The title of the post alludes to an old cliché, “the only constant is change”. Today I had a strong reminder of the importance of this saying – especially in these challenging times.
It’s a Sunday. Rarely do I check my email first thing in the morning, because it’s counterproductive to getting real work done (i.e. real work being the important creative work like book writing – checking email is almost never real work).
Because it was Sunday, I let my defenses down a bit, and I had a peek at what was going on in email-land. I noticed an email from one of the newsletters I subscribe to. I rarely read this one anymore, but today something caught my eye, so I succumbed to a dire-sounding headline. This newsletter is put out by Chris Martenson, whose goal in his work is to warn people of the impending economic and social collapse.
I read a few articles, such as this one about the dying middle class. I got a bit depressed. That’s why I don’t read these things much anymore.
Right after that, I did a Google search on “house prices.” I was curious about what’s happening nationally to home values, because I just made an offer on a house. After reading the article on Martenson’s site, I was a bit paranoid, and wanted to reassure myself.
I wasn’t reassured. The search turned up another site that was all about the post-housing-bubble situation, where families and the middle class are being squeezed out, and rich investors are the ones buying all the houses. Following the article, there were a slew of posts by middle class folks who are stuck in situations not of their choosing – such as living long-term in an apartment, or being stuck underwater in a mortgage.
The banks are to blame.
Most of the folks there were blaming the bankers for their predicament. Those greedy bankers (and Wall st types) are ruining the middle class; they’re ruining the ability of the average person to own a detached home.
The politicians are to blame.
The folks who weren’t blaming the “greedy bankers” were blaming the “stupid/inept/greedy” politicians, who are running our economy into the ground just so that they can get reelected.
Everyone was blaming someone or something, yet nobody placed the blame where it really lies.
What’s really to blame: an expectation of “stability”
For a while after World War II, there was a suburban housing boom in the USA. This boom gave us the promise that we could own detached homes with two car garages, in order to live the American Dream. This went on from about 1950 until 2008 (though signs that it was headed towards problems were appearing in the late 90’s). For fifty years, most Americans could count on being part of this particular “American dream” – and now, many Americans are being left out of it.
50 years is but a mere blip in history. On the scale of human development, it’s nothing.
Just because something is a certain way for 50 years doesn’t mean that it’s going to stay that way for the next 50. In fact, it very rarely does.
Yet in all of the dire warnings by people like Martenson about the economy and the future, and from those who track the housing crisis, there seems to be an underlying belief that change must be painful and bad. The belief seems to be that it will lead to instability and chaos.
This runs deeply. It’s not just these pundits – it’s nearly everyone that seems to think that stability and insulation from change should be the order of the day. Maybe we’ve been fed too many movies where the hero lives “happily ever after,” so have come to expect that in real life.
Real life doesn’t ever meet our expectation of stability
Think about owning a car. If you don’t fill it with gas, change it’s oil, and clean it regularly, then soon it’s going to be a worthless piece of junk (no matter how nice it is to start with).
This is true of any object we “own.” If you get a house, and then you don’t maintain it for 10 years, it’s going to get run down and dilapidated quickly. If you don’t mow the lawn, it’ll be only a few weeks before the city is going to be giving you fines for your weed lot.
There is no truly stable situation in life. Stability is an illusion!
Physics tells us why
There’s a classical physics problem called the “three body problem.” In this problem, we try to use Newton’s laws to predict three heavenly bodies that are interacting in orbits around one another. It turns out that predicting their behavior far into the future is not only difficult, it is practically impossible. The tiniest variation on the part of one of the bodies leads to major variations in the orbit patterns later on. No computer is powerful enough to predict the effects of these tiny variations very far into the future. And that’s for only three planets.
While there are patterns of orbits that appear to be somewhat stable, they always still acting chaotically and unpredictably. They may stay within certain semi-orderly patterns for a while (this is a so-called strange attractor for the physics geeks), but at seemingly random and unpredictable times they can shift the pattern.
In the three body problem, there are only two states: somewhat unpredictable, and completely unpredictable. There is no constancy, and there is no stability.
Our social and economic systems are a 7-billion-body-problem
If physics can’t even predict the behavior of 3 planets in orbit, and if there is no constancy in this system, then what does that tell us about a vastly more complex system involving 7 billion living, breathing humans? (Or, if we want to confine ourselves, we can look at just the 300+ million in the US).
It tells us two things:
1) predicting what will happen is impossibly futile. It would take a universe-sized computer to predict what’s going to happen even in the next 10 minutes, much less what will happen a year or ten years from now.
2) that stability doesn’t exist at any time or anywhere within this system. Everything is always changing.
This is truly a universal law
It’s kind of weird that nobody else has labelled it as such, but that gives us the opportunity to do it. We’ll simply call it “the Law of Change.” This law says that everything is always changing. It tells us that any expectations to the contrary are in defiance of a deep, universal law, and are bound to be dashed upon the rocks of history.
If we consider the housing situation from a “numbers” perspective, it follows this law well. There has been no time in the past 50 years in which the housing situation has been stable. It’s been either growing or shrinking. The suburbs were either growing or dying. Neighborhoods were coming up, or going down. There is no constant.
The same is true of our money system. In the Nixon era, a nice car cost less than $10,000. Today, a nice car is over $30,000. The “value” of our money is always changing, due to a lot of factors in our complex system (such as monetary policy, but not only due to that).
The Law of Change says that constant expectations are the real problem
There are a lot of people who are down and out in our current economy. Most of those people don’t understand the law of change, and they blame the politicians and bankers for the changes that have rendered their lives much different (and seemingly less satisfactory) than they used to be.
The real problem is not the bankers or the politicians. The real problem is a failure to acknowledge the changes always happening around us, and to creatively work to keep ahead of (or at least up with) those changes.
Clinging to the old American dream is clinging to a past that no longer exists. That dream said: get a steady job, get a loan, get a nice house, get an RV, and you will be happy ever after. We could debate about whether that dream ever did lead to any true happiness, but that’s for another blog post.
Here what we need to see is that, while there was a brief period in history where that equation worked for quite a few people, that equation no longer works.
No amount of finger pointing, blaming, or even more extreme action such as rioting and wars, or anything else, is going to bring it back. The world has moved on, as it always does, never to turn back.
Some people are nonplussed by change (and in fact, profiting from it)
In the forums from that housing site I was reading, many commenters were pointing blame at those evil investors who are buying up houses, making them unavailable to plain American families who might otherwise occupy the homes. Those evil investors rent out the homes, preventing those families from owning the homes.
This misses the reality quite stunningly. The reality is this:
1) Because many of these families are still clinging to the old American Dream, looking for a stable good-paying job and an affordable mortgage – yet not achieving it (because it no longer exists) – many cannot afford a home – even in today’s down market. If they can’t afford the homes, then who’s going to buy them? The alternative to the investors buying up homes is to have a glut of homes on the market, further depressing values and causing even more foreclosures, short sales, and the like.
2) Those investors are the people who understand the Law of Change – at least to some extent. They are people who see where things are headed, and have come up with a way to ride the wave of change in the housing market. Many of them are making out quite handsomely as a result.
This doesn’t excuse malfeasance. It doesn’t excuse corrupt bankers or the like. But what it does do is say this: any time change occurs (which is always) there are those who sit around resisting it, and there are those who embrace it.
Those who sit around resisting it and complaining about it are those whose fortunes sink.
Those who embrace the change are those whose fortunes rise.
Change and the rise of Hitler
If we think about one of the most dire economic situations of the 20’th century, the Hyperinflation in the Weimar Republic that led to the rise of Hitler – there were many people suffering and resisting change. But there were also people profiting, who rode the tide of extreme currency change that was happening.
Which of these two groups more enabled the rise of Hitler? The change resistors, or the change adopters?
If we look at what people who resist change do, they blame the “negative” changes they see on other groups.
If we look at what people who embrace change do, they don’t usually sit around and point fingers, they usually are too busy creatively keeping up with the changes to sit around and to point fingers of blame.
While the reality of the Weimar was certainly more complex than this, we can know quite likely which group it was that spent more time blaming the bad state of the Weimar on the Jews: the change resistors.
If more people had said, “ok, look, this currency business sucks, let’s figure out an alternative” and they had focused on building that alternative, there wouldn’t have been as much time to sit around pointing fingers at the Jews.
To be clear, the rise of Hitler was due to more than just the change resistance. But the change resistance did play a part.
Resisting change is the problem, not the solution
Chris Martenson (and many others who have a similar message) says that we can’t rely on the old ways anymore. He’s right. We can’t, and we never could. The only difference between now and twenty years ago is a matter of degree. Right now, the challenges we face are forcing more people to face this universal truth head on. The longer people resist, the more the struggle and difficulty (and perhaps war/etc) that occurs as people are forced to deal with the changes that have been resisted for decades.
At any time in our lives, we can choose to either resist or embrace change.
Resisting change is often the more comfortable and less scary route – but far less satisfying. It tells us that we are nothing but hapless pawns who can’t help our circumstances. We shift all the responsibility to outsiders, and so if bad things happen, we aren’t to blame (except that, by our own resistance, we are ultimately to blame for what happens to us). There’s no fear about doing the wrong thing, because we don’t have any responsibility.
Embracing change is the more scary but also far more rewarding route. When we embrace change, we can find ways to stay on the leading edge; to grow with the times where growth is happening. But when we embrace change, we are forced more directly to take responsibility – if we make a decision to try something new, and it fails, it is much more difficult to blame someone else.
There’s not any actual difference in where the blame lies for our failures; in reality, we are always and the only people to blame, ever, for our failures. But in the change-resistance mode, it is much easier to deny responsibility for failure, and pretend to pin the blame on someone else.
Change and the rise of YOU
It’s a shame that our standard educational system doesn’t prepare us for what’s going on. Our educational system teaches nothing about being entrepreneurial or creative. It only prepares us for a standard job and a standard life – the one that no longer exists for an increasing number of people, as the world continues to change.
As with alcoholism and drug addiction, the first step to a cure is always to admit there’s a problem.
The problem we need to admit here is that maybe we’re a bit too addicted to the idea of stability, or to an unchanging and unchanged “American Dream.”
If we can truly admit this problem, it then opens us up to begin looking for creative solutions to the problem.
The creative solutions abound, and I’ll talk about them in other places. But we can’t even start on the creative solutions until we’ve said, “yes, I have a problem.”
Once you’ve moved down this path, you’ll realize that the number of possibilities is nearly endless.
Once we stop clinging to a narrow dream (that was defined by movie script writers and politicians), we open up a wide realm of new and more satisfying ways that we could be living. We open up ourselves to the fun and the challenge of moving towards new goals and new ways of being, rather than the boredom and fear of trying to maintain the status quo.
Once you open up to, and embrace the change, you open up the door to your imagination. You have the possibility to then re-imagine your life in whatever configuration you’d like it to be, and you get to move towards that.
Doing that is way more fun that clinging to a sinking ship, and pointing fingers at all the bad people who caused it to run into the iceberg.
That’s why I no longer regularly read stuff like Chris Martenson’s blog or the Oil Drum. That’s the game they’re involved in. Instead, I’ve become involved in a very different game: how can I take advantage of change, to increase life satisfaction and well-being. I’ve found out it’s more than possible.
Do you need an antidote to all the gloom and doom out there, without a bunch of touchy-feely mumbo jumbo?
I will show you how to tune out all the dire predictions and negative thinking.
I will show you how to “reimagine” your career and life, making you more valuable to your employer or customers and increasing your life satisfaction.
I will show you how to stay ahead of the changes that are happening, so that you can be a person that benefits from them rather than suffers from them.