Mad Hope

sit in one of the dives

On Fifty-second Street

Uncertain and afraid

As the clever hopes expire

Of a low dishonest decade:

WH Auden

Hope is an odd word.  It’s simple, we all intuitively know what it means, yet its meaning is complex.  As long as I hope, I desire, and expect certain things to happen. All of history is nothing more than a story about hope.  My inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is, fundamentally, about my right to hope.  

So what happens when our hopes become a little too clever for our own good?

If history is any indication, our transgressions eventually catch up with us and we pay for them dearly.  

Auden wrote the lines above in his poem September 1, 1939 during the worst of World War II.  I read it again last year, around the time when the Greek Government became the latest recipient of a bailout to avoid defaulting on its debt.  I found myself re-reading and highlighting these lines.  Over seventy years after Auden wrote this poem, I looked back at another low and dishonest decade.  Others too have looked back and much has already been written and said about what went wrong and what led us here.  Sure, the story may be different based on where you live, but the themes are the same.  

We have been awfully clever over the past few decades, at the expense of our own good. 

The institutions, the centralized custodians of the social contract, have failed to meet expectations.

We have managed, quite successfully, to write our own ruin. 

We are at a turning point. 

Every significant moment in history is difficult to go through.  Each one tests our resilience.  In these moments, we understandably feel melancholic, uncertain, and afraid, as Auden did.  Institutions have fallen, or have failed, both in the developing world, and in the advanced, industrialized economies.  Entire industries are either being disrupted or are disappearing, while new ones that did not even exist five years ago are being imagined.  All these forces are exponentially magnified by globalization and a technological revolution.  All these changes are painful.  Auden was a poet; he captured the pain he witnessed, and wrote about what happens to hope, that fragile, constant part of our existence, when an entire generation is caught in the throes of change.

The economist John Maynard Keynes, I believe, would have been more optimistic.  He has certainly been quoted often in the past couple of years.  If I’ve learned one thing in trying to understand this crisis, it’s that Keynes had the gift of the long view, I suppose, as any good economist should.  Keynes however, many believe, was also right:

"We are being afflicted with a new disease… namely, technological unemployment … This means our discovery of means of economizing the use of labor is outrunning the pace at which we can find new uses for labor. But this is only a temporary phase of maladjustment."

So the solution is at least easily identifiable, if not easily achieved: We need to find new uses for our labor.  Keynes was hopeful.

But was he really right?  Keynes said these words in 1930 and was speaking about the Great Depression.  As it turns out, the “temporary phase of maladjustment” he described can be quite prolonged, if you look at the events that shook the world after, in the 1930s and ’40s.  For most of the world, including where I grew up, in Africa’s navel, and where my parents were raised, in India, this phase of maladjustment persisted for most of the twentieth century, and in many respects, still continues to do so.

The economist Philip Auerswald explains why in the article I linked to above:

"It turns out that Keynes’s vision depended on two critical elements not present in most of the world until recently: The organization of the economy attainable through large-scale investment, and the adaptability of the economy attainable through entrepreneurship. Soviet socialist economies had the first, but the not the second; most of the rest of the world had neither."

Until now.  He argues that end of the Cold War and the liberalization of markets in countries like Brazil, India, China, Russia, and Indonesia (to name a few) accelerated the pace of global change by unleashing increased investment and entrepreneurial activity in these economies.  In other words, we are at a moment at which the two elements which Keynes’s vision depended on are starting to be realized and will continue to sustain the pace of global change.

So, how do we go about finding our place in this change?  Much has been written about how my generation, fondly (derisively?) coined as the Millennials, has been coping with it.  We’ve been called many things: the MacGyver and DIY generation, generation flux, and even generation stuck.  While these are all very catchy soundbites, they fall short in addressing the root of the problem.  Philip Auerswald again (from the same article):

This generation indebted themselves as none before to earn their credentials only to find, too often, that the job market was looking for someone or something else.”

Sound familiar?

This sentence, like no other I’ve read so far, captures the core challenge we face. This is not to say that undergraduate, or graduate, education is now rendered useless.  Rather, it means that a textbook approach to navigating our careers will no longer work on its own, because the textbooks are largely still designed for an economy that no longer exists.  It means that we are entering a period where the creation of real, meaningful, value actually needs to occur pervasively across every pocket of the economy in order to contribute to GDP.  

Anyone who has ever done anything of value and meaning knows that this process is not easy.  It’s often arbitrary and punitive.  It must be fueled by inspiration.  And this therefore means that it’s important, first and foremost, to be loyal to your purpose if you want to lead a searingly rewarding life.  Your pension will follow.

Success, I believe, is no longer defined just by how clever we are or what we know today, but by how fast we can learn what we will need to know tomorrow.  This requires humility, agility, curiosity, and a constant hunger to learn.  

Often, with change, the biggest challenge lies not in understanding it, but in finding our place in it.  Like Keynes and Mr. Auerswald, I am hopeful about the long term consequences of all these changes.  This is not the first time the world has seen a bend in the road.  But this time, the bends are many and sharp.  Put together, they might not only just move the world forward, but shift it off its axis and unleash possibilities for human potential we have not seen since the start of the industrial revolution. And we get to see it happen.  

Isn’t this something worth being hopeful for? This moment is, I believe, our opportunity to waste.  

"Hope", the poet Emily Dickinson said, "is the thing with feathers, that perches in the soul".  Those who are more pragmatically minded than me would rightly point out that hope also exposes me to being disappointed.  Even so, I know that if I stop hoping, I stop dreaming.  To hope, some say, is mad, irrational, and foolish, especially in hard times.  True.  But, the pursuit of my own interests, that is, the force behind Adam Smith’s invisible hand, is sometimes fueled by nothing more than hope, nothing more than a belief that something I perceive in my mind is possible.  In this respect, hope is not an ephemeral or abstract concept.  It is the motive power that moves the world.