Partha Chakraborty, Ph.D., CFA –
Despair and anger seem to define people’s mood on all sides. Even with such negativity all around, the author wants to end the year with a Statement of Hope. Building on his life experiences, a five-point plan is highlighted to Make America Hope, Audaciously, Again!!
I want to end 2018 with a Statement of Hope. Yup, you read that right.
America has been great for me personally, all things considered; I did choose to accept Citizenship, Identity, and all that goes with it even when serious questions started to bubble up. I never drank any Kool-Aid and I never was a daisy. As I have stated repeatedly, as children of refugees in a different country, the promise of a country for, by, and of, vagabonds and forgottens was irresistible. “Give me your tired….”And there I was – tired, poor, and, hungry.
Then 2016 happened.
November of 2016 was also the month when I applied for US citizenship. Coming to the US for grad school in 1995, I have gone through repeats of “one step forward, one step back” in my quest for the American dream, most of them clearly have my own handwriting on them. Nobody will claim that the dream is even close, but the citizenship is there for sure. As I saw it, 2016 was the reconfirmation of the need for civic engagement, by one and all. No different than 2008, 2000, and so on.
Many argue that the mere existence of Donald J. Trump as President spells doom for the country. I personally abhor that an emblem of everything I used to think of as an “Ugly American” commands my salute as my Commander-in-Chief. I personally think most policies of today’s Potentates-in-Power are arrogant, irresponsible, incoherent and deleterious. And I sincerely hope more of the country think like this, in unison, where it matters most – at the polling booth.
He commands my salute when in uniform. As importantly, focusing on foibles of flinty First Citizen does take away from the important questions – why? Whereto? How and When? The rise of the “Ugly” points only to the shadows beneath the Beacon. And that is the subject of my hope amidst despair.
Much has been said about the angst that brought us here. Some really good research has traced the urban-rural division to causes deeper and impacts longer lasting. Examples include The Wall Street Journal, The Brookings Institute, The New York Times; and The Washington Post; an Op-Ed by Fareed Zakaria aptly summarizes such thoughts. Also noted is the fact that such challenges are pervasive in distant corners of the Western World, including in France, UK, Belgium, Poland and elsewhere.
The common thread is as follows. After having a bucolic existence till mid-’80s rural America is fraught with multiple avalanches it is ill-equipped to cope with. Manufacturing takes flight across the big pond or the narrow river. Technology fundamentally changes society emphasizing skills that can best be nurtured – and monetized – in clusters, not sparsely populated towns. America’s turn to service-based economy becomes complete, and even that requires a mental rejig that, almost by design, is built on network effect – again disadvantaging small towns. Added to the pot are opioids, an aging population, a gradual breakdown of traditional support mechanisms of family, church, and townsfolk – news of its decay was never exaggerated, even if widely ignored.
Even with all these, a study by Economic Innovation Group finds that during the economic recovery of 1992 to 1996, 135,000 new businesses were started in small counties, a third of the nation’s total. Employment in small counties shot up by 2.5 million, or 16 percent, twice the pace experienced in counties with million-plus populations.
And then the Great Recession hit. We were no longer in old Kansas anymore. By 2017, even amidst prosperity everywhere, largest US MSA’s had 10 percent more jobs than they had since before the start of financial crisis, rural MSA’s had miles left to go. 72 percent of employment gains happened in the top 53 Metropolitan cities who collectively account for less than 0.5% of the landmass of the country.
Over a longer term, the graffiti of an urban decay transformed itself to street arts of vibrancy; cities are relatively safe, as dynamic as ever, and remain absolute magnets for creative energy in every way. In a reversal of fortune, as The Wall Street Journal recently put it, “rural America is the new “Inner City”. In a telling statistic, since 1990, rural MSA’s actually lost 3 million residents while the US as a whole gained 75 million people!!
The Road to Nowhere starts in Every One-Stop Town of America, or so it seems.
Funnily enough, this is déjà vu all over again for me. I have seen, lived through and participated insides of multiple divides with plotlines very familiar and threaded together in a similar fashion. Growing up in India, Rural-Urban divide, economic and social, were subject of many theses. New technology – aka computerization – was a big evil, it absolutely promised to widen any chasm between the have-education and the have-not. As a child of refugees, I got pretty used to facing or hearing stories of, slight and apathy, even vitriol, by people whose own situations were not much different otherwise.
The antidote, for the most part, was “Make Hope Real”.
When it dawned on Indians that leapfrogging across generations of industrialization – all the way to computer age – required less capital, but needed more talent that we did have, we embraced computerization. There was a time when others would lecture Indian bureaucracy on horse-and-buggy substitution stories, no longer!! Most Indian teenagers now profess an acceptable level of familiarity with the latest gadget they can ill afford, and most Indian business mavens spend sleepless nights on disruptions brought by technology, as much as they did – and do – on bribes competitors are paying to steal their lunch. Decades of economic growth have made the Pie so much bigger now that refugees are considered welcome additions to the workforce, while vilified as “infiltrators” only for explicit short-term political machinations. [Nobody said Indian politics cleaned up].
Divide between education haves and have-nots have widened as the upper crust can now access the whole world as their playground; at the same time, trickle-down effect has indeed kept most of the masses greedy but not necessarily hungry. Rural-urban divide still remains, but less stark when compared to excesses of the Nouveau Rich within any given geography. Process outsourcers have been relocating to Class B towns and down, still within a short ride away from metros; farmers near-by have sold out at significant gains in land-grab to house itinerant workers, farmers overall have gained from higher prices from a more indulgent population,… In short, the story of India is not much different in tenor, if not scale, then China.
Of course, the Indian story is substantially different from China because it still happened inside a cacophonic, raucous and confusing democracy. That is why the story of India is more relevant to the US. And that is why the US can learn from how India addressed essentially the same challenges since the early 1990s.
Here is my Five Point Plan.
1)- Build on Skills. I am not necessarily talking about coding, but coding does have a well-earned place in a tiered approach. I am more interested in essential life and work skills built on hands-on apprenticeship and entrepreneurial mindset in partnership with Unions, Industry / Businesses, Civic Leaders, Faith Leaders, and above all, empowered Teachers at High Schools. Beyond the 3 R’s, we need youngsters trained in elementary industrial tools and operations, basic accounting and even more basic expectations of a workplace – viz., clean-up, tie-up, and show-up. We need businesses to access these apprentices, for free and with liability protection, so they can impart essential skills. Unions need to embrace the next generation and spend quality time training them. Teachers need be told that essential life skills are part of the competencies a High School graduate must have. If we are not creating a workforce that can think, analyze, and perform, we are selling them short in the global marketplace.
2)- Have a tiered approach. When Amazon shopped for HQ2, most contenders never really had any chance, even if they were dangling millions of dollars of taxpayer money. You cannot hope to create a world-class tech-savvy workforce fit for Amazon HQ2 in a year, not to mention all the ancillary services and competencies that need be in place. However, you can always go for an Amazon fulfillment center – leveraging access to land, cheap workforce and relatively little retraining that it needs. You still end up with a thousand new jobs with better than average pay and a promise for more – with no pork. What we need is a tiered approach, assessing our strengths and having candid conversations about a to-do list.
3)- Embrace change with a nudge and a safety net. It baffles me that much of the country is still trying to hang on to a few mining jobs whose days are numbered no matter what. It confuses me why an experienced miner will not accept a job laying solar panels, e.g., where at least he sees the sunlight during working hours while having comparable pay. Continuing on the parallel lesson from India – a few courageous ones took upon themselves to learn basic computer operations while the rest still benefitted from union protection. Slowly the trickle became a torrent and now everybody is sitting in front of a screen even in remote places!! We can have Unions and the State offer protection to miners while we incentivize a few brave souls venture out; we also need to offer subsidy/assistance to reach an inflection point.
4)- Enhance the safety-net and but eliminate gaming. As an entrepreneur who had to depend on but himself and his family of three, I still shudder at the mere memory of those nine months I had to spend without any health insurance – not because I was a moocher on ER, but because I had had two heart surgeries to correct hidden congenital issues and hence uninsurable before Obamacare. Rural America will be scarred beyond relief, bankrupted literally, if they do not have a safety net of a dependable health care administering mechanism – and shame on us for letting that happen even if we have access to the best technology. Same goes for people with mental conditions, severe disability and so on. We should tweak our safety net to best serve them but reduce dependency and eliminate gaming. How to do that is subject of a later discussion on these pages.
5)- Empower local decision making. All of the above are best addressed by people who are living through it every day. I am not questioning considered decision making by panels of experts, but I do want the people to have the say when it comes to their own life. Of course, local decision makers shall have full access to analyses and advice by the expert panels; power must lie with people who will live through cheers or jeers at the local Mart. The centralized mechanism may collect data, analyze, compare and contrast results from competing approaches, and they will help subsequent decision makers make better choices. Democracy, as ever, is served best at the town square over meatballs and gravy.
The purpose of my article is not to assume away ugly facets of populism amidst tailwind of disciplined decision making. My Indian experience tells me certain uglier facets do have more time to fester the more leisure people have at hand. But over time big issues did subside, and even those uglier traits had to backpedal once the viciousness proved destructive for progress. I abide by the singular hope that American experience will not be too different.
And Hope is what is called for here. We need to make audacity of hope real for America. Again. Now. Hope for inclusive prosperity, for empowered decision making at local levels. Hope for better skills to create and nurture a workforce that is ready, willing and able. Hope for safety for the impaired. And Hope to dream a better life for your kids, and mine.
Make America Hope Audaciously Again! Amen.
[Partha Chakraborty is CEO of Switchboard Systems, an early stage Blockchain technology startup. All opinions are of the Author alone, and do not necessarily represent that of Switchboard Systems.]