Changing Times are Troubling
We often hear about challenges we are facing in modern times. Real and/or perceived effects of climate change, globalization, big data, and the largest human population ever are undoubtedly stressing contemporary society. Some of these have been put into perspective with the popular YouTube Video, Did You Know. I’ve inserted it below for your convenience. Credits go to–well, to the credits listed on the video.
I usually address my blogs to a broad and general audience, but since I find folks here in New Mexico are feeling the pain a little more poignantly than other regions, I thought I would focus today’s topic on what is happening in the Land of Enchantment. The world is changing quickly everywhere. Coping with the radical changes and the disruptive innovations is difficult. Indicators that New Mexicans are not coping well with change include failing economies, population egression, water shortages, food insecurity, and various critical health indicators. In our state, obesity, cancer, diabetes, and drug addiction rates are all too high. Even a basic high school education is less attainable in New Mexico than in other states. While the days when a college education was an undisputed ticket to a secure future are long gone, the cost of attending college continues to increase.
Is New Mexico Making the Most of Available Resources?
While there are always outliers, and we can point to many New Mexicans who live well, the facts remain. New Mexico does poorly in national comparisons of health, education, and economic opportunity. Even our top earners fall below top earners in other regions. We often attribute wealth creation to policies that create economic opportunity. My years in environmental sciences opened my eyes to the perspective that our economy as a whole is driven by environmental factors like fresh water, fertile land, and abundant plant and animal life. Oh, sure, trade regulations and interest rates matter. But without the natural resources that ensure each of us has air to breathe, water to drink, and food to eat, the economy is not going anywhere. New Mexico’s capacity to generate wealth is limited in part by it’s geography. Neither its deserts nor its alpine regions lend themselves well to the development of large population centers that create wealth.
Links between poverty and desertification are recognized internationally, and New Mexico sits on the largest desert in North America. So it is not surprizing that New Mexico supports less economic opportunity than, say, Missouri or Michigan. Nontheless, while recognizing the constraints established by the land itself, it seems that New Mexican culture and politics exacerbate existing economic hardship. Matt E. Ryan, an associate professor of economics at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, offered an interesting look at how policies might enhance or repress the opportunities our region offers when he compared New Mexico’s economic development since statehood to that of Arizona(1). He shows that while both states share similar geographies and histories, Arizona has fared better, suggesting that New Mexicans would do well to examine differences in policy.
How Does New Mexico’s Current Economy Compare to Past Era’s
With the exception of a few boom towns in territorial days, the Land of Enchantment has not been sought as a place for the masses to get rich since the Conquistadors discovered the Cities of Cibola lacked gold. Poverty is part of our history. One only has to visit Bandelier National Monument or the Gila Cliff Dwellings to recognize that drought-related poverty caused egression long before Republicans and Democrats began battling for seats in the US government. s a multi-generation New Mexico native, I grew up hearing stories of my grandparent’s struggles. Those on my father’s side lost their ranch in the 1930’s due to the combined effects of banking policies, population shifts following the dust bowl, and the devastation of lost cattle during one exceptionally cold winter(2). Other oral histories delivered by relatives remind me that my Spanish speaking grandparents, whose roots in New Mexico spanned centuries, had participated in socioeconomic networks that collapsed rapidly when statehood made English the more dominant language in practice. Since Spanish is an official language that is recognized in our state constitution, my grandparents could not have possibly understood the urgency with which they needed to master English in order to negotiate effective business. Who today can relate to the experience of waking up to find that the language you and your family speak is suddenly obsolete? My mother’s family also suffered loss during the depression. Their hometown of San Marcial was destroyed by a flood, and they were forced to re-settle.
In the nineteen forties, New Mexicans were displaced as our land became a target for the first nuclear bomb(3). Seventy years later, citizens downwind of the blast report effects of that bombing that no one can compensate(4). While the effects of this blast are difficult to prove to in the eyes of government entities, the emotions felt by those who lived the experience cannot be denied.
Even my own generation saw hard times. Some of my first memories date back to the late 1960’s. During that time, my family had left the state. My father was working in Washington, DC, and we lived in Springfield, Virginia. Race riots, assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, DC traffic, and the tight budgets forced by our relocation had my mother afraid to leave our neighborhood. Despite living in the city, our lives became quite secluded.
I’m old enough to remember Watergate, VietNam, the Challenger Explosion, and capture of my former parish priest by terrorists in Lebanon(5). The farm crisis in the 1980’s altered my own career goals. I saw that anyone planning to work in agriculture better have a plan B(6). With age, you come to see that what seems tragic today will shape you for tomorrow.
Today’s Rapidly Changing Economy and Environment Are Difficulty to Navigate
Yet even with this awareness that hardships come and go, and that people are resilient, I am daunted by the rate at which changes are occurring today. The industrial revolution my grandparents endured saw human labor replaced with machines. This created new opportunities for those who could obtain an education. They became the leaders whose innovations seeded the information age. It also launched an era of chronic disease. People who no longer needed their bodies to do work were weakened by a sedentary lifestyle.
Today, we are watching a digital revolution replace people who work in the information world with artificial intelligence. Robots that can create their own language and invent lies clearly threaten to replace human creativity. I find myself see-sawing between enjoying the benefits and fearing the losses brought about by the digital world. This world allows me to work from home, manage fine details of my personal health, order any product on the planet from my computer, and even watch the quintessential match race between Seabiscuit and War Admiral that I only read about as a child.
Yet even as I relish these benefits of the digital age, I worry about the changing nature of work, the loss of personal freedom, and the sense that we are not taking adequate precautions to keep our homes and communities safe. We are not fully understanding the risks and benefits of the new technologies we introduce. What will happen to our mental health when human creativity is replaced by artificial intelligence?
I don’t remember having these worries in earlier years. I used to trust that change brought as many benefits as liabilities. So why do I worry more today? Is it because the rate of change is changing so fast? Or is it because with age we can see the trajectory we are on more clearly? Would I be so concerned today if I was only 20 years old?
In the end, it really doesn’t matter. What matters is that we learn to stand tall against the storm. If we look at history, we recognize that millionaires and lasting legacies are built during times of economic chaos. Those who triumph in the most difficult times, those angels in the whirlwind, share six traits that help them find opportunity where other’s find tragedy. Recognizing and adopting these traits can help you become an “angel” in New Mexico’s contemporary and raging whirlwind. While they can’t guarantee your survival, (It is a tornado, afterall), these qualities can increase the chances that you and those closest to you will succeed.
Refine these 6 Traits to Become an Angel in Whirlwind Economies.
- Foresight: Angels see the trends and position themselves accordingly. The first successful revolution in what is now the United States actually occurred in New Mexico in the 1680’s. I won’t claim to be a history expert, but the accounts I’ve read indicate the revolt was led by a pueblo man named Popé, who united culturally diverse pueblos to successfully force the Spaniards out of what is now New Mexico. Popé’s success was short lived, in part because he could not see how dependency on Spanish goods and services and transformed Pueblo culture. He could not see that new technologies had changed people, and that the tide of change could not be halted. In his efforts to re-create the world they enjoyed before the Spanish arrived, he used force. In doing so, he destroyed the freedom pueblo people had fought so hard to earn. Popé’s revolution may have changed the course of our economic history if only he had worked with the pueblos to capitalize on the new technologies and trade opportunities they could not deny, rather than building a figurative border wall. Foresight is gained through education. It is developed by understanding the past and present so well that you recognize patterns in the chaos. It comes from listening to good storytellers who include all the subtle intricacies of related events. It comes from studying events at local, regional, and global scales, and recognizing how these scales interact.
- Independence: Independence is a mindset. It is an attitude that states, I know what I want and need, and I know how to get it. If you can provide it, that is great. I’ll make you a fair deal for it. But if you cannot provide it, I will do what I must to get it. The most sustainable independent mindsets are always paired with respect for the independence of others. When that respect is present, independent leaders do not infringe on the rights of others. Healthy partnerships can evolve into healthy interdependence. In an independent society, we don’t look for what others will give us. We value what we create for ourselves. We become makers, rather than takers, and in doing so, we escape the death spiral. Independent communities are characterized by entrepreneurial mindsets and business friendly regulations.
- Tenacity: Standing tall while the winds shift around you is difficult. People of every creed and color will try to steer you off course. Those closest to you will predict your failure. They will challenge your beliefs, and propagate self-doubt. Over time, they see that you are still standing tall. This is when you will become attractive to them. In a world where everything is changing, you will become their coveted rock, their source of stability. Now, they will adhere to your cause, and your beliefs will be reinforced.
- Large and Dynamic Social Networks: Social networks were key to both the success and the failure of Popé. Despite better guns, better transportation (the Spanish had horses), better communication (the Spanish had a written language), and the financial resources of the Spanish empire, the Spanish were defeated by the Pueblo freedom fighters. This is the power of social networks. To orchestrate the revolt, Popé established networks that led him into the heart of more than 20 nations along the Rio Grande and the Colorado Plateau. But when Popé limited his networks growth by refusing to connect “enemies” from Spain, he limited both the size and the flexibility of his network. These limitations minimized his legacy, and today few outside of New Mexico even know that there was a Pueblo Revolt. Too often, our New Mexico culture is notorious for its culture of exclusivity. Like the fictional residents of Milagro, we continue to distrust outsiders, and exclude them from our social networks. I grant that distrust comes with good reason. Outsiders tend to arrive laden with resources and promises. They start development. They experience our economic environment, and they leave. Bill Gates left before he was a name people spoke about. Many taxpayers doubt we will ever see an ROI on Spaceport America. But author and financial educator, Robert Kiyosaki, is frequently quoted as saying, “The richest people in the world look for and build networks; everyone else looks for work.” Others say, “Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.” What I’ve learned by analyzing these statements together is that by including people in your network who are vastly different from you, you learn perspectives and viewpoints that contribute to your own resilience. You gather intelligence. You gain strength. You make better decisions. I’m not saying you have to go to work for them. Keep your indepdendence by all means! I’m just saying that by keeping these relationships within your network, you avoid the “them against us” mentality that limits your own growth.
- Flexibility: Herein comes the balancing act. On one hand, you must have the tenacity to stay your course and refuse to get caught up in the continuous change of the whirlwind. But at the same time, you must become strong enough to bend without breaking. If you are not constantly modifying your plans, adjusting your course, and correcting for changing conditions, your plane is going to crash.
- Humility: You are intelligent. You have the foresight to prepare for the future. You have the tenacity to stay the course. You are independent, yet well connected. And you can be flexible. But above all these things, you are human. You will fail. You will get up, and you will fail again. Accept your weaknesses along with your strengths. Accept your failures along with your achievements.
No one can really predict where changing technology, changing environments, and changing politics are going to take us. But those who stand on solid ground are attractive to others in chaotic times. They become the angels in the whirlwind, the leaders that others follow. This combination of foresight to understand prevailing conditions, independence to chart your own path, tenacity to stay the course, social networks to connect you to resources, flexibility to adapt, and humility to accept your imperfections create a powerful package that is well equipped to thrive even amid 21st Century chaos.