Digital Future, Dimly Foreseen

In my 7th grade music class, every student was required by Miss Perkins to give a report on a piece of music.  I picked a popular subject: Iron Butterfly‘s psychedelic hit, In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida. It was a 17 minute reflection of or on something-or-other. My “research” was straight off the album cover (for those of you who remember what album covers were).  “Iron” signifies heavy, man, and so on. I worked hard to learn the drum solo too.

For those of you looking for a frame of reference, Kevin and Winnie Cooper of The Wonder Years are exactly my age and year in school and In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida was playing in the first kiss episode from the 8th grade where Kevin and Winnie are at their first couples party and they head to the make-out room.  That episode also features The Turtles‘ terrific Happy Together. Anyway, here’s the song, which we thought sounded like the future, and a pretty exciting (if drug-induced) one at that.

 

I wanted very much to be groovy but wasn’t.  It didn’t stop me from trying, however, as with my silly report. In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida indeed.

And my parents — founding members of the Establishment that I saw them to be — were anything but groovy and, in fact, were unalterably opposed to anything with even a whiff of groovy.  They were even…Republicans.

To be clear, my parents were hardly of the “country club Republican” sort.  We didn’t belong to a country club.  In retrospect, there was nothing “establishment” about them either.  Neither of them went to college. We didn’t own or run a business. My mom worked outside the home. We weren’t anything remotely close to rich. 

But we were Republicans. Hard work was good.  Entitlements were bad.  Saving was good.  Profligate spending was bad.  Traditional values were sacred.  The idea of turning on, tuning in and dropping out was anathema. Our leaders — all authority figures really — deserved and got our respect if not necessarily our support (Jacob Javits was pretty liberal, after all).

Vietnam was an unfortunate but necessary evil.  Dick Nixon hadn’t been their first choice (or second or third), but he would deal with those hippies and the Soviets too. Watergate (waiting just over the horizon) was horrible and wrong, but it was also stupid and silly.  Nobody was going to vote for McGovern anyway. And FDR had done stuff just as bad.  We were sure of it.

Our government was a creeping socialism and politicians weren’t statesmen anymore.

The clothes worn by “the youth” were just plain bizarre. So was the hair.  So was the lingo.  And the music….

So whenever my school lessons featured FDR saving us from the Great Depression, my parents were quick to point out that it wasn’t FDR.  It was World War II. 

They weren’t wrong, of course.  Producing and distributing what we needed to fight the Axis powers propelled the country out of the Depression and went a long ways toward making us the strongest and greatest economy in the world, not to mention the #1 (with a bullet, literally and figuratively) superpower. 

To hear Paul Krugman tell it, the key was demand (it didn’t and doesn’t matter for what) and we can fix the current mess by spending our way out of it just like FDR did.  As Keynes argued in the 1930s, the only solution in such circumstances is major fiscal stimulus to close the gap between actual and potential output. TARP wasn’t enough.  QE1 wasn’t enough.  QE2 wasn’t enough.  Operation Twist wasn’t enough.  QE3 won’t be enough.

I get his point, but he’s missing something crucial, I think, besides the reality that all the demand we spur will need to be paid for eventually and we have shown no willingness to do so even assuming we had the ability.  It wasn’t just that WWII put people back to work. There was a fundamental change in the nature of the output.

A key problem during the Great Depression was that increased (and increasing) productivity meant that a largely rural and agrarian workforce didn’t have nearly enough work to do.  The War, essentially by force, transitioned that work force to the cities and into industrial and manufacturing jobs. Once the war was over, heavy-duty military spending was still necessary to maintain our new-found status and the other stuff we produced was being used here and shipped abroad too as American hegemony was extended around the globe.

Today, increased (and increasing) productivity and cheaper labor overseas leaves our workforce underemployed again.  Since the internet boom of the 1990s, we have recognized — if dimly — that our future is a digital one.  But we haven’t yet figured out how to make the transition and there has been no great catalyst (the way the War was then) to force and complete the “creative destruction” needed to make the structural shift once-and-for-all.  The process is a messy one.  It is often unpleasant.  Workers will be pushed out of their comfort zones or even displaced. Some individual results will be unfortunate, tragic even. Creative destruction is still destruction.

Even so, we piddle along, on a slow boat not-even-to China.  Today’s employment numbers provide another series of data points reiterating the obvious.  We have no idea (economically speaking) where we’re going and thus, of necessity, have no idea how to get there.  We’re stuck between preserving a past that no longer works and attempting to forge a future that is unfocused and uncertain (Facebook, anyone?).  The alleged “new economy” isn’t defined a whole lot better today than it was back when almost any kid with a computer and a dream could get a boat-load of start-up money.

The process of “making the future” (to use President Obama’s phrase) is an inductive one that progresses primarily by discovering what doesn’t work so as to ascertain, oh-so-tentatively, what might work.

As the expression goes, if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.  Unfortunately, today we don’t even seem to be moving much at all. And while we have a pretty good idea what the future consists of, we don’t know what it ought to look like.  Until we do, it’s going to be hard for us to put this Great Recession behind us, no matter how much demand we spur. As my friend Tom Brakke noted on Twitter when he read this piece, economy-wise, we’re not In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.

Not by a long shot.

One thought on “Digital Future, Dimly Foreseen

  1. Pingback: Sunday links: aim for the middle | Abnormal Returns

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