Optimism is not complacency | Moment's Notice

By Maria A. Montalvo | Jun 21, 2019

Recently, a dear friend who lives in Oregon was interviewed for a local online discussion site, “A Community Thread.”

Laura spoke eloquently, in her approachable and kind fashion, about her family and friends, the value of being in nature, and how divisive and isolating the modern world can be. When asked about what is broken in today’s America, Laura – not surprisingly – made a point to highlight individuals who are making small changes for the better.

When the interviewer dug in more, questioning how she feels so sure we can continue to put momentum behind positive change, she said, “If I’m optimistic, that’s not complacency.”

Optimism is not complacency.

Was my wise friend intentionally channeling the Nobel Prize-winning economist, Paul Romer, when she talked about our chances for societal improvement? Romer posits there are two types of optimism.

One is complacent optimism – think a kid waiting for birthday presents – presents are coming regardless of what I do, and I still have hope that they will be what I want).

The other is conditional optimism – think of that same kid wanting to build a treehouse – I can make the perfect treehouse if I find some friends to help me, learn how to use tools, and find lumber in the garage.

Laura is a conditional optimist!

This socio-economic theory is applied through Endogenous Growth Theory, a concept based on conditional optimism because it says that growth comes from our internal and individual efforts.

Romer believes that history and data indicate we will continue to see progress across the globe that address current conditions because we have evolved to respond to challenges before. And whereas in the past, much global progress has come from expanding across the world and using up natural resources to fuel improvements in everything from economic development to poverty alleviation, humans had a lot of good ideas, too.

That’s where Laura’s forward thinking comes in. Conditional optimism or endogenous growth theory says we cannot relax and follow traditional theories or practices and, worse yet, cannot become complacent because we think policy choices do not matter.

In fact, the most important condition of our ability to progress as a human race is for individuals to propose and making choices or policies that can change the world for the better.

We should encourage people to do more to generate progress, not think it happens on its own or continue old policies that become harmful or rely on a few people in important positions.

In other words, don’t be complacent. Be more active.

There is quite a bit of logical and empirical justification for conditional optimism and bucking the status quo. Economists have studied natural resource prices and just about every other economic input that leads to progress, and found that small incentives generate a lot of innovation.

From a policy perspective, this means that small changes in incentives do encourage more discoveries that are truly beneficial.

But besides all of the evidence, pessimism can be exhausting – so much conflict from denial, apathy, anger, and accusation. Optimism (based on action) brings out the best in us.

We can, even on bad days and in bad times, work to better our communities and our country, and actions perceived as small matter quite a bit. We can all be authentically more optimistic because of our conditional optimists.

Laura is, and always will be, that little kid thinking about how to bring her friends together to build a treehouse (although I envision her treehouse to be a circle of blankets and chairs by a lake, with as many humans as possible invited to join in a good conversation—and there is definitely a guitar).


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