One way to solve the financial crisis would be to just send everybody in the country a million dollars. Imagine it, overnight we could be a nation of millionaires.
Of course some of you out there who were paying attention during that mandatory semester of high school economics will raise your hands to bust my bubble. If the Fed just arbitrarily granted us all a pile of cash, the next day a cup of coffee would cost $40 and a Ford F-150 would run about $500,000. All we would accomplish is a re-valuing of the currency to add zeros. Correct. You get an A+.
What if we did it another way?
What if disruptive new technologies radically reduced the man-hours required to do a lot of common business tasks? What if the costs of supply chain management, document storage, business meetings, food production, and hundreds of other necessary human activities dropped through the floor? What if, instead of giving us all millions of dollars in currency, our political and economic system could make life drastically cheaper in a very short time? Would we even notice?
That’s essentially what global capitalism has accomplished for America and the world over the past quarter-century. Ever since the days of Adam Smith capitalism has been making us all richer by making new benefits available to us at a more reasonable investment of time and effort. But that process accelerated at an extraordinary pace in our lifetimes.
Though few of us lose much time thinking about it, our lives have been and continue to be transformed by this process. But nothing, no matter how good, can happen without attracting opposition.
You can’t accomplish such a radical economic transformation without breaking something. Farm life will never be the same. The Great Plains and other rural regions are emptying as the population shifts steadily to cities. Jobs that required little more than muscle are being automated. Automated jobs are globalizing.
And the virtual shrinking of the planet that has occurred in our time did not occur without upsetting some sensitive people. If you thought your values were the only valuable ones, if your religion was the correct one, if you felt like women should keep their mouths shut and do what they’re told or that the world is 6000 years old, this past quarter-century has been a tough time for you.
It’s difficult to find a place remote enough to remain sheltered from the rest of the world. From Afghanistan to Alabama, cultures and beliefs so fragile that they wither in contact with others are…withering. But they are not going peacefully.
For the rigid and brittle, the dramatic spread of prosperity we’ve experienced has brought dread. Unimpressed with this wealth which they didn’t ask for in the first place, they just see frightening new ideas filling women’s heads, public discussion of subjects that should be kept quiet, scary foreigners and weird foods. Cap it off with a Black President and you’ve got yourself a Movement.
Generations that came before us struggled to give birth to the world we live in now. How little we appreciate it is embarrassing. How we are threatening to tear it down is a scandal.
The social safety net that enables innovation and risk-taking, the trade agreements that broaden our economic base, the cultural openness that allows new ideas to emerge and flow, the educational infrastructure that fuels our competitiveness; none of it is a given. Destroying these building blocks won’t turn back the clock or stop the progress of globalization. The rest of the world will move on with or without us. Pulling the political emergency brake will only leave us behind.
Those who came before us made us all, in practical terms, millionaires. This accomplishment did not come easy. The pricetag included mountains of hard work and a disturbing volume of blood. We are in a position to grant our children an even wealthier, more just and secure world at a much smaller cost. But somehow we are losing our nerve.
The world we’ve been given is rich, but it’s also scary-fast and ruthlessly competitive. It is hard to figure out how to outperform China, how to make Social Security and Medicare work for the future, how to balance the need for fiscal responsibility with the demands for new infrastructure.
There is a growing public urge to withdraw and shut it all down. We punish ‘elitist’ leadership that can’t give us single-sentence answers to problems. We embrace ill-defined visions of hope, change, or revolution. Some want to cover their ears, close their eyes, and go back in time in their heads. A banana republic would at least be a quiet, uncomplicated place.
We can’t return this gift no matter how much we might want to. We may not literally be millionaires, but at some level we recognize the beauty of what we have. Eventually we are going to gather our nerve, recover from this bizarre spasm of escapism, and begin to confront the thorny issues of our time like responsible adults. As Churchill reportedly said, “America will always do the right thing, but only after exhausting all other options.”
Why we can’t we just do that now?
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