Future Thinking

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The past is irrelevant.

Well, like most categorical statements, it’s not entirely true. The past can serve – if you approach it with a critical mind – as a guide to success. And failure. It can at least tell us how we got to the here and now.

Still, it is surprising how many people, on both the right and left, spend most of their time staring behind them, either with fond, if misguided, nostalgia or with bitter resentment. The past is a rich lode that can be mined to fuel present day prescriptions to restore a glorious era or overcome ancient wrongs.

But here’s the thing. While you may make tremendous efforts to re-write the past (so much easier than living in the present), you can’t actually change it. It’s over and done with. Despite aphorisms to the contrary, it’s dead, Dave.

More importantly, the past will always be that home to which you cannot return. As for those people who say ‘we should have done it differently…’ Well, you didn’t. In fact, for the most part, the speaker wasn’t even part of that mythical we; in some cases they weren’t even born.

So, while the past is not exactly irrelevant, it is largely unimportant to our current existence. You can’t change it and you can’t return to it. So grow up.

So what does that leave us? The eternal present and the envisioned future.

Which is plenty. By some metrics, there is now more ‘present’ than there has ever been. More people, more nations, more problems and more possibilities.

Everything we do occurs, by facile definition, in the present. But, at the same time everything we do extends into the future.

Ah, the future. Unlike the decaying body of the past, the future is pregnant with possibility and change. Indeed, every time we act in the present we create a different future. Science fiction fans will be familiar with the idea of ever-branching futures – each one shaped by the billions of actions taken by billions of humans every second. Most of those futures are indiscernible from each other, but no matter.

In truth, there is only one future – the one we all wind up living in. Almost nothing we do makes a bit of difference to that future. Even powerful people like Presidents and CEOs and public intellectuals and revolutionary leaders spend most of their days doing meaningless things. It is only in hindsight that we can ever say that this action or decision mattered.

Which might make life seem rather pointless and powerless. But it doesn’t.

We can have whatever future we collectively want. But that’s the thing – it is a collective decision. It’s not like some leader can take us to the future (any more than they can return us to the past) because they don’t know the way anymore than the rest of us. A book called Superforecasters recently pointed out that it is possible to make really good guesses about what the world will look like three months or even six months from now – but three years or six years. Not so much.

Maybe that seems pretty limited but still it does suggest a way forward. Conversation, dialogue, shared visioning – it’s not much but it may be the only way to get the future we want.

And that’s ten minutes.

Restless

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Sometimes I feel restless. It could be my father’s genes showing through. He spent 6 years a hobo, riding the rails in the dirty thirties, then more than two decades as a travelling salesman, away from home two weeks out of three. But on the other hand, he lived in that home for more than thirty years and was married to the same woman for longer still.

More than I can say for myself. I worked it out – since I first married at 19, I’ve lived in 8 towns and cities in six provinces and territories. During that span, I lived in 18 apartments or houses, moving on average every 28 months. I’ve been in my current place for nearly twice that. I’ve practically grown roots. Maybe I need to move.

I’ve switched jobs a lot, too, not to mention careers. I started out to be a chemist – got a degree and even a publication in the Canadian Journal of Chemistry – before switching to political science (2 degrees) and working at the municipal and territorial level, holding 4 different jobs in a little over 11 years. Over the next 11, I was a writer, actor, arts administrator, bartender and telemarketer. So much for 7 years at university. In 2002, I came to Ottawa and went to work for a Senator. I’ve been here ever since. Maybe I need a new job.

Although since I’ve also written a number of novels and bought a publishing company, maybe I already have one. Or two.

Maybe it’s the promise of spring that has been given us this week as the temperatures rise and the snow melts – except, for me, the season of change has always been the fall.

And yet, some mornings I wake up and want to get in a car and keep driving until I reach somewhere I’ve never been before. That’s problematic since I’d have to steal one. I may want to travel but I don’t want to be on the run from the law.

Maybe I feel I’m on the edge of something new but I’m not quite sure what it is or even when it will begin. I know I’ll be retiring soon – from my government job at least – but when exactly? Six months or sixteen? Maybe even 30 or more. Not in my hands – though I suppose it could be. I know what walking away feel like.

Maybe it’s just that I’ve got a book done but not released, two more half-edited but months away from seeing the light of day. A third even farther down the road – and more and more until I turn off that road, too.

What it reminds me of more than anything else is how I felt my last year in university. One thing was done; the next not yet started or even clearly defined. I could feel it in my twitching hands and in my restless feet. I could smell the new on the air but I couldn’t taste it yet or feel it.

But if I look over my shoulder, I see so much behind me, but if I look ahead all I see is fog.fog-1

And that’s ten minutes.

Zero Interest

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The European central bank just lowered the interest rate to 0%; Japan has been in negative interest rate territory for some time. Anyone who has a saving account knows that interest rates have been below 1% for quite some time. With inflation running at roughly 2%, this means your money loses value while you wait. It’s better than putting money in a sock but not much. If banks start passing on negative rates to customers (they haven’t yet, somewhat to the chagrin of central bankers) a sock will become a viable option.

The stock market isn’t doing much better. While you might be lucky or smart enough to pick winners, the overall returns from investing has barely done better than inflation this past year. Count in broker or mutual fund fees and even that advantage goes away. Someone may be getting rich (hint, it’s your investment banker) but it ain’t you.

There is lots of money around. Multinational corporations are sitting on trillions – holding for better times or, more likely to buy out their rivals during bad times. It’s not being spent on making jobs.

The economy is broken and no one, it seems, knows how to fix it. This is largely because in the 21st century capitalism has turned from a system designed to increase societal wealth and promote innovation and progress into a tool to funnel the wealth of a shrinking economy into fewer hands. And yet, people continue to hold onto the mistaken belief that the ‘free market’ is an impersonal and rational system to promote efficiency. But in fact it twitches and jerks to the strangest stimuli.

Take the price of iron in China. You may recall, that Mao said that democracy grows out of the barrel of a gun. Protestors in various countries riffed on that by putting flowers in those same barrels held by soldiers sent to ‘watch’ them. In China – where the economy is struggling – the price of iron suddenly jumped 10%. How could that happen? Apparently a massive international flower show was being held in a large iron smelting city. Local officials fretted about pollution levels. Iron company executives – suspecting a temporary shutdown – began hording their product. So the price went up. An ideologue might say it was a ‘rational decision’ but I would reply: You keep using that word; I don’t think it means what you think it means.

So if the market system is broken – what do we do? Especially if we are trying to buy a house, whose price will either spiral out of control (in part because of insider trading and speculators) or languish or even fall in many markets. What’s the point of pouring good money after bad? Why not rent and let someone else take the risk? And what about saving for the future when our savings are worth less every day? Maybe we should do what the central bankers want and spend, spend, spend. Or maybe we should give up on the idea that tomorrow will be richer than yesterday and learn to live with less. Easy enough to say when you are somewhat well off – but what if you are already living on less?

Or maybe we should start to reform the system by admitting nothing is too big to fail and that speculators don’t have a God-given right (let alone a legal one) to game the system. Maybe we could start by sending a few of the worst to jail.

But that’s ten minutes.