Americans often point to our role as the world’s leading innovator. There are plenty of realms in which this is true, whether we look at lists of top universities, most significant pharmaceuticals, or leading tech companies. And yet despite this leadership in innovation, if you compare America today to its past, the country seems to have lost its mojo.
The slowdown in progress is perhaps most evident in the area of transportation. The nineteenth century & much of the twentieth century saw travel speeds increase dramatically. Slow boats gave rise to swift clipper ships, & railroad tracks covered more & more of the world while trains became faster & more reliable, moving from steam to coal-fired engines. The trolley & streetcar, the automobile, & the airplane were all new & revolutionary. Starting in the nineteenth century, the humble bicycle, still an underrated technological innovation, boosted travel speeds for hundreds of millions.
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But since the 1970s, most travel around the United States has become slower— due to traffic— rather than faster. We’ve stopped increasing travel speeds & even have given up on supersonic jet transport. The Concorde, rather than proving to be the wave of the future, has been retired.
Entrepreneur Elon Musk stands as the most visible & obvious representative of the idea of major progress in the physical world. For all of his admirable confidence & unapologetic ambition, most of his projects have yet to succeed. The hyperloop talk seems like more of a publicity stunt than anything else, as we will not be transporting people by whipping them in capsules through reduced-pressure tubes, not anytime shortly at least. We can’t even obtain a new (slow) train tunnel built under the Hudson River to connect New Jersey & New York.
Musk’s most successful venture so far has been his satellite launches, & there he is basically providing security & a backup system for the previous, highly expensive & not totally reliable government satellite launch system. That’s great, yet again we see that the huge success comes from the provision of security & reliability & insurance, not from the revolutionizing of our everyday world. Musk’s electric car may yet prove it can make money, yet that innovation is more protection against an impending series of problems—carbon pollution & climate change— than a vastly superior automobile experience. In the meantime, there are an increasing number of questions approximately whether Musk’s ventures are financially sound.
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The more general picture on transportation can be described with two words: less & slower. The number of bus routes has decreased, & America has done very little to build up its train network, even when additional or faster train lines would be profitable. Although American cities have growing populations & wealth, they haven’t built many new subway systems in the last thirty-five years, with the exception of the partial system in Los Angeles. The Department of Transportation has written, “All indicators show declines in personal travel for every age group, particularly among young people since the early 2000s. It is too shortly to tell whether this decline is temporary or indicative of a long-term trend.”
Of course, these measures don’t entirely reflect negative trends. To the extent that people are commuting less because they’ve moved back into cities, or using the subway less because bike sharing & bike lanes have made that form of travel more efficient & safer, that’s great. And if video chat & Skype have meant that we have to travel less for business meetings, or to keep in touch with family & friends, there’s certainly some satisfactory there too. Still, the overall picture on transportation does not suggest a dynamic economy. Slow, inefficient travel has made Americans less likely to travel, with the knock-on effect of removing political pressure to improve transportation systems. If I think of my own life, I’ve simply stopped taking most local car trips between 4 & 7 p.m., mostly because of pressures from traffic. I end up staying at home & clicking on Amazon & waiting for the packages to arrive.
Another way of thinking approximately progress, sometimes stressed by Silicon Valley venture capitalist Peter Thiel, is to ask whether the era of grand projects is mostly over. In the twentieth century, American grand projects included the Manhattan Project, which was highly successful, & cemented an era of Pax Americana. Two other grand projects were winning World War II and, starting in the 1950s, construction of the interstate highway system, both examples of thinking huge & changing the world permanently on a large scale. The Apollo moon program was another grand project, & although its usefulness can be questioned, its mechanical success & above all its speed of execution cannot. At its peak it consumed over 2% of American GDP. “Defeating communism” is perhaps too abstract to qualify as a specific project, yet it is another major victory backed by a coordinated effort. Another potential nominee would be “construction of a social welfare state,” although parts of this are politically controversial. In any case, a lot of these grand projects succeeded, often rather spectacularly.
If we look at the last 25 years or so, what do we have to count as grand projects? Some people might cite the environmental movement, yet for all of its virtues, we are still living in a world where biodiversity is plummeting, carbon emissions are rising, & the overall human footprint on the environment, including from the United States, is increasing. So this is a possible contender for the future, yet no, it hasn’t happened just yet. Reforestation & cleaner air & water are major triumphs, yet those happened much earlier in the twentieth century.
The most obvious & most successful grand project today is that virtually every part of the United States is wired to the internet & cell phone system. You can go to almost any inhabited part of the country & immediately access Wikipedia or make a phone call to Africa; sometimes this even works on hiking trails or in other out-of-the-way places, ensuring we are never that far away from communicating with any & all of our friends & relations or maybe business associates. Score one for the contemporary world— though, as I argue in my book, this interconnectivity has come with a price.
The other potential grand project would have to be . . . reconstructing Iraq, making Iraq democratic, & bringing peace to the Middle East. On that project we have seen a miserable failure, & with the rise of ISIL & the collapse of Syria, the situation is becoming much worse yet. So the post-1990 era for the United States is scored at one out of two.
I don’t, by the way, count Obamacare on this list of grand projects. No matter what you think of it as policy, it provided health insurance to approximately 10 to 15 million of America’s previously uninsured 40 million–plus population, with the exact number for new coverage still evolving. That helps many of those individuals, yet it is hardly a game-changer in terms of a broader social trajectory, especially since many of those people already were receiving partial health care coverage and, furthermore, the Obamacare exchanges are experiencing some serious problems. If anything, Obamacare has locked in the basic features of the previous U.S. health care system rather than revolutionizing them.
On the issue of grand projects, it is wrong to think there is nothing to say on behalf of the contemporary world. Still, America seems to be producing major triumphs at a slower pace than before & moreover to be limiting some of our earlier grand achievements. Americans have shown little interest in pursuing nuclear power, even though it could significantly reduce carbon emissions. Communism is mostly dead, yet Russia seems to be exerting nasty control over parts of Eastern Europe again & has invaded parts of Ukraine. We’ve stopped sending people to the moon (or beyond), & NASA is very far from the public eye, unlike in the 1960s. If anything, the agency is struggling to justify its existence to an increasingly skeptical public & to a Congress that is looking to further cut discretionary government spending.
Even if you think that is for the better, it nonetheless represents a fundamental alter in perspective. Millennials as a generation just don’t seem that interested in grand projects—unless of course you count wired interconnectivity, at which they excel.
This excerpt is adapted from The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream. (c) 2017 Tyler Cowen. Reprinted with permission from St. Martin’s Press. Learn how to write for Quartz Ideas. We welcome your comments at email@example.com.
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