Best of Times, Worst of Times…

By Dian Cohen
Best of Times, Worst of Times…
(Photo : Dian Cohen)

Finally, even the most stalwart of economic forecasters is coming round to the view that the relationships they counted on to point the way to our economic future are not behaving the way they did before the pandemic. More and more economists are saying about the numbers they look at, “This is weird.” Or (of the American economy), “I don’t recall any other recession coinciding with record-low unemployment, plentiful job openings, and jammed airports.”
That’s a good thing – we can stop obsessing over every forecast or even better, stop reading them. Suffice to say we’ll survive and possibly thrive, ditto the economy, and in doing so, we and it will change.
Take, for example, the problems we’re having with energy. Someday we’ll get rid of fossil fuels that are clogging up the environment and making our day-to-day lives difficult as their prices rise. Solar and wind are good but insufficient alternatives. Fusion – the energy that powers the sun — promises a virtually limitless form of energy that, unlike fossil fuels, emits zero greenhouse gases and, unlike the nuclear fission power used today, produces no long-life radioactive waste.
In southern France at this very moment, 35 nations – China, the European Union, India, Japan, Korea, Russia and the United States – are accelerating their 37-year-old collaboration to build a device to prove the feasibility of fusion as a large-scale and carbon-free source of energy. If it’s mastered, fusion energy will be able to power much of the world. Atomic experts are loathe to estimate when fusion energy may be widely available, often joking that, no matter when you ask, it’s always 30 years away. But for the first time in history, that may actually be true.
Or take the problems we’re having with our healthcare system. Between the burnout and shortage of healthcare workers and the fact that most doctors are within 10 years of the traditional age of retirement, it is most concerning that the system that has been in place since the 20th century is so visibly disintegrating. This sector is populated with people who are excessively resistant to change. Nevertheless change is already here, waiting patiently to be more widely promoted and accepted: healthcare robotics for patient monitoring and evaluation, for medical supplies delivery, and for assisting healthcare professionals in specific capacities; medical and surgery robotics used mostly for assisting surgeons since they allow great precision and minimal invasive procedures.
Cyborgs, exoskeletons, and wearable robotics allow users to augment their physical strength, helping those with physical disabilities to walk and climb, meaning they will likely need less from the failing healthcare system. Industrial arms, grippers and all of the warehouse robotics used for automation of industrial processes will relieve the shortages of humans not available for these jobs. Other robotics already exist specifically for housekeeping tasks.
Synchron, an Australian start-up, has implanted a device into the brains of patients who have lost the ability to move or speak – they have been able to check their emails, send messages and make online purchases simply by thinking: the device translates their thoughts into commands sent to a computer.
All this will take some getting used to. But so will a world where wildfires, floods, drought, civil unrest brought on by food and fuel insecurity are regular occurrences. Personally, I’d rather get used to the former.
Oh, and here’s a problem to solve for which we have advance warning: Hershey’s chief executive Michele Buck said last week that the company “will not be able to fully meet consumer demand,” because of severe shortages of cocoa and edible oil. She says they made the “tough decision” to meet everyday demand at the expense of Halloween. That is, indeed, a tough decision, since October is Hershey’s busiest and most profitable time of year, making up around 10 per cent of its annual sales. So with fewer Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, Twizzlers, Jolly Ranchers available on October 31, we have time to indoctrinate our trick-or-treaters to expect…well, what do you want them to get used to? Vegetable treats? Lots more tricks? Cancellation of Halloween? You’ve got 90 days to figure it out.

Dian Cohen, C.M., O.M., economist
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