“Springfield is like Jamaica.” — Shaw 17 July, 2013Posted by Zack in Uncategorized.
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“Springfield is like Jamaica.” — Shawn Matthews, Springfield MO
I want John Sayles to make the movie of 17 July, 2013Posted by Zack in Uncategorized.
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I want John Sayles to make the movie of this story.
Big article live on Huffpo’s front page right now. 26 March, 2013Posted by Zack in Uncategorized.
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Please go comment on it, Like it, tweet it or whatever you do!
Introduction (take two) 17 February, 2013Posted by Zack in Uncategorized.
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(Or maybe this would work as an introduction? I got a lot of negative feedback on the one a few posts below.)
At the beginning of the 19th century, China was the largest, strongest, wealthiest country in the world, and had been for 2,000 years. At the end of that century, it was on its knees before Europe, begging for permission to pretend it was still something like a sovereign nation. Europe sucked wealth out, and pumped opium in, which it forced China to accept at gun point. Industrializing Russia and Japan pushed in from the north and east. Chinese government administration disintegrated. Floods, famine, disease and violence killed tens of millions. It was normal for cities to employ armies of early morning workers to clear away the dead left by the night. By the end of the century even that service became unreliable.
The imperialist industrial societies feasting upon China were an entirely new phenomenon in human history. They behaved according to a logic China could not decipher, they conquered with a limitless energy China could not fathom. For a thousand years, China had treated delegations from Europe like buzzing flies. But in the 19th century, industrial Europe’s demand for Chinese goods became unstoppable, as did its gunships. China still refused to trade goods. It didn’t need anything Europe made. It insisted on payment in silver. That one-way trade gave China a growing mountain of hard cash — just like it has today thanks to the exact same kind of one-way trade with the rest of the world, especially with the United States.
If China had retained its sovereignty, all that silver might have paid for a modernization program undertaken by an emergent reform movement. That is exactly how modern China has used its mountain of U.S. dollars. But Britain had a different plan for China, and the firepower to make it happen: It would Chinese tea, silk and other goods not with silver, but with addictive opium from its Indian possessions. China’s government forbade opium. So Britain fought and won a war to force China to accept it. That is how China fell.
How did most Chinese leaders and intellectuals react to the rise of the industrial imperialist countries? At the beginning of the century, they believed China had the best possible type of government. At the end of the century they believed the same thing. Looking back at them, you will be tempted to ask how they could remain so blind. What prevented them from seeing that the world had changed, that their ancient imperial government was not viable in the modern world, and that a better way had become available?
If you’re an American living in the early 21st century, chances are you can find the answers to those questions by examining your own thinking. For 300 years we were the most dynamic society on earth — which eventually made us the most wealthy and powerful nation on earth. Then, just like the defeated China I described above, we began shipping off our wealth and industry in exchange for a powerfully addictive drug.
In our case, that drug is cheap consumer goods from China and elsewhere. China did not force this upon us. Most of the products Americans buy from China are made or marketed by U.S. companies. Sixty years ago, we were the workshop of the world. In blind obedience to a kooky economic dogma, we intentionally stopped making things that China and other once-poor countries started to make more cheaply. For instance, when Korea and China were developing national steel industries from the ground up, American bankers bought the major U.S. steel companies to extract as much cash as possible with no intention of reinvesting one cent in modernization. The American revolution was partly fought to remove British ban on American industrialization. Now, we were doing it to ourselves.
Conservatives and progressives both agreed that deindustrialization was the way to go. Progressive Robert Reich, for example, favored replacing manufacturing with “symbolic analysis.” It turned out, however, that only a few “symbolic analyst” jobs paid better than the good old fashioned high-end manufacturing. Today, Korean steel workers earn almost what “overpaid” American steel workers used to — but Korea is reinvesting in its steel industry as a matter of national independence. Japan had a high-wage steel industry just like ours when the Korean and Chinese competition rose up. It continued to reinvest and today produces more steel than ever.
Japan and Korea are two of the most highly educated countries in the world. Why didn’t they throw out manufacturing in favor of “symbolic analysis” like we did? The answer is that both countries are an example of a new kind of society that is capable of making rational long-term decisions about their economies.
This book is not a call for us to make America into China. Through its ordeal of conquest, reform and revolution, ancient China did not become one of the countries that confronted it, it became modern China. Our beloved America, stuck in so many ways in the 19th century, is embarking on its own unique 21st century ordeal. It will not emerge as a copy of China or Japan. It will emerge as a modern America, founded on its own ancient traditions. Just China’s renewal was founded on Chinese traditions, such as authoritarian bureaucracy, America’s renewal will be based on Anglo-American traditions, such as the sanctity of personal liberty, private property, rule of law, entrepreneurship and immigration.
Today, though, our minds are just as closed and our vision just as narrow as the Chinese leaders who clung to the Qing Dynasty as English warships blasted their way up the Perl River. Because we are not being attacked from outside, but undermining ourselves from within, it may be even harder for us to change our thinking. But we must.
Recently I was driving on Missouri Route 60. To my left, a freight train pulled hundreds of shipping containers stacked two by two, every one displaying the mark of a Chinese shipping giant. To my right, a seemingly endless chain of payday loan offices advertised “first loan free” and “instant cash”. All of America has not yet hit rock bottom — just half of America. The respectable Chinese leaders of the 19th century waited until China passed over to warlords and revolutionaries before they rethought their assumptions. It’s hard to guess what America hitting rock bottom would look like, and who power would fall to if that happened. Let’s not find out. Who’s ready to start rethinking assumptions now?
1.2 The Great Mobilization 31 January, 2013Posted by Zack in Uncategorized.
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A totally unimaginable quantity of United States steel — in the form of bombers and bombs, ships and submarines, tanks and trucks, all delivered and powered by United States oil — tipped the balance of World War II. How in just a few short years did U.S. industry flip from utter depression and disorganization into a brilliantly conducted symphony of production capable of such a feat? Hollywood never made a war movie about it. Most historians barely mention it. One recent account called the mobilization “effortless.” For the workers and managers involved, however, it was a grueling battle whose outcome was uncertain until almost the very end.
Left wingers tend to recount the mobilization as a story of government command and control. Right wingers paint a picture of a spontaneous response by free markets to the demands of war. Both sides have it wrong. To the exasperation of many New Dealers in the administration and the press, Roosevelt nationalized nothing and didn’t flinch from pouring billions of dollars into private hands. But he did recruit respected industrialists to organize production. The wisdom and character of their leadership put their central planner counter parts in Europe and the Soviet Union to shame — but there is no doubt that too were central planners, even if they did not have coercion as one of their tools. In fact, it was the lack of coercion that made war planning in the U.S. so much more effective than elsewhere.
Chief among Roosevelt’s economic organizers was was life-long Republican and star of American capitalism, William Knudsen. Knudsen was a working class Danish immigrant who began on the shop floor, started his own manufacturing business, revolutionized production at Ford Motor Company after Henry Ford bought his company, and finally moved to GM where he led Chevrolet to surpass Ford’s sales and forged the modern auto industry in the process.
In Knudsen’s day, Detroit was Silicon Valley. Auto and other new “high tech” industries were revolutionizing human life just as profoundly as computers, mobile phones and the Internet is today. Knudsen and his generation of engineers were analogous to top software developers of Silicon Valley who have repeatedly reinvented the way software is created in ways that make possible the breakneck pace of change and the mass distribution of new technologies. From the 1920′s through the 40′s, high-tech dreamers like Knudsen carried out a similar revolution by fundamentally reinventing mass production.
Mass production is the technique of breaking down skilled artisan craft work into many small steps able to be performed by relatively unskilled workers. The purpose originally was not primarily to reduce wages — in fact, wages for mass production workers were often higher than for their craft counterparts in the older industries. The purpose of mass production was to increase speed and quantity.
British Rolls Royce airplane engines were built along the old craft lines. So too in France where warplane production had been turned over to craft labor unions. Neither country therefore had any hope of suddenly producing the “clouds of airplanes” they were requesting from the United States. Same for battleships and transport ships. The problem was that the United States did not yet produce any airplanes or ships using the new mass production methods. Asking the U.S. shipbuilding industry to fill the seas with ships was sort of like asking the accounting industry to reinvent Google. It wasn’t going to happen.
The problem was as high stakes as could be. It was clear to all that if the U.S. was not politically and economically able to deliver the needed armaments, Germany would eventually take all Europe. The pressure was especially great in the beginning of the war when the Soviets still swore not to fight Germany.
The U.S. sitting out the war for so long ironically helped to win it. It gave Bill Knudson the time and the space to retool American industry for war production. He was intimately familiar with the meticulous preparation that went into merely producing a new model of car. Hundreds — or thousands — of suppliers needed to be lined up. Work had to be divvied up among them in a way that would actually work. Failures by many of them had to be expected. A whole new foundation of machine tools — the machines that make the machines — would need to be designed and built, each one of them also drawing on a network of suppliers. He had told Henry Ford it would take 18 months just to create a successor to the Model T (causing Ford to stick with the T). As a member of the “National Defense Advisory Commission” he had scarcely 18 months to create an entirely new national economy, and no formal power to make it happen.
Knudsen knew Midwestern and Northeastern manufacturers from his long experience building cars with them. He knew what they produced and where they produced it. A central tenant of classical liberalism — known today as conservatism or libertarianism — holds that economic planning must fail because planners can never have perfect information, judgment or motives. With his homeland and six living sisters trapped behind Nazi lines, Knudsen’s motivations were perfect. His information and judgment were not perfect, just incredibly good.
Knudsen worked tirelessly to set up a new economy sector by sector, factory by factory, but everything had to happen in parallel. He worked it out in long discussions and brief phone calls with owners of every kind of business. He knew their own plants by name and number. In some cases the owners invested their own money in expansion, in other cases Knudsen promised government loans that he didn’t at first have the formal authority to make — he made them anyways.
He and his team spotted, and predicted, bottlenecks in production and did whatever they could to eliminate them. For example, machine tools were an especially difficult problem. Before you could build a new kind of airplane, your factory, and all your suppliers’ factories, would need to acquire and configure appropriate machine tools — machine tools were the machines that built the machines. The machine tool industry was still dominated by very old firms in New England. The firms had not fully switched to mass production and Knudsen judged they would not be able to scale to the needs of the new economy. He contacted smaller manufacturers in the Midwest who followed more modern practices and convinced them to begin scaling up. One of them, betting on war, had already begun investing in expansion. Knudsen poured in loans and encouragement, and connected them with the network of manufacturers who would soon be their wartime customers.
Knudsen played the role of a true organizer, constantly meeting with an convening other industrialists, large and small, to get things moving. He constantly planned ahead of the goals Roosevelt or the Army were setting, knowing that they didn’t come close to what would be needed in the end. Eventually, Roosevelt would keep on adding zeros to his production targets past what even Knudsen had dreamed of.
As war neared it became easier to get business owners to participate, but as Roosevelt added more and more zeros to the end of production targets, the impossibility of the project appeared absurd at times. Toward the end of the first phase of Knudsen’s planning, he found himself large auditoriums filled with industrialists reading out lists of materials and parts that still needed to be produced. As hands went up, aids would take down their names and work out agreements, often just by handshake, before the night was over. The press criticized Knudsen for “auctioning off” the defense of the nation. But really, he was just getting it done.
Knudsen wasn’t the only leader of the war mobilization. There were several central figures, and the lineup changed over time. There were some rivalries and many conflicts, but progress never stalled. In just the first two years, all of the following industries had either been totally revolutionized or were well on their way, and all of them had been vastly expanded: steel, aluminum and every other kind of metal used in manufacturing, military and merchant ships, motor vehicles, airplanes, machine tools, small arms, ammunition, agriculture, mining, radio, and many others.
Henry Kaiser’s construction company — which had never built a ship before — built several huge ship yards where ships would be fully mass produced for the first time in history, mostly by workers who had never had anything to do with ships. Kaiser’s first ship model was the “Liberty Ship,” a very large cargo ship that would transport millions of tons of food, coal, oil, arms and troops to Europe. The first ships took a few months to finish — record time for such large vessels. Kaiser pushed his ship yards by fostering friendly competition among them. They raced to cut their times while always sharing their successful innovations with each other. Results were unimaginable. Each yard kept cutting the other’s record in half. Eventually, one of the yards completed a ship from start to finish in three days. Three days.
Aircraft posed an tougher challenge, with hundreds of different systems that all had to work perfectly, all tightly intertwined with each other, involving hundreds of thousands of precision parts. At times it appeared the planes would never get off the ground. New aircraft plants were raised all over the West. But eventually Detroit was recruited to convert auto factories to build airplane engines, and inevitably the planes themselves.
Even when the planes were finally flying, there was still trouble. Air crews were accustomed to ordering improvements to the planes as they discovered them. For example, sliding bomb bay doors were requested when German fighter pilots learned to wait for the sight of bomb bay doors flapping open — a sign that the bomber would have to slow down and hold course. Mass production made such changes nearly impossible: the factory was essentially a giant robot, with workers serving alongside machines and tools. The robot couldn’t adapt to new requests the way old-style teams of craft airplane makers could.
What to do? Here Bill Knudsen saved the day once again. Under heavy criticism from the press — at first for doing too much, and then for doing too little — Knudsen had been replaced by a more political appointment. Instead of complaining to the press, leaking stories of “what really happened,” or returning to Detroit in a huff, he told the president, “If you want me to stand sentinel at the door, that’s what I’ll do — I’ll do whatever you call upon me to do.” He was made a three star lieutenant general in the army, given a plane, and told to roam the country — and the world — finding and fixing jams and bottlenecks in production. His solution to the problem of modifying aircrafts was simple: keep production moving by leaving the designs alone, and modify the planes after they were done. Civilian airlines took on the job, training thousands of new airplane mechanics virtually overnight.
All through the economy, over and over, problems like that were quickly solved — problems that today would lead to endless delays and eventual failure. What made things different back then? The urgency of war? No. Leaders like Kaiser and Knudsen were behaving no different in preparation for war than they had for their entire careers. What pleased them in their work was constantly figuring out how to do things faster, bigger and better.
What made the war mobilization different was that they — the most dynamic and driven industrialists — were driving it. Many New Dealers had been deeply suspicious of them from the start, but Roosevelt wisely overrode their objections.
Do we have to wait for World War III to mobilize like that again? Today, our economy is treading water. In the 1930′s, it was drowning. If they were living in a different time, it was a time that was definitely more likely to produce the success they accomplished. Industrial leaders like Knudsen and Kairser were not unique to their time. We have plenty like them today.
Knudsen and Kaiser appeared as heroes on the covers of Time, Life and Newsweek, but were unknown before the war mobilization. Right now, thousands of equally driven and talented characters are working miracles in obscurity: the people who built out Google’s global server infrastructure, who reinvented database technology to allow Google to look up anything you might ask within a thousandth of a second, or who reinvented it all again to allow Facebook to stand up to the demands of the most data-intensive application ever run. Those folks have redesigned the very structure of your day-to-day life, and you’ve never heard their names.
The story of recent industrial breakthroughs doesn’t stop with famous and fashionable Internet companies. There are hundreds of unsung heroes behind the recent — and almost unnoticed — reinvention of the U.S. auto industry. Amazing leaders are making radical breakthroughs all over our economy. Many are immigrants, just like Knudsen, though these days they tend to come from Asia, not Europe.
Why, then, with all those industrial heroes, is the U.S. economy hobbling along at a the pace of a 17 year old dog while Asia, for example, is exploding? There’s an answer that probably most of you reading this are thinking of right now: It’s that Asia still has a ways to go, and we’ve basically arrived. That was the thinking that made Roosevelt refrain from directly building up our means of making a living in the Great Depression. He said, “We’ve already got all the capacity we need.” Meanwhile, half of America was staving, and even the wealthiest Americans were still living a material a life that would be considered slumming it by most middle class people today. He was just as distant from the half of America that was suffering as nearly all liberal, progressive and conservative politicians and writers are today. He was as out-of-ideas as our current elite is today.
Half of America today is living in a nightmare, or something close to it. Almost the whole other half is living a life unfit for human beings: sitting in a cubical 50 or 60 hours a week pushing paper instead of living their own lives and raising raising their own children. What we know from the past few thousand years is that humanity is not a zero-sum game. New tools and new patterns in social organization — such as rule of law, human rights and democracy — make new and better life possible. Though it is remote from the typical American consciousness, boring industrial and organizational changes of the past several decades have freed billions of people from fear of death by starvation, disease, flood and violence.
In America, the Great Mobilization lifted tens of millions out of misery. After the war, America’s amazing new economy powered prosperity here for two generations — for many Americans, but far from all. Moreover, almost from V-Day on, the dynamism of the war economy was not able to translate into peacetime. First came a very gradual slowing of growth, and then a decline in real wages. They’ve been falling for most Americans every since 1977.
Many upper middle class Americans today are just as far removed from the misery that consumes half their country as lords and ladies of the middle ages. Meanwhile, working class and poor Americans are stuck wondering what’s wrong with them that they’re so different from everyone on television and in the movies. This book is looking for those who can see through this haze and can summon the clarity and resolve to say it should be different.
What, then, is the equivalent of the World War II mobilization for peace time here at the beginning of the 21st century?
1.1 Background to the Great Mobilization 26 January, 2013Posted by Zack in Uncategorized.
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It’s hard to picture it, but right up until Pearl Harbor and the German declaration of war against the U.S., the American people were committed to avoiding war at any cost. World War 1 left us resolved to let the rest of the world fight its own battles. Even in 1940, Franklin Roosevelt won reelection with a promise not to, “send American boys into any foreign wars.” That was already after the Nazi Government had conquered France, Denmark, Norway, Holland, Belgium, Poland and several others, and bombed Britain, and stripped German Jews of civil rights, and placed tens of thousands Jews and political opponents in concentration camps.
After Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt still felt so constrained by the anti-war stance of the American people that he declared war only on Japan, not Germany or its fascist ally Italy. (They declared war on the U.S. a week later.)
The U.S. entered the war with almost no means of making military trucks or jeeps, tanks, warships or military aircraft. A few short years later, the United States had produced more of all those than the rest of the combatants combined. In the end, United States war production surpassed, by an order of magnitude, what anyone had thought possible. The industrial leaders and workers who pulled the whole thing off were dumbfounded by their own accomplishment.
That story is proof of something that almost everyone these days would deny: that America can consciously choose to upgrade its means of making a living. I’m going to spend some pages later in this book explaining what I mean by “national means of making a living,” a concept that’s been banished from the intellectual landscape. Think of the more familiar demand for “jobs,” which is an incomplete substitute that will have to do for now. The World War II mobilization proves that it’s physically and organizational possible, at least under certain conditions, to create high paying jobs for virtually everyone.
Before get to the story of how the industrial mobilization was accomplished, I want to touch on the sad state of the economy before the war, to show that no matter how stagnant and indebted our economy has become today that places no limits on what we can accomplish tomorrow.
On December 8th, 1941, Japan dropped bombs on a country that appeared to be stuck in a permanent stupor. For a decade, the U.S. had suffered official unemployment rates as high as 25%. Millions were homeless and living close to starvation. Why? The immediate reason was very simple: Factories and shops closed because their products couldn’t find buyers, in other words people didn’t have money, or were saving what little money they had. And wealthy investors weren’t investing.
That frozen economic state had been caused by a chaotic economic boom and bust that few at the time understood. The boom that led to the bust was an economic bubble, focused mainly on the stock market, but also other kinds of assets. Think of farmers buying stocks in imaginary companies instead of fertilizer — and banks lending them money to do it. In that madness, many people believed they were becoming rich.
But the stocks of imaginary companies (and wildly inflated prices of real ones) only had value as long as new buyers were willing to keep the bubble going by pushing prices even higher. Eventually, as it always does in speculative bubbles, reality set in. Suddenly there were no buyers for stocks. The imaginary companies were correctly revalued to zero. But now, because no one could have any trust in the market, stocks in real companies and virtually every other kind of man made asset went almost to zero. The farmer who bought stocks instead of planting crops was left with nothing.
Business owners who had expanded capacity during the boom now had to destroy it. They didn’t have enough customers. And as they closed workplaces and laid off workers, their pool of customers shrank even more, causing more closures in a self-reinforcing deadly cycle.
America had been through booms and busts many times before — some more dramatic than 1929. It was considered normal for tens of millions to be periodically thrown out of work in revolutions of the business cycle. Most Americans were very poor by today’s standards, and close to half were poor by contemporary standards. Nevertheless, most Americans had gotten used to life improving noticeably every decade or so. America’s dynamic economy was to the 19th and early 20th centuries what Asia has been to the 20th and early 21st: America was the low-wage, well-educated, high-tech economy that had nowhere to go but up. Plus, unlike many of today’s Asian “miracle” economies, America had diverse and abundant natural resources.
When the Great Depression didn’t go away quickly, therefore, it felt like something had changed. Something had. Now that American wages and living standards were among the highest in the world, there was no longer a strong external force constantly pulling upwards. In 1930, the world economy was even more globalized (though they wouldn’t have used that word) than it is today. There were plenty of other places investment capital could go, and our products were no longer far cheaper than those of other industrialized nations. (Japan is ran into this same problem starting in the 80′s and 90′s. China is just beginning to feel it today.)
Roosevelt’s New Deal pumped huge amounts of money directly into American pockets. That money would create “demand,” which business would mobilize to satisfy by reinvesting in capacity. Or so the theory went. It didn’t work. John Maynard Keynes, the economist of the hour, said it shouldn’t matter whether the government put money into productive work or just paid people to “dig ditches” — all that mattered was jump starting demand. The New Deal did dig a lot of “ditches,” but also funded massive projects for power generation, transportation and more.
No matter how much money the government spent, however, economic growth didn’t take off. After a very slight lift in the middle of the 30′s, the economy began sliding backwards again. Roosevelt then went further, taking many other kinds of steps, such as imposing price and wage controls and many other more complex regulations. Supporters of the New Deal believe that it helped, and that the tenacity of the Depression was simply too great to be overcome by any government action. Critics of the New Deal believe that the artificial market signals sent by government spending, and the blockages caused by extreme regulation, only prolonged the Depression.
You might ask: Why Roosevelt didn’t invest directly in building new industrial capacity? That would have put money into pockets, but also would have overcome the problem of investors’ reluctance gamble on increasing capacity again. The reason was not a fear of central planning. Roosevelt and his economic advisors generally believed that America and other industrialized countries had reached the highest possible level of production and consumption. The problem of the Depression, as they saw it, might temporarily be one of under-utilization of labor and resources, but the permanent underlying problem was that America would never be able to consume all the of the goods that modern capitalism (of the 1930′s) was capable of producing. The problem Roosevelt believed he had to solve was one of wealth redistribution, not of wealth creation.
Though present day economists disagree about the New Deal, they nearly all agree about what finally got us out of the Depression: World War II. The war required the government to pay for — and organize — a massive build up of industrial capacity that put virtually every American to work. The war overcame Roosevelt’s hesitance to create new industrial capacity, and it overcame business’s aversion to national planning and organization of the economy.
The story of how the war mobilization succeeded defies labeling by liberals or conservatives, champions of central planning or laissez-fair economists. No industries were nationalized. The economy remained fully in private hands. The effort drove the widest and deepest period of American entrepreneurship ever seen. The bulk of the new capacity was not specifically war-related — machine tools, steel, aluminum, magnesium, plastics, pharmaceuticals — and so laid the foundation for today’s world industrial economy.The story of the mobilization is a story of uniquely American economic, political and social traditions and institutions pulling off something incredible.
Over the next 50 years, the inheritors of that industrial miracle would live prosperously while allowing almost every last ounce of dynamism flow out of our economy. After a little while, that prosperity could only be paid for by borrowing huge sums from other nations, because we had stopped producing so many of the goods we wanted (and weren’t producing enough stuff to trade). In one short generation, the U.S. was transformed from a country that made the vast bulk of industrial goods consumed in the world and the world’s largest creditor nation, into a largely de-industrialized “service economy” that is today that world’s greatest debtor by a margin of trillions of dollars.
Why can’t we mobilize again? Why can’t we build new industries that are the most advanced in the world — to make the things we need that we are currently borrowing to buy? Is world war the only circumstance that can force us to get our act together? Isn’t there some way for us to summon the political will to do it simply because it is the right thing to do? What would that look like?
We’ll get to those questions later in the book. But first, let’s look at how exactly our most recent great economic mobilization actually worked.
Introduction 25 January, 2013Posted by Zack in Uncategorized.
Tags: The Book
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This book is a proposal for a Big Plan to Save America. If this is the first time you’ve come across one of these, then I want to make sure there’s something you understand: I’m just one of thousands of crackpots and wackos who are peddling one of these Big Plans. They’re all around you. You’ll meet dozens at any Tea Party rally or “Occupy” protest, you’ll hear them late at night on the AM dial, you’ve probably got one in your family somewhere.
What we all have in common is a complete lack of credentials. And yet, whenever an old order collapses, the new one that replaces it is ushered in by crackpots with Big Plans. Usually, it’s a disaster. Hitler, Mao and Lenin were crackpots with Big Plans. But so were Thomas Jefferson and Tom Paine.
Crackpots owe their place in history to the intellectual and political laziness of respectable, credentialed people. Members of Congress, successful business owners and virtually everyone living comfortably in a trendy urban neighborhood won their position under the status quo. The solutions they instinctively champion, therefore, do not shake the status quo at its foundation.
Liberals propose policies. Conservatives propose tax cuts. Both sides sincerely believe their proposals will help people. But they aren’t thinking seriously of anything like, say, pulling up the bottom half of America into the middle class, inverting the U.S. trade imbalance, or ensuring that every capable child has access to the world’s best education (three goals of my crackpot Big Plan).
Why can a crackpot like me, but almost none of my respectable friends, set his sights on those universally-desirable goals? Because only a crackpot with nothing to lose, and/or a massive chip on his shoulder, has the freedom to think about the steps needed to accomplish those big goals when each one of them would put the status quo in danger. I’m not accusing my respectable friends of willfully selling America short to protect their entrenched positions. It’s more subtle than that. Their comfortable lives and/or emotional health confine their imaginations. It’s just a quirk of history: When things fall apart, crazy plans become the future, and crazy plans are delivered by crazy people.
Most crackpot Big Plans floating around America today are pretty scary. Fed by conspiracy thinking, often anti-semitic and xenophobic, they call for expelling immigrants, militarizing civil society, or rolling society back to feudalism by eliminating all government functions other than the judiciary and police. The experience of the last century points to one of them gaining the upper hand in an American collapse. What you have then is a mass movement of crackpots, carrying out a crackpot plan under the leadership of a crackpot leader.
But it only goes like that because all the healthy people refuse to acknowledge that any crackpot scheme — neither a heinous one nor a beautiful one — could be the future.
I’d like to propose an alternative. We need talented, good people — not crackpots! — to step up now and choose, from a position of freedom, before everything begins to fall apart, to start really fixing America. Dear respectable friends, learn from the past couple of centuries. You don’t need to wait until the chaos that is consuming half of America already comes to your own neighborhood. You can stop right now acting as though tens of millions of Americans are not suffering excruciating exploitation, violence and isolation. You can stop right now pretending that we’re not coldly snuffing out half of generation of young people. You can stop right now imagining that we can borrow forever from China, Japan and Europe. Accept all those realities and allow your mind to begin thinking clearly, without regard for the status quo.
It’s happened once before: it was the American Revolution. (I’ll tell that story later in the book.) To do it again, we need a few thousand, committed, talented, non-crackpot local leaders to come together and use the democratic system that was bequeathed to us by the Revolution. We just have to get you non-crackpots together in the right way, run 500 of you for Congress and one of you for president, then do what needs to be done. What needs to be done? And how? That’s the subject of the first part of this book. How we will come together and win state and national elections is the subject of the second part. I know it sounds crazy. I know only a few of you will take the leap and continue reading. A few is all we need. It’s going to be beautiful.
America and the parable of the silly gardener 20 July, 2012Posted by Zack in Uncategorized.
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After many successful seasons, a gardener decided he never wanted to get his hands dirty again and resolved to grow his garden without planting. He suggested to his neighbor that she could plant it and keep a portion of the produce, but she already had a garden of her own. He threw seed on top of the hard ground, but it didn’t sprout. He got down on his knees and begged the earth to produce, but nothing happened. Finally, he came to his seneses, dug into the ground, planted, and was rewarded with one more bountiful season.
Every industrialized economy in the world, like every garden, was planted. The American economy has seen many planting seasons, but this time around we’re that silly gardener who doesn’t want to get his hands dirty. We’re trying to tempt others into planting with tax breaks and giveawauys. We’re scattering seed on hard ground by providing little bits of capital to trendy projects. We’re on our knees begging, trying to “stimulate” demand, by repaving roads and digging ditches.
Both progressives and the conservatives in America have developed an ideological opposition to planting, directly building industry. Conservatives believe in the power of the seed alone: the entrepeneur. Progressives believe in that too, but also think of the soil and water that nourish the seed: the past invention and infrastructure that make the entrepeneur possible. Both sides have written the planter out of history altogether.
Who plants national economies? In American history it has almost always been an even mixture of the government, the military, and Wall Street. The planters of other industrial economies are all some combination of the same players, in some cases a little more military or a little less banker. The good fortune of America has been that the prevailing interest of its economic planters for almost 200 years was national industrial economic development. The path was not always perfectly direct, but in the end industrial development was always the purpose that trumped everything else. The American Revolution was fought for the freedom to develop our economy instead of langish as a source of raw material and customers for another country’s industry. The Civil War was fought for the industrial cause when the Confederacy formed to protect a Latin American style planation economy. Today, however, America’s power elite are invested in the world economy as a whole with no particular interest in replanting our economy here at home.
The world’s most modern communications and transportation systems were always America’s. Some of them, like the canals, telegraph, highways and Internet were planted by the government and military. Others, like the railroads and airlines were planted by a combination of Wall Street, government and the military. The world’s most advanced and high-value industries were always America’s. Our steel industry, oil industry, and auto-industry were planted mainly by Wall Street. Our aluminum, plastics, and pharmaculticals industries were planted by the government and military for the second World War.
Don’t forget the seed. Railroads, for example, were begun by a thousand local entrepreneurs. But America’s national railways were built in a chaotic and messy yet centrally-directed effort by Wall Street, fueled by massive government subsidies, that squashed those local entrepreneurs like bugs. Like most large scale centrally planned economic efforts, there was massive waste and redundancy, but in the end America was covered with rail that served as a new infrastructure on which new generations of entrepreneurs and planners could build.
The world’s best communications and transportation systems are no longer America’s. The world’s highest-value, largest and most dynamic industries are no longer America’s. There is only one global industry that America truly dominates: Facebook. It employs 6,000 people.
Americans don’t want to dominate. We just want to be able to take care of ourselves by going to work and earning a decent living. To get back to that place, we need entrepeneurs. We need to build on past invention and infrastructure. And we also need to do some gardening. Our elites in government and on Wall Street no longer want to get their hands dirty. It’s easier to invest in other gardens that others have planted. Our elite now draws its wealth from the world economy, not the American economy.
End of story?
Not quite. We choose our government. So there is the possibility of a group of Americans stepping up and offering to get their hands dirty by replanting the American economy.
What would planting new industries look like in the 21st century in America? It’s our destiny to find out. When you think about how fast, with modern technology, poor countries such as Korea or China were recently able to plant new modern economies, you can’t help but wonder what a country as advanced as America would be capable of.
I want to find out what we’re capable of.
Pig races! 10 June, 2012Posted by Zack in Uncategorized.
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Went to the Cape Fair pig races yesterday. It’s an event they do for charity every year. It is NOT related to the official sport of pig racing, in which juvenile pigs actually race. This was a handful of grown up pigs waddling toward some oreo cookies. With the GOP primaries coming up, every local politician and hopeful politician was there with a booth. There was an auction to support the community scholarship fund, in which they were all put on the spot and goaded to out bid each other.
I wish I had a picture of the pigs, but we forgot the camera. It was on TV last year though:
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My life is split between two estranged American subcultures. I went to college with and worked through three careers with one of them, and then married into and now reside and go to church with the other.
The first subculture can be roughtly identified as “secular progressive.” The second, as “Christian conservative.” Between them, they include almost 90% of Amercians. Our political leaders are all chosen from and govern in the name of one or the other of these camps.
I believe that America is collapsing because together, these two subcultures have taken all of the good, commonsense solutions to our problems and divided them up into two mutually opposed selections: a conservative selection and a progressive selection. Now each camp stands for only half of the solutions to America’s problems — neither of which is enough to do any significant good. To make things worse, each camp has taken a stand for one half of the really stupid ideas available to America — each of which are more than enough to do very serious damage to America’s future.
This binary division of social leadership is not unique to America or the present day. It’s a very common pattern throughout the ages. Like bad moods and laziness at the individual level, this condition of arbitrary and stupid division at the social level is just another a bad way that humans can be. It’s how we are being now. And it is deadly.
This state of division is something we have to get over if we are going to survive. We can get over it. Getting over it is what this book is about.