≡ Menu

Commentary: Debate not always pleasant, but it is productive

Posted: Friday, July 8, 2016 3:45 pm

By John Diers

Alvin Toffler, respected futurist and author of several books, among them “Future Shock” (1970), “The Third Wave” (1980) and “Powershift” (1990), died on June 27. He was 87. Toffler, together with his wife, Heidi, who collaborated with him as editor, adviser and co-author, saw and wrote about the pace of technology and the effects that rapid technological change would inflict on our economy, legal systems, schools, families, communities, institutions and all of our lives as a knowledge-based economy replaced an industrial age.

Toffler’s first book coined the term “Future Shock,” and it soon joined the lexicon as a synonym for the inability of our culture, our economy, our society and even ourselves to keep ahead of the technological changes happening all around us.

Consider a small example close to home. In the ‘50s and ‘60s, when I was a teenager and took up the hobby of “ham,” amateur radio, it was all about Morse code, glowing vacuum tubes, relays, huge transformers and a room full of equipment. Now, it’s possible to talk to the world with an iPhone. Then there’s computerization and the internet. In 1993 the internet handled barely 1 percent of the two-way communication going through telecommunication networks. That grew to 51 percent by 2000 and 97 percent by 2007.

Are we richer economically because of all this change? That’s the rub. Many are, but too many are not. A recent Pew Report found that the top 1 percent of Americans took away more than half the total income growth from 1993 to 2014. The top 0.01 percent — some 16,500 families — were capturing more of the nation’s income than they had since just before the crash of 1929 and the Great Depression. The top 0.1 percent, some 160,000 families, owns as much wealth as 90 percent of the rest of the country.

Are we living in a new Gilded Age?

Corporate profits and executive paychecks are growing at a healthy clip, yet real wages with inflation lag behind and have actually declined since the 1970s. In 1980, Fortune 500 CEOs earned about 42 times as much as the typical worker. Today they earn 373 times as much.

Add to this a rapidly aging population. Demographers project that over the next 10 years there will be more people over 65 than in our elementary schools. Many of them, because of these same economic shifts, won’t have enough savings or pension benefits to get through retirement.

Here and abroad, anger and disillusionment with these and other changes has led to a populist revolt among those who’ve, seemingly, been left behind and can’t cope with the changes, don’t want them, or long for a return to a simpler order — hence Brexit in Britain and the Trump phenomenon over here.

What does this mean for the longer term? Locally, it makes it foolish, if not sheer folly, to look ahead, as some would have us do, to a 2040 vision and a plan, when the future may take another and an altogether different turn. In 1950, when I was in first grade, “My Weekly Reader” had stories about 30 hour workweeks and all the leisure time we’d have by 1960. Ask yourself, would someone in 1916 have a vision for 1940 that included the outcome of World War I, the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression and the coming of World War II? I doubt it, unless that person was Nostradamus.

Preparing for the future means making smart decisions in the present. For Prior Lake that means spending wisely, keeping taxes and debt low, maintaining existing infrastructure and providing necessary services to residents and businesses — not chasing 2040 plans and economic development with road and other projects that run up debt, take homes and destroy existing neighborhoods. We make our own future. Long-range plans and self-fulfilling prophecies shouldn’t define the future for us.

Some will argue this is anti-planning and anti-business. It’s not. Short- to medium-range planning is essential. Nor is it anti-business to manage realistically in the here and now. Prior Lake’s business tax base is roughly 5 percent compared to 20-25 percent for other suburbs, and there are geographic factors that will keep it that way. For one, Prior Lake is off major north-south transportation corridors. I-35W is several miles to the east. Unlike Savage and Shakopee, Prior Lake has no railroad access. Prophetically, its only railroad line was abandoned in 1980. The former right-of-way through downtown is now County Road 21.

Prior Lake is a residential community. If it’s to keep its “small town feel,” it needs to stay that way and resist trying to turn itself into another Bloomington or Richfield. Growth is inevitable, but it can be managed by making developers pick up the full economic and environmental costs that come with development. That and saying no to projects with short-term appeal but long-term, unintended consequences that degrade the quality of life for residents. Growth, if managed, doesn’t have to be a zero sum game.

It has been argued that we have to “pull together for Prior Lake.” That’s true, and civility is important, but it’s also code for the feel-good “group-think” that may have led, in part, to the failed school referendum. Conflict is good. Dissent stimulates new ideas and directions and forces us to engage and reassess our viewpoints-not the Pollyanna-ish notion that the most important thing to do when working through an issue is to stay positive and “just get along.”

That’s nonsense. Debate isn’t pleasant, but it’s always more productive.

Please read more from the Prior Lake American: http://www.swnewsmedia.com/prior_lake_american/news/opinion/columnists/commentary-debate-not-always-pleasant-but-it-is-productive/article_ffafe2b6-7ea1-5e76-b1db-f7f6ecaedfad.html

John Diers is a Prior Lake resident who spent 40 years working in the transit industry and author of “Twin Cities by Trolley: The Streetcar Era in Minneapolis and St. Paul” and “St. Paul Union Depot.” To submit questions or topics for community columnists, email editor@plamerican.com. (Editor’s note: Diers is a community columnist and not employed by, or paid by, the newspaper.)