Friday, August 29, 2014


29 August 2014
Having lived in parts of three half-centuries and 8 decades, I believe I am qualified to comment on this topic. Of the decades through which I have lived (starting with the '40s), the best (by far) was the 1950s. No other decade compares.

Don't get me wrong, there was a lot wrong with the '50s. Basically, everybody smoked, drinking to excess was widely accepted - as was drinking and driving, food quality in supermarkets was actually at a low ebb during that decade. There was a fascination with science and technology, and canned and processed foods, many with virtually all nutritional components removed, were staples of the diet. Previously unknown metabolic diseases were on the increase. Above-ground atomic testing was still going on, poisoning the air and soil. Worse still, racism and xenophobia abounded, and no less than 10% of GDP, possibly much more, was "100% wasted" on "anti-communism" (a problem which the communists themselves corrected by creating social and political structures that imploded). Paranoia was pervasive, and social and political norms were incredibly narrow.
That said, essentially all the problems I just listed started getting better in the 1950s. It was the key decade, above all others, in which the middle class prospered. Increasingly liberal social policies worked, because the group of socially disadvantaged persons was small enough that a modest diversion of funds and efforts could genuinely help them. The poor gradually began to move into the burgeoning middle classes. Antibiotics and vaccines came to be widely used, creating a revolution in public health. And doctors still made house calls. There were no class action lawsuits, drug abuse existed only at the fringes of society, and people thought that new technologies and new products were "good." We even initiated the space race in the 50s, and Chuck Yeager had already broken the sound barrier (that was in 1947 --- I remember sonic booms throughout my childhood).
While many of the problems of the '50s have been corrected today, the great majority of its advantages have been lost, foremost among them, the dominance and prosperity of the middle class, and with it, the conviction that advances in society and science were going to keep making life better. While we no longer waste taxpayer dollars on military adventures against communism, our efforts to oppose Middle East dictators (and renewed Russian expansionism, of all things) are equally counterproductive and ill-advised. It's the Chinese who are going to "beat" us anyway, and they are presently doing more things "right" than we are, so I can't really say I'm against them... though my preference would certainly be for us to do better, as our society is freer and more tolerant than theirs.

I remain optimistic at heart. I am always thinking about how things can be better, and the range of our opportunities remains unimaginable. But we are presently mired in ideological straitjackets that no longer match our present reality, a very large proportion of our taxpayer dollars are invested in counterproductive ventures that are more likely to bring pain and further social disintegration than satisfaction, and we have new social problems that make those of the '50s look infinitesimal by comparison. We are quibbling over the small stuff, and failing to invest in and plan for "the big stuff."
Technologies that have the potential to resolve most of our present problems (robotics, nuclear fusion, space habitation, biotechnology and many more) await us on the horizon, but we aren't even going that direction. In an effort to please everybody, our elected leaders are investing in old ideas that don't work, accumulating debts that cannot be repaid, and laying the foundations for increased social and economic disorder in the future.
I guess I'm just arguing that it's time to think smarter and make the hard decisions. Why do I believe we can? Because that's exactly what we did in the '50s. Let's start by believing that new ideas (not just old ones) can actually make things better. That in itself should be enough to turn the tide.

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