July 8, 2012

Lessons can be earned from hard economic times

Colin Read, Everybody's Business

---- — I am sitting at a dock near Cumberland Bay, watching the sailing ships roll away, and I can’t help but think just how lucky we are to live in a place as beautiful and peaceful as Plattsburgh. Each of us has our challenges and hardships, but many people in the world would trade their troubles for ours in a heartbeat.

I spoke with a woman this week whose fiance has found our community challenging. Times are hard everywhere, I know. I spend most Saturday afternoons sitting at a wine shop that serves as a contemporary version of the traditional barber shop. There, people sip wine and sometimes discuss what the world is coming to. I am sure some feel as blessed as I do, and others hopeless as they ponder what brought us to this point. There is something universal, though. All of us are concerned.

Many of our most troubling concerns often won’t affect us in our lifetime. Issues of pensions, education, the antipathy of affluence, or the perplexing paralysis of politics are themes that are rehashed over kitchen and dining-room tables everywhere. We discuss these issues even though it’s our children who will pay the highest price for our generation’s follies. And, many of these issues we feel we can do little about.

Why do we put so much emotional and intellectual energy into things we cannot change?

Is it because we cannot grasp easily the difference between what we can change and what we cannot?

I don’t think so.

I think these universal conversations are less about changing the world and more about hope that the future can offer a world at least as good as what was left to us. Yes, we are lamenting how our institutions are failing us. But, I don’t think we enjoy complaining or being complacent.

Instead, I believe there’s a human yearning to create a better politic, a fairer social system, a more productive economy and a more sustainable world. The energy we put into these conversations over a glass of wine are our ways of contributing to a more sustainable economy.

These conversations are not designed to conserve, nor preserve. I don’t think there are too many people who think the world can afford the current status quo. Rather, these conversations are progressive. They aspire to a better way, with greater harmony, greater productivity and greater sustainability.

Almost never do these conversations focus on having more but doing less. Most people seem to agree that there is no simple fix. We cannot simply take more from the rich to make happier everybody but the rich. We don’t really believe that there is some benevolent dictator out there who can fix everything without us having to do anything. We recognize the future depends on our hard work.

Perhaps because of the global financial meltdown and the hardship it created, we have also come to realize that there are difficult problems to solve and these problems warrant sophisticated and subtle solutions. Our conversations, and even these columns, are designed around the broad recognition that greater communication, education and information will be necessary to navigate an increasingly complex world.

Yet, we don’t seem to just throw up our hands, even if at times we would like to throw something at the television set. There is a yearning to be engaged. There is a recognition that the community and the municipalities around us are the first and best place for us to get involved. We realize that the interactions we have in our own community are frustrating at times but seem infinitely more productive than the interactions we have with the state and with the rest of the country.

We seem to all want a better world, but not necessarily a simpler world. I think we recognize that the world will never again be simple. We retain some truths though. We have come to recognize that we can’t get something for nothing and that the value of hard work and the importance of innovation are as enduring today as they were when this country was formed.

That, to me, is the gift of the Great Recession. When so many have lost so much, we must remember that our world is fleeting, and only our work ethic and our hopes will sustain us and produce something lasting for our children.

Perhaps if things were not as challenging, we would just be comfortably complacent, sitting on our decks, watching boats go by without a care about the direction of the world. Now, that is what I find scary.

Colin Read is the chair of the Department of Economics and Finance at SUNY Plattsburgh. Continue the discussion at