Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Reclaiming the Spirit of the Atomic Age

As the nation sinks deeper into the looming economic mess, calls for action have grown increasingly common. On the left, quite a few commentators have invoked nostalgia for a return to the policies of post-WWII America. For instance, Robert Kuttner wrote in the American Prospect that:
The post-Depression generation enjoyed a long, equitably distributed boom that raised living standards as children grew into adults. Some of their economic good fortune was the result of random luck -- a steady increase in housing values and the insulation of American industry from global competition. But much of that older generation's rising prosperity over the life course reflected government policies that deliberately promoted a secure middle class. By contrast, today's young adults enjoy neither the lucky timing nor the supportive public policies to counteract inclement market forces. The acute Great Depression lasted 12 years; the current era of slow generational downward mobility is far more gradual, but it has already lasted 30 years.
While I, too, have considerable affection for this era, which I'll refer to as the "Atomic Age" for convenience, I disagree with Kuttner as to how we should reclaim it. Kuttner seems to believe that the postwar boom was the result of progressive government policies. I believe, however, that his argument reverses the actual causality that created the postwar boom. Instead of policy, the postwar economic expansion was fueled by the introduction of a whole series of radically new technologies.

Technologies such as nuclear power and computers called whole new industries into being. The new industries provided high-paying jobs and fed into expanded demand for more mundane items- food, houses, toy robots, and so on. Meanwhile, technology increased productivity in diverse fields such as automobile manufacture, agriculture, and bookkeeping. On the whole, this created a spectacular amount of new wealth and heralded an age of plenty for a generation that had experienced war and deprivation.

An important factor feeding into the technological boom was the fact that the government and business leadership in the Atomic Age were considerably less risk-averse than their contemporary counterparts. This is unsurprising, given that Atomic Age excesses gave us EPA, OSHA, and a host of other reforms. Some kind of reform was necessary. But in my view we have gone much to far in the other direction. We worry more about what hazards a new technology might present than what benefits it is likely to give us. The America of fifty years ago took gambles we would today consider completely unimaginable, and ended up far healthier and wealthier for it.

In comparison to the boldness and exuberance of the 1950s and 1960s, today we live in an age of cowardice. This must change, or we will be unable to face the challenges of the 21st century. Take, for instance, climate change. Any meaningful plan for dealing with this is going to require some drastic, and unpopular, decisions. We need drastic revisions in our energy infrastructure, and we need them as soon as possible. It may also prove necessary to resort to geoengineering to keep climate change effects within manageable levels. ANY choice in these fields involves a huge amount of risk, and as a result we see little progress. And what measures are taken are often counterproductive, because both politicians and people in general are too timid to risk taking the meaningful steps.

The generation that won WWII went on to eradicate or nearly eradicate diseases such as smallpox and polio. They harnessed the atom and put a man on the moon. They were able to turn the trashy pulp science fiction of their childhoods into reality- because they took big risks. The years since are a huge disappointment in comparison. But we can reclaim the spirit and the vision of the Atomic Age. We can build a better world through technology, if we just have the courage to do it. And we must find that courage, or we are probably doomed.


DV8 2XL said...

You have hit the nail on the head. We do live in an age of cowardice. Risk aversion is the hallmark of the age and we have become paralyzed as a result. I swear I see people unconsciously fumbling for seatbelts when they sit down in a theater.

And it's not going to get any better because the kids that have come out of the schools since the '80's have no fire in their guts and have been reduced to trained rats running in mazes. My hair would stand on end when I was told by my children what is going on in collage these days; we would have burnt the place down if anyone had tried to pull a fraction of that B.S. on us, and the school knew it.

It's the younger generation that must lead if there are to be the sort of changes that you speak of, and they sadly, are not up to it.

Ashutosh said...

Well, that was the "radium generation", immensely strong and self-reliant, and with a grit to convert idealism into actions and enduring consequences. We on the other hand seem to be the "lead generation" which those guys decayed into...

Sovietologist said...

I'm an optimist, myself. I think there may be hope for us yet. But only time will tell.

Richard Kulisz said...

It's interesting that you dismiss social policies in favour of risk taking when as a matter of fact, risk taking is affected by social policies. Yeah that's right, people who live on the bare edge of seeing their medical care cut off, don't dare take any risks lest they DIE. It's why Canadians take a lot more business risks than Americans.

The second factor is of course wealth. Rich people don't take the kinds of risks that poor people do. Revolutions don't tend to happen in rich countries. Which is why the USA, practically a third world country, has so many poor people eagerly taking on the risks of engaging in criminality. Not business risks of course because hey they're poor, what money do they have to risk?

The USA has perfected a system where people are assured of enough food and medical care so long as they don't revolt. And absolutely nothing else. It's no surprise then that Americans are the most narrow-minded, most fascism-tolerant, and poorest of developed nations.

All in all, don't hold your breath.