Sunday, August 21, 2011

What Was So Different About the 1930s?

Throughout The Great Depression of the 1930s, the national unemployment rate never rose above 30%, and I wondered what was on the mind of the 70% who still had jobs. With very little research, it was easy to find the answer— optimism for the future. An unbounded and ubiquitous optimism pervaded America, and there was a kind of inner confidence that America would soon lead the world to prosperity. This world of tomorrow that everyone imagined even had a name— The March of Progress.

The March of Progress was a collection of anticipated marvels, prophesied in 1939, that were realistically expected to exist in the year 1964: buildings taller than the Empire State Building constructed with lavish use of aluminum and glass, a multi-lane highway system that would allow a driver to travel coast-to-coast without stopping for anything but food and gasoline, the cautious but feasible use of atomic energy for power production, ubiquitous plastics, television sets in every home supported by a broadcast infrastructure, nylon stockings for women, rockets capable of orbiting above earth's atmosphere, radio telephones for occasional use in automobiles, aircraft capable of carrying 200 passengers at 400 mph, antibiotics, warships an eighth of a mile long, prefabricated low-cost houses, and fresh fruits and vegetables available at any time of year. And when 1964 came to pass, every one of these wonders had become reality. Even in 1939, for those in the depths of poverty, technology and innovation promised a better future.

In 2011, there’s a new March of Progress that’s become reality: transcontinental bullet trains capable of speeds in excess of 250 mph, skyscrapers approaching heights of a quarter mile, and supercomputers capable of a trillion computations per second. The thing is, these technological wonders all exist in China and Japan. The U.S.A. is behind Asia in this new, modern-day March of Progress, and as if to put an exclamation point behind that reality, the United States just ended… ENDED its manned space launch capability. We do, however, still have the world’s biggest and best military, although we can no longer win a war.

So what’s on the mind of Americans today, the 90% who still have jobs, and who aren’t yet brain dead from incessant ideologically-biased political happy talk? What do we have to match the optimism of the 1930s? What future can we predict with confidence? Here’s a partial list: the emerging power of radical fundamentalism in both Islam and Christianity, diminishing effectiveness of antibiotics, identity theft, man-made climate changes and rising sea levels, extermination of the world’s supply of edible fish, a series of global economic meltdowns, depletion of natural resources (especially fresh water), escalating and unstoppable rates of Internet crime with pervasive hacking, and corruption in seats of power… all problems with their origins in the growth of population and the disparity of living conditions across the planet. And then there’s a secondary but related set of problems: most countries including the United States are now becoming ungovernable, and most large corporations are unmanageable, and most religions are unreasonable. The optimism of The Great Depression is something we’ll never see again.

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