The Clock

For many years, I worked on the 28th floor of a sleek building in midtown Manhattan. My office was pretty grand, and had wonderful views, but what visitors found most interesting about it was an antique clock that stood proudly against one wall. The clock would chime loudly on the hours, but I was so used to it that unless it startled a guest I rarely heard the bells. When I was asked what a grandfather clock was doing there, I would respond that it had been made in 1815 and was still elegant and keeping perfect time; and what was any of us making that would endure for two hundred years and still be loved?

I have a fondness for mechanical things because they are so … human, in a way that things powered by electricity can never be. Behind that clock, I know, was a cabinetmaker working patiently with wood inlays, and a clockmaker assembling his parts. Their arts had evolved over centuries, with many people making small, clever improvements, each of which made the devices they created more beautiful and more reliable. Like bicycles and pianos, clocks have an elegance that stems in part from their mechanically-driven, readily understandable functionality.

I have spent a lot of time writing posts about how laws can change cultures by encouraging or discouraging patterns of behavior; what I have not yet written about are the ways in which changing technologies can also alter behaviors and cultures. Did the Industrial Revolution depersonalize most production, turning craftsmen into factory workers? Yes it did. Have the Internet and technology revolutions caused creative destruction throughout our economy, rendering many previously stable jobs obsolete? Yes again. What comes next? Nobody can say.

When I search for the profound causes of the dramatic leftward shifts in American politics over the last fifty or sixty years, I can think of many possible or partial explanations. I’m sure you can, too. One is the insecurity engendered by technological innovation. (Another is the rapid aging of our population, which, at the government’s insistence, puts more people into positions of partial or full dependency with regard to Social Security and Medicare, increasing political support for those programs; but that is the subject of other posts).

The Industrial Revolution, the current technology revolution and the consequently increasing pace of globalization have created breathtaking amounts of new wealth. Globally, human lifespans and standards of living have been increasing quickly; in this country and many other places, things that were unthinkable luxuries for the rich a generation or two ago are now common among the poor. These advances have the irresistible force of a rising tide; they are unstoppable. For people generally, they are a great blessing, for particular individuals, they may be a curse. If you are the one who loses your job to technologically-driven changes, the benefits that others enjoy from them are cold comfort.

Two hundred years ago, the pace of change was much slower. People feared disease and famine more than they do now, and few lived into old age, but the world seemed more readily understandable. You knew where milk came from, and meat; you knew who made shoes or built clocks. Travel meant a boat, a horse or your feet. You knew that if you did not work, or have savings, nobody was going to care for you, other than – maybe – your family or neighbors, at great expense to themselves.

Ironically, in spite of today’s improving standards of living, our individual jobs have become much less readily comprehensible and the system as a whole more unpredictable – at least, from the perspective of the individual. You probably don’t know if or when your job will become obsolete, particularly if you work in a narrowly defined role in a gigantic corporation, or in an industry known to be facing new competition. The pace of change frightens many.

Ever-larger government has been sold as a security blanket for these new uncertainties. Is it a good one? Not if you look at what happens when governments try to stop – or even manage – the tides of change. And not when you consider the terrible effects of our entitlements programs on the nation’s financial health, on our economy or on our culture. The blankets that warm us may also smother us.

But if you’re on the wrong end of technologically-driven changes, or terrified about that possibility, or retired, strengthened and sustained government safety nets look like your best bet. It is this fear of change, this risk aversion among the vulnerable (and government-encouraged dependency among the poor and elderly) that drives the increased support for the safety nets that can only be offered by a vastly larger government than we have had in the past.

When properly balanced, my two hundred year old clock still works well, because gravity and simple physics haven’t changed; they never will. The Constitutional system that the Founders built has been around for even longer than my clock, and for a similar reason: the system they established brought out the best in human nature, while restraining the worst. It limited the scope of government and set three competing branches of government in exquisitely balanced competition with each other. It advanced society as a whole by empowering us as individuals in economic terms and with individual political rights. Until the Civil War, the Federal government’s economic role was minimal.

Simple mechanical clocks will never again set the standard for timekeeping excellence, and we will never return the Federal government to its original scope, or even the shape it had assumed by, say, 1960. Americans today, myself included, overwhelmingly support government safety nets that would have been incomprehensible to the Founders.

But such safety nets, as I once heard Bob Woodson say, are meant to be “an ambulance, not a transportation system.” When they become the latter, the system goes out of balance and ceases to function properly.

The driving energy behind Civil Horizon comes from my view that our system is deeply out of balance. Our recognized public debt has increased from $10 trillion to $18 trillion thus far during the Obama Presidency. The present total, which excludes future costs of off-balance-sheet entitlements like Social Security, Medicare and Obamacare, amounts to 75% of GDP, up from 40% in 2008. Worse, current deficits are understated because the Fed, and the strong dollar, are suppressing real interest rates to zero; we know that this will not last. As rates rise, entitlements are in fact paid, and ever more seniors retire, under current law our deficits will increase inexorably, and our nation’s finances and social cohesion will face a crisis of epic proportions.

We are not far from that point – on our current path, we have at most a decade before our debt totals relative to the size of our economy reach a level from which no country has recovered in an orderly fashion; we could become Greece or the Weimar Republic. Markets may cease to function, and chaos result. The only way to avoid that dire result is to address our fiscal imbalances sooner rather than later.

Until we do so, our nation’s clock will look more like an hourglass than a more sophisticated and beautiful timepiece.

 

M.H. Johnston 5/19/15

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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