≡ Menu

Commentary: America invents the future

Posted in the Prior Lake American: Friday, February 19, 2016 2:00 pm

By John Diers

Decades ago, I can’t recall how many times I’d hear my parents and grandparents wax nostalgic and talk about “the good old days.” And now, years later, I find myself doing the same.

Most of us look back through the prism of history and our own experiences and reflect on what we perceive were better times. It’s an election year, and “make America great again” is the rallying cry for politicians who want us to return to a supposed “golden age.”

But what does “again” mean? The answer is subjective. Better to ask, “Whose ‘golden age?’” Consider the early 20th century, aka the Gilded Age. It was a prosperous time for plutocratic oligarchs like Harriman, Morgan and Hill, but not so for immigrant farmers on the Great Plains, factory workers, tenement dwellers or coal miners and black sharecroppers. Today, there are many who worry the disparities of that era are returning.

Yet, there are those who admire the entrepreneurs of that time and would have us, somehow, go back to it.

History is a continuum. You can’t wander through the past, choosing one thing and ignoring another, as if the past were an a la carte menu, because it’s not. It’s about change, and everything is interconnected. New problems and issues emerge in the process of solving old ones. One of my favorite quotes is from the philosopher Heraclitus: “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river, and he’s not the same man.”

I suspect part of this yearning for the past has more to do with the pace of change, especially technological change, than the change itself. More has happened in the last 150 years than in the previous 5,000 years of human history. It’s dizzying.

In 1850, Minnesota had a population of barely 6,000 white Europeans, most of them in communities on or near the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers. There were no roads of any consequence, except the Red River trails. River travel was limited to warm-weather months. There were no railroads. Winter meant months of brutal isolation. Homes outside the few cities and towns were little more than single-room huts. Even in cities and towns, dwellings had no central heat, no water or sewer services and no nighttime lighting, except candles or whale oil lamps. The telegraph wouldn’t arrive until 1860. There was no regular mail service and only the barest essentials in the few general stores. Medical care was rare, almost nonexistent. Serious infection or injury was a death sentence. The University of Minnesota would be founded in 1851, but, elsewhere, public education was elusive.

Yet, just 50 years later, there were almost two million people in the state. It was considered settled, and the historian Frederick Jackson Turner pronounced the frontier closed. Rural life had improved. Homes were sturdier and larger and most had some form of central heating. Rural free delivery of mail ended the worst of the isolation. There were 7,000 miles of railroad in the state and improved roads to towns, where one could catch a train to the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul and from there almost anywhere in the entire county. But there was no electricity and no running water in farm homes, and farm work was as brutal as it was 50 years before.

It was better in the cities. There were 500,000 people in Minneapolis and St. Paul. Most homes had sewer, water, gas, electricity and telephones. The major streets were paved and one could go almost anywhere by electric streetcar. There were even a few automobiles. Hospitals and medical care were generally available. There were public schools. The University of Minnesota was well established and offered doctoral programs in the major disciplines.

The next 50 years brought still more technological change, spectacular economic growth and improvements in the quality of our lives. The Great Depression and two world wars did nothing to defeat a feeding frenzy on consumer goods that sent growth spiraling along with total factor productivity, a measure of the pace and the effects of technological change. It all came together in the 1950s, which some, including myself, still recall with fond memory.

But, after 1970, total productivity slowed, raising questions about the staying power of new technology. Economist Robert J. Gordon argues in his book, “The Rise and Fall of American Growth”— which I reviewed in my last column — that the computer revolution had less overall impact than the major advances of the Industrial Revolution, and that the pace of economic expansion in the 20th century was an aberration that likely won’t be repeated anytime soon. Put it this way: how many iPhones, tablets, PCs and other digital devices will we be willing to buy when the benefits of these devices and other aspects of computerization have already been assimilated in our economic life? How much stuff, be it tablets, cellphones, cars, boats or snowmobiles, do we keep on buying, and how long will it take for new scientific discoveries and technological advances to give us the same economic benefit as the electric light bulb and the flush toilet?

We’ve come to believe and expect that growth will go on forever and that technological and economic progress are an integral part of the nature of all things, but what if this isn’t so? What if the unintended consequences of the Industrial Revolution and this unprecedented expansion, together with climate change, a rapidly aging population, a declining middle class and economic inequality, have brought us to a plateau? Will the benefits of new discoveries make a difference across the economic spectrum, or will the 1 percent inherit the world?

What will we do? Will we look back, nostalgically, to the 1950s, for example, as the “good old days” and try to return by reinventing old thinking about economic growth and development and reprise past mistakes, or will we repudiate them and change our thinking and strike out in new and different directions?

I hope we do, because that’s what makes America great. It doesn’t go back to the past. It invents the future.

Read more at the Prior Lake American:
John Diers is a Prior Lake resident who spent 40 years working in the transit industry and author of “Twin Cities by Trolley: The Streetcar Era in Minneapolis and St. Paul” and “St. Paul Union Depot.” To submit questions or topics for community columnists, email editor@plamerican.com. (Editor’s note: Diers is a community columnist and not employed by, or paid by, the newspaper.)