Walter Russell Mead, an astute historian and commentator on American history and current events, recently wrote an article on our American history of failing our way to success. His first paragraph is a fun mind game.
As Americans struggle to make sense of a series of uncomfortable economic changes and disturbing political developments, a worrying picture emerges of ineffective politicians, frequent scandals, racial backsliding, polarized and irresponsible news media, populists spouting quack economic remedies, growing suspicion of elites and experts, frightening outbreaks of violence, major job losses, high-profile terrorist attacks, anti-immigrant agitations, declining social mobility, etc. etc. etc.
Mead then reverts to our world. He’s aware that it will a very long time before it becomes clear what a fully mature information economy might look like. He points out that if people and the 1860s and 1870s had been told that only two percent of the population would earn a living on the farm in the twentieth century, they could never imagine what jobs the displaced farmers could find. The full consequences of the knowledge economy and the information age will only come into view on a very slow time table. The implication, however, is that getting caught in the grip of profound pessimism and giving up on government, business and the nation is highly unrealistic.
But he draws some interesting conclusions about...
- What we’re going through now is an opportunity, not a disaster.
- Many social institutions that used to work well need to be changed for today’s world.
- During our transition period, many Americans will be self-employed, or work for very small institutions on a freelance or part-time basis.
- The technology revolution can radically improve the lives of most American’s health care. Many, if not most physicians are relying on technology to improve their diagnosing.
- Government should and probably will be transformed. A note: The modern civil service is, above all, a product of the industrial revolution. The information era will make government much more responsive and effective.
- Finally, it is becoming increasingly clear that information will be the most important element of state power.
Mead concludes that “humans are problem-solving animals. Americans thrive on challenges . . . and are the heirs to a system of mixed government and popular power that has allowed them to manage great upheavals in the past.” No question, then, that they will manage today's issues--eventually. His article reads both highly realistic and significantly optimistic--over the longer term.