Beyond Blue Part Four: Better Living in the 21st Century
Published on: February 8, 2012
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  • Anthony

    An optimistic fourth essay (most favorable construction upon actions and events outlining aspects of U.S.social/economic changes). Yet, WRM we have large challenges with regard to jobs, incomes, poverty, etc. that are complex and require deeper solutions (not yet discussed by our many representatives).

    Market sustainability domestically, given your thesis, must converge with reconcieving American Dream and developing strategies for both country and individuals (to do so we must improve “social trust”); however, I share your optimism and believe the future belongs to America’s youth (millennials and others) and perhaps your idea of personal services can provide both meaningful and rewarding work that pays sustainable wages/salaries.

    Finally, for me your serial listing of 21st century requisites, “arrangement, delivery, intelligence, capability and design”, as instruments assuaging new possibilities (maybe you are providing some 21st century basic truths yet to find political expression in United States) can certainly for some make life both richer and better.

  • Kuze

    Exceptional and pertinent essay.

    While I share the author’s optimism and sense of history, where my rosy view wavers slightly is when I consider the unknowns of what happens to a population when it has the historically unprecedented ability to eat whatever it wants, work as little as we do, never receive a letter summoning one to die on a French beach in service of the nation.

    One effect of modernity is that the less we suffer, the less we tolerate suffering. Steven Pinker has documented this thoroughly in his recent book. We’ve gone from burning cats in the town square to enshrining rights for them in our laws. It goes without saying that this has been a remarkable and very good thing. But what happens when we become so risk averse, so sensitive to suffering that soccer balls are banned from schoolyards for fear of injury(true story), when kids are not allowed to fail for fear of hurting self esteem, when natural resources cannot be used for the improvement of human life for fear of destroying what’s perceived as an environment as fragile as glass?

    Ultimately I hope that in the historical battle between reason and emotion, reason will continue to eke its way along.

  • These are serious issues and it’s obvious that you give them serious thought. So let’s do a thought experiment. Supposing everything you say in this essay is correct, and I think most of it is, is it still possible that the final result will be a society in which a million or so very wealthy families live on large estates or in urban mansions staffed with dozens of personal servants? Well paid servants, but servants all the same?

    What trends that you project are inconsistent with that outcome?

  • “Dude, you’re a Barrista!” is the smack down line in the recent Samsung commercial. I think much of the change that is described in this essay has already happened in the shift to a service economy. I believe far more structural change is in the offing. Silicon Valley – entrepreneur or bad boy, take your pick – Jason Calacanis wrote recently about the structural effects of Amazon Prime – the unemployment and ejection from the middle class of retail workers along the lines WRM describes the fate of industrial workers and farmers. I deeply agreed with the previous essay’s optimism about America’s (and the Anglosphere’s) ability to change and change again but have a more mixed reaction to this essay’s optimism. I don’t think there will be ‘life coaches’ because that assumes that some know how to survive in the new environment. The information is out there in the world and on the net. Some will find it; others wont. Even in the constrained world of the piano all the noters are there – waiting to be played, but that doesn’t mean that jazz is obvious before the fact. That’s where American optimism and a ‘can do’ attitude can make a difference – we are people who see the new door opening when the old door closes. We are not the only ones – compare South Korea where Samsung is having a go at Apple with that Barrista ad and which produces more patents every year than the entire Arab world which is still perseverating about the loss of Andalusia.

    I look at my son and his wife who both work from home – she in the corporate world, he in his own Internet service business. One is doing a 20th century job in a 21st century way and it is amazing to watch her work. My son has built a small business out of nothing increasing his business as he takes the measure of the new structure by finding out what makes money and what doesn’t. Both of them had to make it up as they went along. So, yes I think there is a future in service, but it will not look like the last 25 years.

  • Brutus

    I cannot help but wonder if your thumbnail history of social change in America isn’t a little bit too … whiggish.

    Certainly, the spirit of upward and onward is very American and is in our DNA. But I find something missing, a leap of faith, between the changes you talk about and your conclusion that such a life will be, and has in the past been, “better and richer.” It certainly is “richer” in some senses, but is it really better or even richer in a broader sense?

    When you talk about the anxiety of our movement from farmers to factory workers to whatever’s next — and what would you name the new man of the next stage? — I don’t think you get all of it.

    Our romance of the farmer is rooted in Jefferson’s yeoman farmer, the proto-Roman whose way of living allowed him to maintain the independence, fierceness, public spiritedness, and personal modesty necessary for citizenship in a republic. He merely unpacked and elaborated on an idea the Greeks and Romans encapsulated in having the same goddess for farming and the laws.

    Underlying these connections was the idea that the best life, one governing others and being governed in turn, needed a certain connection with nature. The best life would involve, if not a constant struggle with nature, at least life lived in accord with it rhythms. Only this sort of life would engender the qualities necessary to the sort of citizenship, to governing and being governed in turn, that embodied the flourishing of human nature.

    My guess is that the anxiety underlying our movement away from making things is that we are becoming detached from these sorts of republican roots. Our “progress” involves a turn inward and away from the public sphere to the idiocy, in the classical sense, of our private lives. The American changes from Cincinnatus to something more like the citizens of Rome in the late empire.

    Hence life coaches and career advancement and appliances dominate your post, perhaps the bread and circuses of the 21st century; but citizenship and even civil society are conspicuously absent. Will your new man be more free and live a life that truly fulfills his humanity, or simply lose himself in the joyless pursuit of joy.

    I’m not so sure based on your posts. I will continue to read your elaboration of your ideas with interest.

  • David Davenport

    Summary of Dr. M.’s Beyond Blue Part Four:

    Life is easier now than it was 120 years ago, so shut up and quit complaining.

  • ms

    I have noticed the trend toward fine living over the course of my life. And it makes sense that when the basic necessities are more easily produced, people will find ways to make and spend money on luxuries. Humans have a desire for nature too, so we will seek out ways to experience it, perhaps in more far flung places than we did before.

    The part that worries me is the spiritual side. I wonder if, like the rich young man in the New Testament, who believed in Christ and wanted to follow him but could not bring himself to leave his riches to do so, the prevalence of a comfortable life with little effort will not produce spiritual shallowness. Europe has not fared too well in this regard under the welfare state. And a consequence of their live-for-the-present attitude is that they have a very low birth rate.

    Americans have always been more tied to religion than Europeans–perhaps a result of having no established church and hence religious free choice–but certain types of secularists would like nothing so much as to see religion become irrelevant. Obama’s latest attack on Catholic institutions is an example of this. They should be careful what they wish for. Meaning, faith and belief are a vital part of what allows us to live and make sense of the world in humane ways.

  • John Alsina

    Increasing prosperity brings with it a fundamental problem, i.e., a growing gap between what must be consumed to maintain full employment and social harmony, and what must be consumed to keep body and soul together. When necessities comprise 97% of production, it is impossible for demand to fall more than 3%. When the percentages are reversed, a small loss in confidence can result in a large decrease in demand – enough to cause chaos. Thus, the inhabitants of WRM’s future paradise will live under a sword of Damocles.

    Engineers know that there is an inherent trade-off between efficiency and stability in all complex systems. In the physical world, the only way to achieve efficiency and stability simulataneously is through precision: the parts in the system must be made to increasingly small tolerances. Translated to the sphere of politics, that means that in an ultra-efficient (and therefore ultra-prosperous) future, stability can be achieved only through rigid totalitarian control of the individual.

    What form will this control take? Consumerism and advertising (i.e., stimulation of demand) will reign supreme. Expressions of discontent or pessimism will be frowned upon, perhaps banned. Those who fail to consume their fair share (of, say, healthcare insurance) may be prosecuted. For those interested in trends, have not these trends already begun?

    What sayest thou, HRM? In the long run, is there or is there not a trade-off between material prosperity and personal liberty?

  • Tom Scharf

    One possible solution to this vexing issue is as simple as it is never pondered:

    Reduction of the work week.

    Unemployment will certainly be greatly reduced if America went to a 4 day work week. This is a theoretical +20% increase in jobs.

    Somehow the 40 hour work week has been set in stone (or 50+ hours for us engineering types). At what point do the endless increases in productivity result in less work per worker instead of increased GDP?

  • Interesting thoughts raised by Brutus above.

    Personalized pleasure can easily become hedonism with technology as its newest handmaiden. Additionally for all the talk of “freedom” we hear, with drones getting ready to fly everywhere and monitoring of every detail of life, real power may well not be democratized. Rather, technology and pleasure become narcotics meant to anesthetize people.

    This may end up bringing us very close to Nietzshe’s Last Man which should be the most haunting apparition to emerge out of modernity.

  • maulerman

    A thought provoking and insightful essay. In following this series, I appreciate the transition to vision and solutions from identification and analysis.

    One particular paragraph struck me: “Now that manufacturing is being transformed by the same forces that revolutionized the agricultural business, we have to face a similar set of facts. Making “stuff” may still be the basis of everything else, the foundation of the whole economy, but fewer and fewer people are required to make manufactured goods the world wants, and our future needs will have less to do with stuff and more to do with arrangement, delivery, intelligence, capability and design.”

    I went back and reread this section, and then noted the following discussion of service industry. I also saw the observations/predictions regarding wedding gowns, clothing and beauty. Together these portions generated for me, the concept of manufacturing efficiency combined with service. “manuserve”. The efficiency in manufacturing would be leveraged with consumer preferences to create individually designed products. Think of it as the combination of an individual artisan with mass-production.

    Part of the genius of Apple and the late Steve Jobs was the recognition of consumer preferences, i.e., style, over technical specifications. I don’t know how many of my friends with more technical backgrounds have told me about how this tablet or that smartphone has better technical capabilities than my Ipad or Iphone. But that doesn’t matter because my Ipad/Iphone look cool and I can personalize my Ipad/Iphone through purchasing additional applications suited to my needs.

    As basic functionality becomes universal, style becomes more important. Companies, and even individuals who recognize that will be able to incorporate service into the actual manufacture of a product for a group or even an individual style.

    At some point, manufacturers will evolve to component creators or product platforms leaving the consumer or artisan to combine the components into the desired style and usable form. Companies like Apple are already tapping into that future.

    Like I said, thought provoking. Thanks Professor.

  • Georgiaboy61

    Dr. Mead, kudos for addressing one of the underlying realities of life in the early 21st century – that technology is displacing and/or destroying jobs, and that fewer people are needed to create wealth than in the past. This begs the question, however: what happens to those whose jobs have gone the way of the buggie whip? Are they to be told “If you don’t work, you don’t eat!” and thrown out into the street? There’s nothing wrong with the idea that all humans should work, but for that to happen, there must be something for them to do. What happens when the structured economy no longer offers that? The real question underneath all of this is whether we as humans exist to serve our economies, or whether they exist to serve us.

    Professor, I have a difficult time getting excited about the future you foresee, but I don’t have much choice about being a part of it, so I suppose I’ll wait and see what happens.

    Tom, your idea about reducing the work week is sensible. Another is that – in order to provide useful work – some tasks that are now automatted, could revert back to less-mechanized, technological ways of existing. Just because a robot can assemble a car does not mean that humans cannot. Efficiency should not be the only – or even highest – value to which we aspire.

  • JKB

    Your emphasis on personal services reinforces my idea that the future will be small independent operators instead a world of employees. Personal services depend on reputation so individuality is key. With the government now taking as much for each employee as the employee receives themselves, the labor portion of the rent, labor, stock, profit equation has gotten out of whack. More providers in the future will find that to get by in the services market, they need the labor and profit to get ahead, thus owner/operators. This is something of a return to the agricultural times when being a hired-man was not an aspiration but a waypoint to your own farm or ranch. It was with manufacturing that being a hired-man was for life was to become the norm.

  • Georgiaboy61

    Mr. Alsina, re: “In the long run, is there or is there not a trade-off between material prosperity and personal liberty?” Excellent post, sir, to which my reply is: you are correct. For me, the choice is an easy one; I prefer liberty to material wealth, if it comes down to one or the other, once my basic needs have been met. The moment we ceased to see ourselves as citizens and instead as consummers, mere entries on a ledger or spreadsheet, we took the wrong road. As you note, we have already traveled some distance on it.

    It is not axiomatic that greater material wealth leads to greater freedom; in fact, the opposite is often true. Possessions can, in time, come to imprison those who own them.

  • M. Report

    Objection heard to H.G. Wells predictions
    of a mechanized (robotic) future: But, but;
    There will be nothing left for people to do except write poetry and make love. >:)

    Our challenge is to adapt our _society_
    to a Hi-Tech world. I suspect that the
    optimum solution may be to raise children
    in a simple pastoral environment, and only
    expose them to the complexities and temp-
    tations of Hi-Tech after their personalities
    are well formed. Furtherandmore, it is the
    women, the mothers, who will have to insist
    on this; The boys will be satisfied to play
    with their high tech toys, with no thought
    for the health or continuity of society.

  • Alan

    I have a simpler and less erudite concern: When it becomes much less likely that anyone you know is capable of doing or maintaining the primary industries, your society has lost the self-reliance of commanding its core competancies. And you become much more vulnerable to changes and limits to supply, whether from actions of international competitors or from effects of cataclysm. Risky times, masked by apparent luxury and decadence.

  • Kristo Miettinen

    This article misses an important point, namely that manufacturing, mining, and agriculture produce things that we can export, and we will continue to need exports to pay for our imports. The principal challenge of the post-industrial economy will be how do we persuade those countries that still make stuff to send any of it over here for us to enjoy?

  • RedWell

    An interesting vision, overall, but the narrative misses a major intervening factor: unions. Unionization, coupled with some federal regulation, forced wages to rise and the plight of the factory man to improve. I’m not making a socialist-style argument, here, but that’s a historical reality. I don’t see how service industries can sustain a middle class unless the unskilled collaborate to increase wages and benefits. This, in turn, would increase the cost of services, like coffee shops, which cannot by their nature use technology like factories did to become more efficient and keep prices low.

  • Yahzooman

    Peachy keen.

    That’s a bright future, indeed.

    However, you neglected to mention the need for leadership. Leadership counts. Today we’re plagued with tepid leaders. Their finger-in-the-wind, leading from behind style puts us all in peril.

    We could all be happy sipping banana daiquiris at the cabana when some madman from Tehran or Pyongyang lobs a nuclear warhead onto San Francisco or New York.

    We need boldness. We need insight. We need our institutions to anticipate threats and act.

    In other words, America needs a red state model that is filled with rugged individualism. Even though our modern service-sector workers may work at Starbucks serving cappuccino they still must embody John Wayne under their aprons.

    American leaders historically derive their backbone from its citizens. (Hence Obama who sprung fully formed from the head of a citizenry that feels entitled, victimized, special and underappreciated.)

    Like Archie used to say ….

    “Boy the way Glen Miller played, songs that made the hit parade, guys like us we had it made, those were the days, and you know where you were then, girls were girls and men were men, mister we could use a man like Herbert Hoover again, didn’t need no welfare states everybody pulled his weight, gee our old LaSalle ran great, those were the days!”

  • “This article misses an important point, namely that manufacturing, mining, and agriculture produce things that we can export, and we will continue to need exports to pay for our imports.”

    At present we export a lot of intangible stuff (software, CAD designs for foreign manufacturers to work off of, instructions on how to cut and assemble and mold materials into various shapes), and then capture the gain in value as our intangible designs are made overseas.

    (Keep in mind Foxconn only captures a couple of dollars for each iPhone made, while Apple has captured billions and billions of dollars–including billions “exporting” those iPhones to China.)

    I don’t see why this cannot continue.

    And in fact, I’d suggest many metrics of the balance of trade will break down as we move forward–since they generally only focus on tangible goods, which doesn’t make sense in what will become an increasingly intangible world where the greatest store of value will be the designs and plans to make a thing, rather than the thing itself.

    After all, which is worth more? A dozen shipping containers full of iPhones? Or the designs, plans and software that makes an iPhone something more than just a piece of glass and a microprocessor and battery assembled into a little aluminum and glass box?

  • Kris

    Luke@3: “Well paid servants, but servants all the same”

    Luke, you seem to be flirting with the precise cognitive trap that our host describes, with your apparently disdainful attitude to “servants.” In keeping with this outlook, American history has seen the 99% (to coin a phrase 🙂 ) engaging in bone-wearying soil scratching in order to feed the gentry, then doing robotic assembly-line work to enrich the plutocrats, then performing soul-deadening cubicle work for the tycoons…

    David@6: “Summary …: Life is easier now than it was 120 years ago, so shut up and quit complaining.”

    Given that this whole series is about how things will change dramatically, that’s quite a remarkable summary you present.

    Tom@9: “Reduction of the work week.”

    Will this apply to the growing number of independent workers?

    Georgiaboy61@12: “fewer people are needed to create wealth than in the past. … what happens to those whose jobs have gone the way of the buggie whip?”

    As stated clearly in this post, the “winners” in this economy won’t be hiding their new wealth under their mattresses. They’ll want personal nannies, nurses, masseurs, fitness trainers, dog-walkers, DVR programmers, family-movie editors, money-under-the-matress shovellers, …

    At worst, we need tax an ever-decreasing portion of this ever-increasing wealth in order to provide the masses with bread and circuses a life of leisure.

    Georgiaboy61@14: “Possessions can, in time, come to imprison those who own them.”

    “Lord, make me poor. But not just yet.”

    [email protected]: “Risky times, masked by apparent luxury and decadence.”

    Well, by having so much of our information in electronic format instead of printed on paper or, better yet, carved in stone, we are at much greater risk of losing it. Making our transportation so dependent on electricity and petroleum is risky. In brief, the higher we climb, the greater the possible damages of a fall. Do you propose we ban climbing?

  • Victor Erimita

    Redwell expresses a question of mine, as well. The industrial economy was characterized by relatively few, centralized employers, upon whom demands for increased standards of living could be effectively made. It’s hard to see in an economy of baristas, massage therapists, yard workers, personal aestheticians and yoga teachers how to avoid the relentless downward pressure on wages that such decentralization will yield. It will be difficult for the yoga teachers of the world to unite, when they are so numerous and their services so inessential to their less numerous, but still pretty numerous employers. The steel mill had to have skilled employees to function. Having a yoga teacher might be nice, but no one needs one to function. Different forces on the negotiating process will result, no?

  • mac

    Nice try; no cigar. I don’t buy what you’re selling and I’d bet money it won’t end up working like that. Try figuring that there will be one major business you’ve not mentioned: security. There will be lots of rich people out there but nowhere near as many as the poor ones. Somebody is going to have to keep them in line and away from the rich folks’ stuff. There will be plenty of jobs doing that.

    Some things never change.

  • Kris

    [email protected]: “Some things never change.”

    While other things do change. For example: the poverty level. The living standards of the poorer parts of society keep increasing.

    It is ironic that some are objecting to this series of posts by saying that the rich will not be able to sustain the necessary economic growth as there is a limit to their wants, while others are objecting by saying that the possible increase in inequality* that will accompany the projected economic growth will ineluctably lead to unsatisfiable wants among the poor.

    * Our host is welcome to clarify the matter himself, but I do not read him as ruling out (or even addressing, so far) income redistribution schemes.

  • John Alsina

    The suggestion of limiting the work week is an excellent example of sacrificing personal liberty to illusory economic goals. If not being allowed to stop working when you want to is slavery, what is being forbidden to work as much as you like, or as much as you need?

    This idea was recently tried in France, where unemployment has rarely dropped below 10% for 30 years now. In 2000, they limited the work week to 35 hours and assigned policemen to record when each employee arrived at and left work. The unemployment rate didn’t budge (except for policemen), and the average duration of unemployment went up.

    Why didn’t it work? Simple: more employees means more taxes and regulatory overhead. Therefore, employing 9 people to do the work formerly done by 8 is a losing proposition, especially for small businesses. Predictably, most companies bought more machines and pressed current employees to achieve the same output in fewer hours. Result: current employees are overworked but don’t dare quit, while the young and the unemployed are frozen out, exacerbating the very problem the regulation was supposed to solve.

    The logical next step would be to forbid current employees to work harder, and force employers to hire more employees. Then, when people with capital decide they would rather not risk it in businesses subject to such regulations (as is the case now with capitalists in the US), eventually the state will reluctantly be obliged to force them to invest their money in ways the state deems appropriate.

    And voilà: Three easy steps (all perfectly logical) to collectivization!

  • David Davenport

    … where the greatest store of value will be the designs and plans to make a thing, rather than the thing itself.

    Yes, we can trust our Chinese friends not to steal, copy, or reverse engineer American intellectual property.

  • In a service economy we do things for each other. Unless you have an independent income. Then others just do things for you.

    Isn’t there already a trend towards more live-in “help” among the upper classes? Cooks, maids, gardeners? As time goes on I can see this trend increasing. More help on staff will become a status symbol, now that the cars we drive and the clothes we wear no longer set us apart. Keeping up with the Joneses — or, rather, keeping up with the richest members of our set — will be measured by how much live-in help you can afford.

    I don’t say this is entirely a bad thing. Waiters, maids, and yardmen are doing honest work. And they are relatively easy to train, which is no small consideration when it comes to masses of low- and unskilled labor.

    But I do question the wisdom of letting this become the dominant social trend in our society.

    One alternative, as a couple of commenters have already pointed out, is reducing the standard work week. If we spent fewer hours slogging away in factories, stores, offices, and warehouses we could spend more time at home doing things for ourselves and our families that we currently pay others to do for us. That can cover an awful lot of territory.

  • Toni

    Luke Lea, what’s wrong with being a servant?

    I’ll include below a link to my Amazon review of Nickel and Dimed, but here’s the pertinent paragraph:

    “Ehrenreich sympathizes with and condescends to her coworkers simultaneously. Because she finds certain jobs degrading, she believes the jobholder to be degraded, and never mind what the jobholder thinks. Because some people — at both ends of the economic spectrum — treat her differently when she is in a maid uniform, she thinks she is demeaned. Thus, when her fellow maids value their work and want praise for doing it well, she pities them and believes them to be brainwashed. The fault, of course, is with those who treat maids differently — that is, with people who don’t confer dignity on all honest work. Unfortunately, Ehrenreich appears to be among them. ”

    http://www.amazon.com/review/R2HEOMP23K4VHH/ref=cm_cr_rdp_perm

  • Toni

    I love this essay! I hope you’re spot on.

    The hitch is, many people have forgotten both the words and the truth of the old saying “Virtue is its own reward.”

    Great Society programs were premised on the idea that they would provide “a hand up, not a hand out.” But some people of every complexion decided that they preferred handouts over working, and when some women of every complexion discovered that they could get bigger handouts by making a baby, they made babies. The late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a sociologist and lifelong Democratic, predicted that these programs would break up Black families. Tragically, he was correct.

    Meanwhile, the “self-esteem” movement took hold in schools. But praising children being smart doesn’t make them smart; good grades take work. Generations of “permissive parents” – of every race, at every income level – have produced children and adults with little or no self-discipline and little or no regard for how their actions affect others.

    For the umpteenth time, I’ll cite my geophysicist friend* – who actually holds a B.A. in music from a non-elite school, and who joined a major oil company just before the oil bust of the 1980s. She had to figure out, on her own, how to solve problems involving on seismic data on supercomputers. Now she’s trying to train Ph.D. geophysicists who have little notion of her old-fashioned work ethic – i.e., working all the hours it takes to get a project done on deadline – and who refuse to “put their heads together” to solve problems and are otherwise uncooperative. She’s an esteemed, highly paid executive, but some of these Ph.D.s’ skulls are too thick to absorb the knowledge and experience she has to offer.

    More anecdotal evidence: Did you know that on Halloween, some teenagers in street clothes go door to door ringing doorbells? Enough householders are startled, or maybe intimidated, and hand over enough candy to make it worth the teenagers’ while. (A plain-spoken sort, I’d probably just say, “No costume, no candy” – and then get my house T.P.’d or spraypainted or worse.)

    Then there’s Detroit’s notorious Devil’s Night. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Devil%27s_Night
    Arson appears to be on the increase again, perhaps now for the insurance.

    My point is that the Progressive Century created many incentives that enabled and in some cases prolonged bad behavior, e.g., granting drug addicts perpetual Social Security Disability payments. The redress of wrongs against women and minorities in some cases created the attitude that “it’s okay to do X; I deserve the benefits.”

    Also, what was called “sexual liberation” in the 1960s and 1970s led to innumerable broken homes and two new STDs, genital herpes and HIV, both incurable and one fatal. Study after study shows that children fare best in a home with one parent of each gender, committed both to each other and to their children. Today, though, we’re told to be “nonjudgmental” about “lifestyle choices.”

    I once caught an episode of a “reality” TV show called The Nanny. A mother and three adolescent daughters were trying to get their lives together. The “nanny” told the daughters they needed to let back into their lives the father who had abandoned them when they were little; evidently he had “liberated” himself upon discovering he was really homosexual. If he’d run off with a female stripper, what lecture would the daughters have gotten, if any?

    Now, in 2012, how do we rediscover virtue? Not only sexual self-governance and marital fidelity, but traits like honesty, industry and thrift. The 20th century held some glorious and long-overdue triumphs, but it also created and/or enabled some pernicious and self-defeating attitudes and behaviors, transmitted by cultural osmosis and in practice. How, in the 21st century, does our society recover the sturdy virtues our 18th- and 19th-century forebears once knew?

    *I thought of her when I read this in Charles Murray’s Coming Apart: “If you are really talented, and if your job is one where creativity is essential, you are at the center of senior management’s concern.” And still, thick-headed Ph.D.s may harry you into early retirement.

  • I understand why the author’s point of view appeals to utopian capitalists. He sees economic evolution (absent the control and violence of political corruption) and calls it good. Calls it inevitable. But, he wants to deny, as do all utopian capitalists, that there is any price to pay for infinitely accelerating greed and immorality. Yes. If there were somehow as equal a chance for the inert oil company baron to become destitute as there is for the industrious blue collar factory worker to become a billionaire, the system could remain stable. But, as history has repeatedly shown, when the wealthy put a stranglehold on the laws of the universe, eliminate randomness, and control energy, gravity, time, and even imagination, the political system/the dwarf star/the black hole will go nova. The wealthy will come down in a sea of fire and the land will be laid waste. All around the world, that time clearly approaches. We are already at a glut of pilates instructors, massage therapists, healers, bloggers, podcasters, pundits, website designers, writers, actors, and Walmart greeters. The world’s largest manufacturer of wind-turbines just went bankrupt. All that’s left for those outside the oligarchy is to find dignity, and self-respect, in open servitude. Possible. But, unlikely. History is again clear on this point. A Gandhi only comes along once in every two thousand years or so. Servitude is endured, but for ever shorter periods of time. This era of ‘economic evolution’ will end…either by new, community-based political and social theory or by the traditional methods of Sun Tzu and George, himself, Washington.

  • Ed Snyder

    Mr. Mead, your essays are consistently outstanding and have done much to enrich my understanding of the rapid changes to society and the economy. This series is no exception.

    But you lost me in your discussion of the service economy. The trouble with it, at least at present, is not that service work is lacking in dignity. When people need to feed and house themselves and otherwise pay up, they will resort to professions a lot less dignified than waiting tables.

    No, the problems, as far as I can see them, are two:

    1. Making a living wage in service work. A cappuccino is affordable, in part, because the smiling barista making it for you is earning chump change. Raise his wages to living standards, and fewer people can afford that cup of coffee. That translates, down the line, to fewer customers, a coffee shop out of business, and unemployed baristias.

    2. The older workforce. Unless there is some kind of massive reform to our social welfare programs, people are going to be working farther and farther into their golden years. And while waiting tables isn’t as physically demanding as working in a dirty, noisy, industrial environment, a job that requires an employee to stay on his feet for 10-12 hours a day, 5-6 days a week would tax most elderly workers beyond their limits.

  • Soul

    I remember when I first saw the picture of the sun bathers near the pool thinking that must be an older picture. And then noticed it is, as the photo is labeled from 1973. Here on the island it is different now these days it seems. Many, not all, cover themselves up from head to toe to avoid the sun. They wear long sleeves and big brimming hats. I wonder why did they come here? If someone wanted to avoid the sun an island off S. Florida would seem to be the wrong place to vacation. The warmth is nice, but it would be cheaper to curl up next to a fire I would think. But for what ever reason they come and seem to have a good time.

    The newly evolving economy sounds like it will be a wonderful place to be. As you mention it will be scary for many making the transition. But overall the potential for a richer, more creative life will be there. I’m looking forward to the day that I will be able to join in and enjoy it myself.

  • teapartydoc

    Medicine is an information-based art, and with information being more widespread and accessible, the physician will return to the role of adviser of the past with most of the actual care being delivered by mid-level providers, nurses, aides, and non-professionals who learn on the job. Successful doctors will be those who can offer highly technical surgical or procedural services that cannot be automated or learned outside of a specialized setting. Most nursing home type of care will devolve back to the home delivered by non-professionals under the supervision of experienced nurses. Nursing homes will become places where most of the business done will be post-op rehab and they won’t even be called nursing homes anymore.

  • Service requires a master and the master is always going to be production. Service serving service is not economically sustainable. This isn’t the future. This is our current economic model and the only way for this model to sustain itself is by borrowing more and more money.

    Their has to be enough productive activity (production) to afford leisure and maintenance. You can’t just live off leisure and maintenance.

    And, most importantly, the capital efficiency of supplying wants is significantly lower than the capital efficiency of supplying needs. Turning wants into needs just because you can afford to isn’t sustainable…again…look at our debt situation. We are in debt up to our ears because we have turned wants into needs. This is not sustainable.

    I love optimism but looking back at history the Dark Ages lasted about 1,000 years while we are only 600 or so years into this period of enlightenment. To think prosperity can be perpetual is naive. And to think the transition from one enormous socioeconomic period (The Industrial period) to another (the Leisure period?) will happen in one generation is even more naive. Kumbaya my friends!

  • Mike Mahoney

    Bury me in [scatological reference removed], why don’t you? First, your got paid to be somebody’s parrot. Second, parrots don’t think. They don’t need to and you fill the bill nicely. Third, the industrial revolution preceeded and fostered the reduction in farm employment. It wasn’t as if the displaced farm hands were waiting for the next new thing to employ them. They went to the factory to make the thing that had displaced them.
    Every single spewing of this trash cannot say where the new employment will come from. Its has been predicted since before NAFTA that a bright new world of a service economy, the professions and high tech would soak up displaced manufacturing jobs. Hasn’t happened. Two generations have entered the workforce since this began in the mid-seventies. Ask then the Reagan question: are you better off than your parents? For Two generations parrots like you have been making pie in the sky promises of brighter days. Time to take off the rose glasses, open your cage door and see the country. The only sector that is showing a bright spot is mining, an old sector indeed. And government jas their boot on the throat. Nevertheless. the new economy never has and never will materialize. An economy must be integrated and symbiotic. You remind me of the AWG people. What is in front of your eyes deceives you because it clashes with your mental worldview.

  • Toni

    Ed Snyder wrote, “1. Making a living wage in service work. A cappuccino is affordable, in part, because the smiling barista making it for you is earning chump change. Raise his wages to living standards, and fewer people can afford that cup of coffee.”

    Ed, please say where in our founding documents, the Declaration and the Constitution, it stipulates or even suggests that every citizen is entitled to “a living wage” and certain “living standards.”

    The Declaration famously states, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” That’s the PURSUIT of Happiness, not wages at a level to make every person happy.

    From its start, immigrants have come to this country believing that with hard work, they could make better lives for themselves than wherever they came from. Some didn’t, but enough did that America remains a magnet for immigrants from every corner of the globe. These immigrants didn’t, and don’t, expect a “living wage” supporting a nice level of “living standards” upon arrival, and still they come and they thrive.

    Alas, some Americans believe that merely being born here should entitle them automatically to a certain level of material prosperity. They either don’t know or choose to ignore the “start at the bottom, work hard, and husband your resources” principles with which immigrants have always arrived.

    “2. The older workforce. Unless there is some kind of massive reform to our social welfare programs, people are going to be working farther and farther into their golden years.”

    During their working years, what prohibited these people from setting some of their earnings aside and saving them, to supplement any shortfalls in government aid in their golden years?

    Sure, to save, they might have had to stay in a smaller house when they could afford a larger one, or not load up on the latest consumer electronic gadgets or spiffy autos, or take fewer vacations — or all of the above. If people choose the larger house, the gadgets, etc., well, that’s their own choice, isn’t it? Why should the unretired be responsible for funding comfortable golden years for the elderly? Who, by the way, are collectively the wealthiest segment of society.

    It seems to me that you have it backwards. The federal government, in your view, is responsible for making sure every citizen of every age enjoys a certain minimal level of material comfort, no matter how that citizen behaves, or has behaved in the past. In my view, the federal government is already well on the road to bankruptcy partly because of Social Security, Medicare and other programs intended to help people get and remain financially secure.

    Government can’t do for people what they won’t do for themselves.

  • HW

    Professor Mead seems to believe that the 21st century servant economy will replace manufacturing as manufacturing once replaced agriculture.

    His advice to Millennials is essentially this: having graduated with a college degree in accounting, find dignity and meaning working full time at Walmart or McDonald’s, as the nation’s wealth concentrates at the top and ultimately capsizes the economy.

    What about Europe and Japan? Is the economy going to soar there as those nations shrink and depopulate as children become another lifestyle choice?

    What about the United States? With the demographics of a Third World country, are we headed to greater and greater heights? Just wait until the Muslims start to become a majority in Western European countries like France and the Netherlands.

    The American public knows better. We are headed over the falls under a wildly unpopular political class that one way or another will be overthrown like their Bourbon predecessors.

  • David Billington

    I am inclined to agree that the next century or two will come to emphasize quality over quantity. But the question for employment is whether craft production can differentiate itself from mass production.

    There is a craft sector already (in an electronic as well as traditional sense) alongside production for mass markets and audiences. But whether people can make a living in it will depend on future demand for mass-produced quality.

    From the standpoint of employment, the distinction is really not between quality and quantity, but between mass-produced quality and craft-produced quality.

  • Toni

    HW, my mom was five years old when the stock market crash of 1929 inaugurated the Depression.

    She later found plenty of dignity and meaning working as a sales clerk at Wal-Mart, and saved tens of thousands of dollars while doing it.

    What makes Millenials think they’re entitled to a job where they have a nice title and a nice income they don’t have to work terribly hard for?

  • Jim.

    I’ve been watching James Burke’s “Connections” again, with the kids this time. Brilliant stuff — if you want to know about the historical processes of innovation, that’s the series to watch. (“Connections2” gave Burke a budget, and an editor. While that improves things for the sake of short attention spans, it’s a net loss in my opinion.)

    Note all the times when Burke says, “If you were anybody who was anybody, you went out and got yourself a [whatever fashionable new product was made possible by the latest technology]!” He says this about sets of Delftware and Wedgwood (and toilets). He says it about spices and clothing using the latest dyes. If he were making the same series today, no doubt he would say the same thing about whatever gizmo Apple’s (re)inventing as we speak.

    Wants, needs, doesn’t matter — as long as the wants are as valuable to those who produce the needs, as the needs are to those who produce the wants. (Look at the prices Apple charges, if you’re worried about balance.) Scarcity of raw materials for needs is the only enemy in that case, and capitalism has a way of correcting that by rewarding those who solve scarcity problems.

    For the purposes of America’s future — it (almost) doesn’t even matter what products or services are made, really. You just have to have a situation where money circulates in sustainable patterns.

    The economic turmoil we’re seeing right now is a result of things not circulating properly. People who pretended to be good solid customers because of credit they couldn’t repay caused unsustainable business models to flourish. Now that that music has stopped, old models fall, and *sustainable* business has to regrow around consumers who can actually afford to pay.

    (The fact that the Chinese and Indians are underpaid is the second-most serious threat to the world economy; this seems to be correcting itself, giving us reason for hope. A senior, experienced tech writer in India who five years ago went for $22k a year now demands $37k a year.)

    Basically, my advice to 21st century job-seekers is find a way to deliver value to Chinese and Indian customers. Follow the money — that was true a hundred years ago, it’s true now.

    The other alternative, finding a new frontier, some of the rest of us are working on. I’ll keep you posted. 🙂

  • Richard B

    Much to digest here, including many of the comments. Thank you.

    But the author, and most comments, gloss over history’s violent periods of transition. The better model of agrarian migration is not Levittowns or 1950’s factory employment, it’s Dicken’s England or Chicago’s Haymarket ‘riot’.

    Our children will now live the transition we (under-)prepare.

  • Brett

    There is one thing that deeply concerns me about the comparison of the current transition to the agriculture-to-industry transition 100 years ago.

    During the previous transition, factory jobs were often brutal and difficult – but also almost always paid much better than what people could make on the farm. There was a “push” factor as well (farms becoming more efficient), but factory wages were also a massive “pull” factor. We see this in China right now, where people work in some rather distressing conditions (Foxconn factories) because the wages are much better than what they could be earning back in the rural hinterland.

    This isn’t happening in the current transition, though, at least not for most people. It’s been almost all push, with workers being displaced from higher-paying jobs into lower-paying ones. That’s dangerous, since the only way to get improved living conditions beyond that is to lower the costs of goods and services . . . at a time when much of the Developing World is rapidly growing and putting demands on the same supply of raw materials and energy.

  • Adam Garfinkle

    Et tu, Brutus? By which I mean to associate myself with the comments he made (response #5). Well said. Walter, you make no reference to government and civic life amid all these socio-economic jolts–at least not yet. No one should underestimate the ravages that can be caused by bad government, or merely government that is ossified and misaligned with reality. And one must take seriously, I think, the position that politics is primary and trumps all else,so that one cannot hope for an orderly and stable society and economy if the political order cannot support it. So all of this optimism is nice to hear; I just hope it does not turn out to be, as Bentham said about Locke’s idea of natural law, “nonsense on stilts.”

  • We have fallen into a trap of belief that order is the norm and chaos is the anomaly when if we just peaked back at recent history…how many wars were there in the 20th century…we would learn that chaos is probably the norm and order probably the anomaly. We now believe that order and prosperity can be managed by government, yet all attempts to manage order just create more instability. The process of “managing” increases the cost of everything while also reducing its end value, so the more government manages, the weaker a system gets. There is no perpetual prosperity. The life cycle that defines everything can’t be eliminated, even from economics. The very term Developed Markets suggests they are already developed. So what comes after an entity has developed? Youth doesn’t spring eternal from middle age. One might convince themselves that 50 may feel like the new 30 but it isn’t.

  • An excellent review of Charles Murray’s new book, Coming Apart (if you can overlook the magazine it is published in), hat tip Steve Sailer

    I imagine we’ll be discussing this book in the weeks ahead. Hope so. It has something for everybody.

  • Larry Arrington

    Your post–especially your reference to Luther—reminded me of these words of wisdom from theologian Paul Tillich. “The new in history always comes when people least believe in it. But, certainly, it comes only in the moment when the old becomes visible as old and tragic and dying, and when no way out is seen. We live in such a moment; such a moment is our situation.” He also wrote, “The really new is that which has in itself eternal power and eternal light.” And more: “…Whether we observe the growth of a living cell or of a human soul or of a historical period, we see that growth is gain and loss at the same time; it is fulfillment and sacrifice… Love is the power of the new in every man and in all history. It cannot age…It is hidden in the darkness of our souls and of our history.”

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