The Price of Time and Our Communities’ Futures

Only entropy comes easy.

Anton Chekhov

I have been reading excerpts from Edward Chancellor’s The Price of Time: The Real Story of Interest for the last few weeks. I suggest you get a copy – I think it will become one of those books that shape people’s thoughts and color public dialogue. It illuminates the path our country took to get into its current economic mess. It is an in-depth study of what I wrote about in “Masked Villains.

Chancellor has an interesting metaphor that I want to borrow. Suppose there are two cities, separated by a raging river. One city is the Present and one is our desired Future. There is a bridge that crosses the river – the only way we can get to that Future.

But we live in the Present, and have to meet the Present’s daily needs: food, clothing, shelter, education for our kids, medical care … And so, it is all too easy to forget about the bridge to our Future. But there is a price to pay for our forgetfulness, for our neglect – entropy. Entropy is the price of that wasted time.

Entropy is perhaps the most difficult physical property to understand. Temperature, mass, distance, velocity, volume, and even time are all concepts that we almost intuitively understand. And yet entropy is in some ways the most important, because of its ties to our own mortality.

Entropy is Nature’s drive toward randomness, seen in the buildup of waste products and the dissipation of energy and order. It is the loss of information in messages, the fading of memories, and the decaying of our bodies and bridges. Entropy embodies uncertainty, risk, and friction.

It takes effort – energy – to combat entropy. Our bodies’ systems geared toward repairing the day to day wear and tear on our bodies first and foremost rely on our internal energy generation systems. As we age, those systems become less and less efficient until our bodies no longer are able to withstand entropy’s inexorable pull. Thus, in a very real sense, entropy kills.

At the community level, entropy means concrete will inevitably crack, stone will erode, and iron will rust. We often call these the ravages of Time, but just as it takes effort to maintain our bodies, maintaining our physical infrastructure also requires effort – energy. In fact, all of our infrastructures – whether physical, social or economic – require effort if they are to be remain viable parts of our communities.

If we neglect them, they will inevitably crumble: the concrete pillars holding up a condo will fail; our children will forget how to interact with others on a human level; our businesses will waste their capital on meaningless gestures instead of investing in themselves. One need only look at our frayed social networks and our confused and conflicted culture to recognize entropy’s fingerprints.

Because of entropy, our communities will always face chronic slow-onset crises that eventually will require immediate attention and action. It is all too easy to become so wrapped up in the Present’s crises that we forget to maintain the bridge to our Future. The Chekhov quote is a stark reminder of how easy it is to forget, and of how hard it is to remember to invest in our bridges toward our Futures. If we don’t invest and maintain those bridges, we risk their collapse. And if they collapse, we may fall into the river’s swift current, perhaps never to find our desired Future.

A side note. The sharp-eyed may note that Chancellor in effect is calling interest (e.g., on loans), not entropy, the Price of Time. In effect, interest is a measure of the entropy of financial systems. When the interest rate is decided by the financial market without government interference, it is a reasonably accurate measure of the financial system’s entropy. In times of low monetary volatility, market interest rates tend to be low, indicating the market’s conclusion that the loss in value of the loan’s principal over the term of the loan is relatively low. As market volatility and perceived risk (uncertainty) increase, the interest charged increases. So, too, with increasing length of the loan – longer time, larger uncertainty.

Unfortunately, when central bankers do silly things like giving us negative interest rates (where we still are now in almost all of the developed world), then the measure becomes highly inaccurate.


Future-Focused Education

Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow,
Don’t stop it’ll soon be here…
Yesterday’s gone, yesterday’s gone.

Christine McVie

Over the summer I wrote about the importance of having an ecosystem that would enable the poor and disadvantaged to succeed – to rise out of poverty. I used a quote from Bobby Unser to identify the key attributes of that ecosystem – preparation and opportunity – and went into some detail about what opportunity is, and isn’t. But opportunity by itself isn’t enough – our enabling ecosystem must help the poor and disadvantaged recognize opportunities and provide them with the tools to seize them.

And that’s where education comes in. A strong educational system is a hallmark of a resilient community. In these communities everyone has a good chance to succeed. Even the poor and disadvantaged are prepared to seize the opportunities that are there for them. While there are already too many voices screaming out what an education should be, let me softly come at it from a slightly different direction.

Obviously, I’m not an educational expert (I’m sure some of you sometimes wonder if I’m even educated, or an expert in anything). But what I think we all need to focus on is education for what. That’s why the song lyrics from Fleetwood Mac – the what is to be ready for whatever tomorrow brings. I want our kids – all of them – to be ready to be able to survive and thrive in the world to come. And I want them – all of them – focused on their futures, and not dwelling on their parents’ past. After all, yesterday’s gone…

A farmer in 1800 would be doing things much the same as his forefathers in the 16 and 1700’s. By 1900, he would be very uncomfortable with the mechanization of farming, but would still recognize many of the basics he knew. That same farmer really would be lost in the world of precision farming based on information technology we have today. Further, he would not be able to cope with the accelerating pace of change in our world; that didn’t happen in his.

So, to me, a future-focused education has to provide the following:

An accurate understanding of the path to the present and possible futures. As I’ve often said before, trajectory doesn’t have to be destiny, but it takes action to set a different course. To be future-focused means knowing how we got where we are, where the world is heading and what its drivers are. This means our education system has to provide an accurate picture of what we know about our past and our present and where the world may be going. That picture can’t be black and white; whether we like it or not, we’re awash in a world of grey. And the picture shouldn’t be just shades of red or blue.

To be more concrete, let me use climate change as an example. The global climate is changing; it is getting warmer on average, and has been (by fits and starts) since the 1700s. Sea levels are rising on average. But the sea level at some locations is actually falling; some locations are actually seeing a long-term cooling trend. Students need to understand what is happening to their local climate. Coastal development coupled with poor land use decisions has resulted in greater devastation due to storms, i.e., the number and intensity of the storms we’re having has stayed about the same but the damage is greater. Students need to be taught the facts not just about climate but about the drivers that have put so many people and so much property in harm’s way.

The ability to learn. The amount of new knowledge is growing exponentially; there is no sign that this is abating. No one can expect to grasp all of it. But being future-focused requires that we are able to restock our mental shelves with new information and cast aside what’s no longer useful. Many have talked about the skills and sources that are necessary for continued learning; often overlooked is the personal element that has to underlie their use. Our education has to help us to find our place in the global kaleidoscope. If we know that and understand the world around us and how it might change we can begin to apply the general lessons of how to learn to gain the knowledge we will need for future success.

Opportunities to form networks. We humans are social animals. For most of us, the networks we form are important components of our success. Throughout my life I’ve been fortunate to have lots of chances to network. As a kid I played football and baseball and soccer in school; I acted in plays; I worked on the high school yearbook. Throughout my life, the networks I’ve formed have provided social and emotional support when I needed it, and helped me to what’s been a great career (or three). Very importantly, my networks have been great indicators of future trends for me.

Our educational system needs to help students form their own networks. These are formed naturally through participation in sports teams, special interest clubs (e.g., chess, 4H, computers, gardening), music or drama groups, or junior ROTC. Not all kids will form lifelong networks (you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink) but we need to make sure they have the chance.

Confidence. Confidence is probably the most overlooked component of success (this applies to communities as well). If you have the confidence of accomplishment you’re more likely to take steps to better yourself. No matter how benevolent our governments, the poor ultimately have to take the steps to lift themselves out of poverty. That means they need to have accomplished something or have developed some special skills (forming networks is one of those skills) to give them the confidence to act to better themselves. Participation in network-forming activities can provide this confidence, but there are other ways – sports, academics, home ec (for women and men), shop (ditto) – where accomplishment can lead to confidence.

In a previous post I noted that kids need “the experience of working with their hands. We have too many who took on too much debt going for a college education that hasn’t prepared them for a career. We need people in the crafts and trades – especially when disaster strikes. Roofers, plumbers, electricians even at the bottom of their professional ladders make much more than the poverty level, giving them the chance to accumulate some wealth.” Becoming confident is arguably more important than simply acquiring academic skills; we’ve all seen examples of kids with high grades who had virtually no life skills or street smarts.

Communication skills. Whether you’re a plumber or a CEO, you have to acquire information if you’re to succeed, especially as the world changes around you. That means you have to be able to read. In a networked world, you have to rely on others sometimes; that means learning to write and to speak coherently. Public speaking is probably the most basic of these skills; it needs to have greater emphasis in education. And our globalized world increases the value of being able to speak a foreign language.

Financial literacy. In an earlier post, I mentioned the importance of being able to handle money. All children need to become financially literate. Ignorance leads to bad decisions in handling money which leads to a lack of reserves when times get bad. This is especially important for the poor; they have less to manage and the greatest need to manage their money wisely.

Technological literacy. Information technology has been the greatest accelerant of change the world has ever seen. However, we are on the cusp of even greater change brought on by the intersection of information technology, psychology and the health sciences. The nature of work will change; life spans will potentially become much longer; how we learn will change. In other words, technology will continue to be a major change agent shaping our futures. Technological literacy thus has to be a key component of a future-focused education.

Ultimately, community resilience is predicated on people and institutions ready to take on the future. That’s why education is more important now than at any time in the past. But education cannot simply be a presentation of a panoply of facts; it has to be focused on preparing everyone – especially the poor and disadvantaged – for the future. Unless the young acquire the knowledge and skills I’ve listed, they will be ill-equipped to deal with future change. And thus our communities will be less resilient. Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow.