Quote of the Day

Technological advances, from the light bulb and telephone, to the car and airplane, to the transistor and internet, are discontinuities from life as previously known. So are penicillin, the C-section, Lipitor and MRI’s. So are innovations like the corporate org chart, capital and expense accounting, the experience curve, and consumer marketing. All these innovations constitute the infrastructure of wealth and longevity.
Within the general trend of increased global wealth and longevity are periods of decidedly negative impact as well. The Black Death of 1348 wiped out half of Europe, the 1918 influenza epidemic killed 30 million people, and World War II reduced the earth’s population by 2.5%. Mao and Stalin also killed tens of millions of their people. There have periods of economic death as well. The 75 years of the USSR’s existence comes to mind, and of course the Great Crash, when the Dow Jones Industrials went from 299 to 41, and a quarter of America went unemployed. We would note that few of these negative discontinuities were foreseen (heck, the New York Times may still think that the USSR was a model of economic success!).
We really don’t know what is going to happen in the future, in part because the West is fat, dumb and happy, and has been so for a very long time now, at least since World War II. So we do not know what will happen when the West, and other parts of the world, experience the inevitable and severe stresses associated with the massive discontinuities that inevitably happen from time to time. The West has been super lucky in that the post-WWII discontinuities have almost all been on the positive side so far. It would be a mistake to blithely extrapolate that endlessly into the future.


4 thoughts on “Quote of the Day”

  1. “The Black Death of 1348 wiped out half of Europe.” When I was a boy it was a third. Just goes to show how much safer the world was in the 50s.

  2. “The West has been super lucky in that the post-WWII discontinuities have almost all been on the positive side so far.”

    Rather its an attitude in the West of using more of the brain god gave us and less of the knee. The engine of 19th century America which embraced the opportunities of the future rather than entrenching to preserve the past. If there was any luck it was played by a Virginia planter and hundreds of freemen trudging through December snows to carry out their surge in a desperate enterprise floundering in the darkness of winter. Had they not succeeded and the resource of North America not been available by the 20th Century through the industry of millions of Americans this world would be darker, nastier, and deadlier just like any place else in the previous centuries.

  3. Luck? Of course. There’s always an element in any human equation that is dependent on the smile or frown of fortune. (The end of the Little Ice Age around 1800, for one example. In case you were wondering when global warming started—)

    But good fortune is an opportunity that has been available innumerable times over the millenia, and yet rarely, if ever, do we observe such a sea change in the wealth, health, and nature of human society as we have over the last few centuries.


    I would contend that, in large part, the difference results from the enormous creative energy released when repressive social and cultural artifacts were removed by the more open political and economic system established in the US, and earlier in Britain, and ordinary men and women were allowed to innovate and experiment to an extent very rarely seen in human history before.

    Of course, as in any human enterprise, there have been any number of missteps, poor judgements, and outright errors, both culturally and technically. But it is no accident that the culture that adopted an empirical, scientific, rational approach to dealing with problems, at least in part, is the society that sent its sons to walk on the moon, while traditional, “taboo” laden cultures walked along looking at the same end of the water buffalo they had been looking at for hundreds or thousands of years.

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