Everybody's Business

Colin Read

Next month I will, knock on wood, enter my seventh decade on this planet. The years since the Eisenhower Era, through Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush (again), Obama, and Trump have each been mind-bogglingly different from each other.

But, no era in my life has been so dynamic as now.

To one who unabashedly embraces change as I do, the word “dynamic” may carry with it connotations of something positive. But, I mean the term with no such subjectivity. Rather, dynamism merely denotes change, which always has both good and bad components, if one must get subjective.

DOWN TO ATTITUDE

I can think of no change that doesn’t create some discomfort. In a world of somewhat fixed resources, change inevitably means someone gains while another sacrifices. Positive change should do far more good than displacement, though.

I say displacement because even those harmed by change have an opportunity to mitigate their harm. The cleverest among us figure out a way to make lemonade when handed lemons. A prod out of one’s comfort zone may even open up whole avenues of opportunity. It all comes down to attitude.

Heck, we all change every day. With each passing day we find ourselves richer for new experiences but with less energy to enjoy them. We could view this natural increase in entropy as a bad thing, or we can just view it as part of life’s path.

I prefer to view the dynamic era within which we live as one that inevitably moves our cheese, and demands that we adjust. These adjustments aren’t always easy, but most of them are inevitable, whether we like them or not.

Those Luddites, the followers of a fictional General Ludd of Sherwood Forest, felt it better to smash the tools of industry than become a tool of industry themselves. Their response led to their own obsolescence, though, and harmed nobody but themselves. We now refer rather generically to luddites as those who are unwilling to embrace technology, but that damning prophecy might be applied equally to anyone unwilling to recognize that society, and the economy, is changing, and we must adapt along with it.

The inevitability of change does not at all imply, though, that we must merely accept our fate. Technological progress is inevitable, and we’ve shared many times in this column the displacing effect technology will have. Change always creates haves and have-nots. Positive change results in a lot of haves, and very few have-nots.

But, even then, it is incumbent upon us to try to design change so that the have-nots are not too disadvantaged. While it robs the common good to hold back change, with all of its intendent positive effects on so many, we must still try to meet the needs of those displaced.

MINIMIZING HARM

Economics strives for efficiency. The notion of Pareto optimality encourages us to pursue actions that do more good than harm. I might frame a new term Pareto superiority for those instances in which we also bend over backwards to ameliorate the harm caused. We should not stand in the way of progress, but we can use some of that positive energy to minimize the harm it can produce.

We sometimes lose touch of this dimension, though. Technological progress is creating such efficiencies that the new mega-wealthy are cropping up like we’ve only seen during the dawn of the Gilded Age. Vast concentrations of wealth rob the masses of the livelihood that once embodied the American Dream. To advance one group with complete ignorance of another is counterproductive.

THOSE POWERLESS

Perhaps what the Luddites were really saying was what Robin Hood, that other legend of Sherwood Forest, well understood. An economy must make an effort to share its successes if we are to also have a thriving society. Otherwise, we become a nation of those empowered and those powerless.

We’ve seen the consequences of those who feel powerless. No longer do people wish to sit down and discuss how to build a better mousetrap. Cooperation devolves into cynicism and conspiracy theories. Our nation has been divided not by a new body-politic, but by politics that are increasingly partisan. It’s time to accept change but also embrace sharing in its fruits.

Colin Read teaches finance and economics at SUNY Plattsburgh and has published a dozen books on local and global finance and economics. He is also mayor of the City of Plattsburgh. He can be reached at readcl@gmail.com.