and resist efforts to hold back other individuals or communities.

Our economy and society seems to go through cycles of pessimism and optimism. Perhaps in periods of economic misery, it’s just too easy for us to fall into a cynical trap. But a community wallowing in pessimism, or an entrepreneur who devotes energy to tripping up others, simply constructs a self-fulfilling prophecy. How do we grow, how do we pick ourselves up by our bootstraps, if we abandon hope and expect the worst?

There is so much we can do for our community by simply promoting our region and each other. I often lament that there is little difference between this Adirondack Coast and the citizens and economies just across the lake. Yet, Vermont has half the unemployment rate we suffer, has a vibrant sense of support for local enterprise, entrepreneurship and innovation, and perhaps has more state-wide pride than just about any other state in the nation. 

They have no resource we don’t also have here. Their children are no smarter than ours, and their history is no richer. It can’t be something in their water, as they share the same watershed we do. Rather, it is the six inches between their ears that is their greatest resource.

While it is hard to divine how some regions create Vermont’s disproportionate pride, it is easy to see the positive aspects such pride and confidence creates.

When I look around this region, though, I can’t imagine what anybody has on us. We have beautiful and bountiful nature, rich resources and a resourceful populace. Our history is almost without parallel in helping to foment not one nation, but two. We perhaps suffer a bit by benign neglect sometimes, and a paternalism that sometimes breeds dependency at other times.

However, we are also a resilient people who care passionately about those who came before us and those who will follow us.

These are the features that endear this region to me. Like most of you, I see so much potential for us all and for our children and theirs. We should be mindful of detractors and pessimists, and we should be ever vigilant about spending or investing beyond our means. But, we should not let these hard times allow the naysayers and pessimists to get the best of us. There is just too much to do to realize our region’s destiny.

We all can play a part in our bright future by doing our best in our individual worlds. After all, don’t we all want to hit the long ball and run the good race?

Colin Read contributes to and has published eight books with MacMillan Palgrave Press. He chairs the Department of Finance and Economics at SUNY Plattsburgh. Follow his tweets at @ColinRead2040.