I have complained more than a few times about how the natural landscape in the U.S. has succumbed to sprawl and industrialization in support of our “car culture”, so I was surprised to read an article about how the U.S. has NOT changed all that much since 1960. Bill Steigerwald recently took a trip around the country along the “Steinbeck highway” to see for himself whether or not things have changed. He claims that the country is still “America the mostly beautiful”. I would have to agree that one can see similar things that were seen back in 1960. Qualitatively, the freeways out in fly-over country (outside of the mega cities) are still four lanes like they were back in 1960. The National Parks are the same. You can still find regional differences in cuisine and lifestyle. However, quantitatively, things have definitely changed. The cities are much larger. You have to drive much farther and look harder to find wide open landscapes and unique things. Almost all of this expansion has been of the cookie-cutter-subdivision-strip mall-gas station variety. Chain restaurants and big box stores are everywhere. You have to search and go out of your way to find unique restaurants and shops. Back in 1960, the “uniqueness” was apparent. Today it is not. Not only that, but the traffic is much worse. Unless you are driving through the Great Plains or Desert Southwest, you will encounter traffic all times of the day on freeways all the way down to the smallest town road. There are other things that are much worse nowadays (trash, food insecurity) but we do a good job of hiding them.
It is my opinion that things have changed significantly since 1960 and for the worse – from the perspective of a farm kid growing up in the Wisconsin countryside. I am amazed at all the people who don’t mind being in debt, living in an over-sized house, and spending most of their lives stuck in traffic commuting 50 miles or more on a mega (polluted) freeway. Even more amazing is that influential people in our society have been demanding more and more of the same in order to stimulate economic “growth”. (See this past blog post about the Federal Reserve imploring people to buy and build more houses). Someone else who has been a big proponent of building more ”stuff” in order to stimulate” growth” is nobel prize winning economist Paul Krugman. His general theme/suggestion for many years has been to just print and borrow money to build new stuff and we will get ”growth”. If “growth” means a perpetuation of the environmentally unsustainable car-culture we have, then we have gotten ”growth” in spades – and it is crumbling. So it was a breath of fresh air to see such an influential economist to retract a bit. He has finally noticed that “things have changed”. Apparently he is now noticing the technological progress I have been blogging about for years and hopefully you – dear reader – are better prepared for (better than world-leading economists, anyway). The essential Krugman epiphany is that GDP is no longer a good metric of the well-being of the workforce. When everything is automated, creating more “industrial age” stuff, does not create any more “industrial age” jobs. Even worse, using printed or borrowed money to build more “stuff” only leaves us with more to maintain, a mountain of debt (16 trillion and counting in the U.S. alone), and a devalued currency. (For a more scathing critique of Krugman, see here). I am sure economists who have been advocating debt-fueled industrial age growth policies for the last couple of decades were well-intentioned but the results have been horrible (IMO), especially from and environmental perspective, and even from a traditional human social-fabric perspective.
At least the word is getting out. Automation, technological progress, and software advances will affect almost every “job” on the planet and sooner than most people think. I am certainly not immune and I blogged about it here (a very good read, IMO). Another good read is this recent in depth article from Wired about how robotics are going to change the world. It is a fairly optimistic read about how people will still find jobs even as robots come to fill our factories, hospitals, and homes. I am not so optimistic about people finding rewarding future careers in a manner that has occurred in past economic revolutions. The new jobs will require greater creative problem solving skills and a deeper knowledge of science that most of the labor force does not possess – not even me. But that dos not mean I am pessimistic about the future of the world in general. There is a good chance the near future world will have an overabundance of material wealth. I am optimistic about the welfare of individuals but apprehensive about how our technology will change us. In sci-fi terms, the future looks less like Star Fleet and more like the Borg.
Have a swell Thursday! Meteorologist Justin Loew.
This post was written by jloew on January 3, 2013