Why is Everything Going Wrong?*
By Sol W. Sanders
Monday, February 10th, 2014 @ 2:11AM
There is an old axiom in the news business–or what is left of it as traditional newspapers die to be replaced, for the moment at least, by amateurism on the internet and its social networks–that good news is not news. So we get a steady diet from the media of the worst/most dramatic happenings, now delivered in seconds across the world, and in apocalyptic terms. For nothing is as common as the young (or willfully ignorant) journalist who writes about this or that particular happening as “the first time ever,” “the biggest ever,” or “is (in whatever other way) unique.” More times than not, the event is a repetition, however singular in its own way in time and space, of something that has happened before. As clichés go, “there is nothing new under the sun” is not a bad one.
But in direct contradiction, I was astonished at a recent Fortune magazine item: entrepreneurs in California have launched a $220-million assembly line–and photographs do make the completely automated selection, weight and packing facility the size “of four football fields” look something like Henry Ford’s old original. It will send to market 800 bags of fruit or 18 million “mandarins” harvested daily. That’s a new undertaking in what is all but a stagnant economy, with massive unemployment, and a Washington economic policy at war with business. Mind you, I doubt the little fruit which it and another rival company are developing almost overnight in California—are already reaching half the households in the U.S. according to Fortune, and will taste as good as the little old-fashion Florida tangerine or that most delicious of all fruits, the Japanese mikan. But it will give large numbers of the American people more access to a cheap (in real terms) citrus than they have ever had. And that, my man, is progress in the face of the welter of bad news all around us.
Okay, now that I have dispensed with the Pollyanna, what is going wrong and why?
For it is not to say that we are in the midst of a cataclysm of troubles, at home and abroad, or again, to deny we have seen far deeper crises. Think of Abraham Lincoln’s outlook at the eve of the Civil War. Or, as I recently was telling a friend, it was my duty as a 15-year-old high schooler in January 1942 to go from classroom to classroom reciting a narrative on world events erupting out of Pearl Harbor. It was a grim list of defeats and retreats by the U.S. and its allies. Britain had survived the Blitz, eight months of bombing of civilian targets, but just. Hitler had launched (and we did not know it was to be a disaster) the largest military adventure of all time against the Soviet Union. Two of Britain’s vaunted battleships had been sunk off Malaya’s east coast anticipating the fall of Singapore, what Winston Churchill called the worst defeat in British military history. Most of our Pacific fleet had been sunk at Pearl Harbor with only the aircraft carriers luckily absent at sea. It was the worst of times.
That’s, of course, what we used to call “the old Buddhist argument, things could always be worse.” We could be in a 1914 situation–although I think the current widespread comparison highly deficient–and facing such calamities. But for the moment, our concerns of the worst and longest recession in the post-World War II American economy–with its repercussions for rest of the world–and a spate of regional conflicts, however bloody and ugly, around the world, is not the terrible conflict of World War II.
Truth is, the carefully manicured narratives of past history usually present a straight-line story of what we now see as the major issues. But during the time those events were transpiring, the contemporaries probably felt the same way we do today, harassed by a whole series of displacements and conflicts, some of them bearing directly on our own lives.
Still, having listed all these caveats, it is appropriate, I believe, to look around and see what is happening and make our guesses as to why:
1] The world since 1945 had learned to live with one major, dominating power, the United States. Not only had it not seen at home the depredations which had scourged Europe and Asia, but it had grown new muscle in Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s economic mobilization for war despite the tragic loss of 416,000 lives in combat. The overwhelming majority of industrial and agricultural production lay with the U.S. and, whether it chose to use it or not, gave it the power to try to decide world events.
In the midst of the worst zig in the business cycle since the Great Depression of the 1930s, we have an administration in Washington–in part representing a war-weary electorate and an increasing redistribution of world power–with the most inexperienced president and adminmistrative team in modern U.S. history. To add to the difficulties, President Barack Obama believes he has received two mandates to “transform” the American economy and political scene. A part of his program is to increase the “redistricutive” mechanism of the U.S. government through heavier taxation and regulation.
Internationally, the president attempts to step back from the role Washington has taken during the whole post-World War II period. He proposes to “lead from behind,” imitating the old adage of the dagger being at its most powerful when it is still in the scabbard. The president and advisers believe they are sophisticated enough to arrange new patterns of world relationships which would require no U.S. military application of force while we tend to our own somewhat dilapidated infrastructure and meet the demands of a new post-digital revolutionary age.
But the question that goes begging is whether what Washington may well have done is to remove itself from regional conflicts (except as feckless mediators) throughout the world, leaving a large vacuum permitting the play of always-present destabilizing and destructive forces.
2] The Cold War is over and with it, largely, the alternative of a vast bureaucracy forcing top-down social engineering on a goodly section of the European population under the name of Communism. That was supposed to result in “a peace dividend” for the U.S. economy and the American people. That has not come to pass, in part because the largest part of maintaining world order and stability continues to fall on the shoulders of Americans. Also an old threat to Western dominance and civilization, the Arab/Muslim fanatic, has again risen to become an international menace.
Using much of the same technology that has enriched Western life and the newly developing economies, the jihadists have learned to project terror into the very heart of non-Muslim societies as well as exacerbate age-old bloody feuds among the Prophet’s followers. Having failed to make the transformation into modern societies, the Arab countries and other Muslim societies are again ravaged by old tribal and ethnic conflicts. But these threaten to spill over into other parts of the world as Islamist terrorist acts, successful, or unsuccessful have dramatized. The failure of U.S. military adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan to dramatically curtail these terrorist activities seems likely to continue to make them a preoccupation of the U.S. and its allies into a distant future.
3] The digital revolution has unfurled technology beyond the wildest dreams of even its most astute advocates. (I am reminded of an old piece of advice from a friend when interviewing an academic on Latin America: “Remember he knows far more than he understands”.) In fact, it has created a second industrial revolution in which technology–sometimes even at minimum expense–has disrupted the whole schedule of work. Jobs and even careers thought essential to industrial societies for generations are being eliminated overnight. The complications are infinite, as the Obama administration’s ham-handed effort to reform U.S. medical services has demonstrated. Yes, medical expenses have grown disproportionately to the rest of society’s costs–although they may be slowing temporarily because of the economic recession. But is it not obvious that increasing applications of expensive new science to our aches and pains would raise them?
The unanticipated events and unintended consequences of this technology is upending the entire world, including setting up new relationships within the American domestic society as well as among nations. Nothing could be more indicative of the new situation than the Internet which arose almost by accident and now dictates an increasing part of our economic and social life. That means that government policy, so often written to placate particular sections of the electorate, is often upended by the new technologies. No clearer example exists than the attempt of the Obama administration to dictate energy goals, which has been totally vanquished by the introduction of new technologies with the shale-gas revolution.
Life has never been simple–not since the first caveman hit the second caveman over the head with a club as they wrestled for the same piece of meat or the affections of a blonde playmate. Common sense tells us that despite the huge and unknowable advances in technology the same will continue to be the order of the day.
So, make the best of it. There is a jungle out there and we all must gird our loins to cope. But that has been the nature of life on this planet from its inception. It behooves us to make the most of it and get on with the job of living even in these troubled (as they always are) times.
*A version of this column will be published at http://yeoldecrabb.com/ on Monday, February 10, 2014.