“The next five years will be key in the decisions we make to move Mexico towards a knowledge economy,” say José Antonio Fernández and Salvador Alva in their recent book A Feasible Mexico (Un México Posible). The statement would seem like a truism, but it collides with the prevailing environment: some welcome the reforms and advances that have been made, while others criticize the undesired (or undesirable) effects of the changes that have been promoted, including those that are a result of the technological change, which is altering established patters the world over. So much focused on the past, few notice the challenges facing the country and its implications, some of them ominous.
The central argument of the book is that, in order to be successful, the country has to transform its educational system in order to fully incorporate itself into the knowledge economy, which is where, more and more, the creation of value is concentrated and, thus, of wealth and jobs. Without that focus, the country will be trapped in the past and in poverty. That is why, the authors say, it is absurd to boast about the reforms that have been carried out, out of context: Mexico may have carried out many reforms, including some transcendental ones, but to the extent that other nations have gone further and faster, instead of moving forward, we have remained behind.
The world changes, and it does so in an accelerated way, and Mexicans continue to debate whether the very modest educational reform of the outgoing president ought to be advanced or dismantled. Many nations, especially developed ones, are becoming paralyzed, oriented by the rear-view mirror, but the nations that really should matter to us -such as Southeast Asia, India and China- are running to try to occupy the spaces left by rich countries.
In Korea and Thailand, the educational debate is about how to go faster than their competitors in the race to add more value, not, as in Mexico, about how to protect the status quo. The children of fifty years ago competed for jobs and opportunities with their school peers; Today, a child who attends primary school will compete with graduates of schools in Mumbai, Lagos or Helsinki. The space of competition is the world and the key is the consumer, not the producer, which shows the absurdity -and a-historical nature- of the notion of returning to a seemingly past of certainty.
Beyond the person who wins the elections, the challenges facing the country will not go away; a president may wish the country to accommodate to his narrow vision, but that does not change the reality. Therefore, in this era, there are no single solutions or permanent guarantees.
The electoral debate has emphasized the obvious fact that the benefits of the reforms of the last decades – carried out late in almost all cases- have not been distributed in an equitable manner. The big question is what to do about it. One possibility, the one promoted by AMLO, would be to take refuge in an uncertain and idyllic past (which, by the way, disappeared because it ceased to work). If AMLO succeeds, who would win out, the radicals represented by Taibo or the pragmatism that AMLO showed as mayor of Mexico City? In any case, both perspectives are inadequate and insufficient for the current challenge.
When technology changes at the speed of light and the population is as informed as the most consolidated of government officials, the solutions have to be decentralized, that is, they must confer the greatest weight of decisions to citizens fully trained with the necessary skills to adapt constantly and systematically. The bet must be for an educational system radically different from the existing one, together with an open political system because no ruler, nor the wisest and consummate president, has the ability, or the possibility, to understand that enormous and changing complexity. Instead of centralizing, it is imperative to bet on skills for a changing world where the only constant is the intense and growing competition. The pretense of taking refuge in the past is pathetic.
A Feasible Mexico offers an infinitely more rational and effective outlet: only decentralization of decisions, but a real one, could change the direction of the country and this implies, in practice, “empowering” the population with the necessary capacities to be able to compete in the world of the 21st century. That is, there’s a need to recognize that there is no magic wand that allows facing the problems of inequality and poverty, which are real and painful; rather, the emphasis must be placed on a human capital strategy that gives individuals the ability to decide on their own future.
Centralizing power and control sounds attractive, but only if this were Moscow in 1923. The reality of today, which no one can avoid however much they want, is that only individuals can face their problems. Obviously, the government must create conditions for that to happen. Mexico has clearly failed to provide every citizen with the opportunity to be successful. Centralizing control only postpones the solution and, in fact, makes it even more difficult. The exit, like it or not, is an education of the first world that confers, to each citizen, effective capacities to solve their own problems.