November 27, 2004

FASTER, BUT EASIER:

So You Think Times Are Changing Fast Now? (Robert J. Samuelson, Nov. 29, 2004, Newsweek)

Picture yourself in the mid-1840s. It's an exciting time. Fifteen years earlier, railroads barely existed. In 1830 there were only 23 miles of track. By 1840, there were 2,818; by 1850, 9,021. Steamboats ply major rivers—another recent development. In 1844 Samuel Morse had introduced the telegraph by sending this message from Washington to Baltimore:

"What hath God wrought!" For some, it was all too much. "The world is going too fast," wrote one old-timer, a 69-year-old former mayor of New York named Philip Hone. "Railroads, steamers, packets, race against time ... Oh, for the good old days of heavy post coaches and speed at the rate of six miles an hour!"

Hone apparently coined the phrase "good old days"—and we've been chasing them unsuccessfully ever since. It's not simply that you can't turn back the clock. The larger difficulty is that the "good old days" never were. The supposedly placid past, once probed and explored, usually turns out to have been as jarring as the disruptive present. Something is always assaulting our sense of security and stability. We Americans say we like change, but we want it without troubling side effects. This is a mirage. Anyone who doubts that should read John Steele Gordon's superb, just-published book "An Empire of Wealth."

Gordon has written the best one- volume economic history of the United States in a long time and, perhaps, ever. Highly readable and fact-filled, it's basically optimistic. Gordon argues that America's success is rooted in a society that rewards people for being ambitious, taking risks and trying new ideas.


There's a natural human inclination to insist that your own life is particularly special and difficult, but there's nothing more asinine than the current fad for asserting that we work harder and face greater uncertainty than our grandparents and great-grandparents did.


MORE:
-BOOKNOTES:
The Business of America by John Steele Gordon
(C-SPAN, September 23, 2001)

Posted by Orrin Judd at November 27, 2004 11:28 PM
Comments

Evelyn Waugh claimed to have written the first novel with a character talking on the telephone. Personally, I think instant communication has ruined storytelling. At least, 20 years ago they had to stop at a phone booth. Now, the writer can cop out of even that.

But, one thing that is sorely missed today has nothing to do with technology: the extended family.

I think that many character traits skip a generation and, nowadays, the steadying hand of a grandparent has been replaced by Ritalin.

That is a real shame.

Posted by: Randall Voth at November 28, 2004 3:37 AM

Now picture yourself in the mid-2040s. It's an exciting time. Scramjets make the Los Angeles - London run in five hours. We carry the sum total knowledge of the human race around in our watches, phones, or implants, constantly updated.
There is considerable social and political debate about what to do to allieviate the plight of the 20% of Americans who are willing to work, but who can offer little more than strong backs and willing hands, and who aren't as efficient as 'bots.
In the meantime, they watch a lot of threevio and consume mass quantities.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen at November 28, 2004 5:24 AM

Michael,

I'm not as optimistic as you are, which I am sure does not surprise you. I don't see the Jetsons in the cards even in my dotage.

However, the general point is correct. Bethmann of Bethmann Archive fame wrote a wonderful book about the late 19th century called,'The Good Old Days..They Were Terrible.'

We have eliminated the kind of freedom from want that our grandparents could have only dreamed of, but in the process we have created new problems that are no less real. I think we are failing at ending the racial, ethnic, and religious divides that can rend our nation into shreds. We are creating a new, even more serious divide between the techie and the non-techie which will ossify into a new class struggle. We have lost the ability to accept difference in our midst, which our ancestors on the frontier or in the 18th century certainly had. We are trying constantly to provide for the end of failure by eliminating risk and its rewards. We are on the threshhold of an Imperial over-reach around the globe which doomed Rome, Britain, and China.

Posted by: Bart at November 28, 2004 6:40 AM

Bart:

Ever read Paul Kennedy? We spend a fraction of what any other empire ever spent on our empire. Indeed, we spend only about 2/3rds of what we did on average throughout the Cold War, which he thought was leading to our decline but instead left us more advanced than ever.

Posted by: oj at November 28, 2004 8:56 AM

oj,

I'm very familiar with his writings. Your point is correct but doesn't go far enough. The problem is that Americans are not comfortable with the notion of sacrifice. If you've ever heard Americans talk about the exigencies on the home front during WWII, and compare it with what British civilians were confronted with, you get the picture. You have, I hope, noticed all the whining about casualties in Iraq, when even Fallujah is safer than Detroit. Imagine that multiplied by a factor of about 100 and you'll understand what preserving any sort of American presence around an increasingly disorderly and savage globe will mean.

Americans will not make the sacrifices needed to preserve their 'empire' and so will lose it. How that loss affects our society is an open question.

Posted by: Bart at November 28, 2004 9:36 AM

Take the music industry. I just finished watching Return of the King a few minutes ago. The music was a horrible mess. For some reason, the only people attracted to music these days are computer programmers who couldn't write a contrapuntal line with contrary motion if their lives depended on it.

Technology seems to make all things possible -- especially the mediocre. We *can* get by doing less, so we *do* get by doing less.

A large part of the reason is what I call the "undo factor". As much as I love my Macintosh (I still have my original 128K), it has unleashed the demon of undo upon a world that was already looking for every excuse not to do it right in the first place.

Those who have a spell checker looking over your shoulder never learn to spell.

Posted by: Randall Voth at November 28, 2004 9:53 AM

Bart:

You're defeating yourself--the precise point is that we maintain the most extensive global empire in human history--and have done so for sixty years now--without much of any sacrifice.

Posted by: oj at November 28, 2004 10:15 AM

oj,

We do not have colonies all over the world and our troops are if anything coming home from elsewhere. We are reducing our presence in Europe. We are reducing our presence in Korea. We are in no position to increase our presence in Africa, even if things get significantly worse in any of its numerous flashpoints. We are not going to attack Syria or Iran. Iraq has shown us the limits of our military power, given our unwillingness to do the ugly things necessary to maintain control. Do you seriously believe anyone in Congress right now or any significant percentage of the American people is willing to send troops in the numbers necessary to police Darfur and the Southern Sudan to prevent the very real atrocities ongoing there?

Our future is to cede the field to corporate interests in many parts of the Third World as the British did in India and Africa, and as the Belgians did in the Congo. Let Exxon or Asarco deal with the local head cannibal, hold the port city and the railroads and exploit the place.

Posted by: Bart at November 28, 2004 10:39 AM

Bart:

We're increasing our presence in Africa, Asia, South America, the Middle East, etc. We're leaving Europe because we finally destroyed it and it's no longer a threat.

We'll send troops to Darfur if they're needed, but for now we're having client states do it.

Posted by: oj at November 28, 2004 10:53 AM

South America is increasingly electing governments hostile to the US. Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil,Ecuador, Chile, Venezuela, etc. Africa is a mine field and we are a token presence there at most. Our 'client states'(name one) are not doing much in Darfur. Our de facto colony, Liberia, is in complete disarray.

In Asia, we're out of the Philippines, we're reducing our presence in Korea, and gradually turning our backs on Taiwan.

We're going to be out of Iraq soon. We're not attacking either Iran or Syria in a million years. We have no response to an Islamist coup in Saudi Arabia. I really hope I don't need to go on.

We stupidly and illegally continue to maintain troops in Bosnia and Kosovo to protect narco-terrorists and Islamic loons from their just rewards at the hands of the Serbs, one of the few European peoples who have wanted to be our friends for the past century.

Posted by: Bart at November 28, 2004 11:04 AM

Bart:

Latin America id joining NAFTA and the next round of WTO, tools of American imperialism.

The African Union nations, with whom we're fighting terrorism, have already sent troops to Darfur. Liberia's doing fine since we intervened.

We're deeper in the Phillipines than we've been since Vietnam, with American troops on the ground and leading battles.

We've gotten Taiwan to the point where it doesn't even need us to defeat China.

Syria is begging us to help them get out of Lebanon and cut a deal with Israel. Iran will be an open ally within a couple years. The Sa'uds are crushing al Qaeda and starting democratization.

We screwed up in Serbia.

Posted by: oj at November 28, 2004 11:21 AM

In Latin America, blaming the Yanqui has become a sure vote-winner, and nations are pulling away from us. Darfur is still a disaster and there will have to be Western intervention. Liberia's off the front page, but is far from OK.

We used to have Clark and Subic now we have a few Spec Forces guys fighting in Mindanao, while the Flips gave us the bird in Iraq. You are right about Taiwan and much of the new reality is China's weakness.

I don't know where you get the notion that Syria, where official government maps don't even show Lebanon as separate from 'Greater Syria' is trying to get us to help them leave Lebanon. Iran will need a very bloody revolution before your, and I agree about its inevitability, scenario will occur. The domestic criticism of the Saudis is that they aren't Muslim enough, and that they are too close to America.

Posted by: Bart at November 28, 2004 12:05 PM

So, let's see:

You've got our Latin American clients fiunally standing on their own feet as they insist on free trade.

You've got the Philippinos inviting us in to fight a war with them.

You've got clients in Darfur, though we may be invited in later.

We stabilized Liberia.

We got Taiwan to a point where it can do our work for us.

You've got Iran willingly to have a bloody revolution to become more like us and the Sa'uds going against their own extremists to do so.

Looking out upon this world you see us losing influence?

Ask the Haitians, Georgians, Ukraines, Libyans, Afghans, Palestinians, etc. what happens when we don't like the form of government you pick.

Posted by: oj at November 28, 2004 12:26 PM

The book Bart recommended is excellent, but the author's name is spelled "Bettmann."

Posted by: PapayaSF at November 28, 2004 2:22 PM
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