There are about 5.5 billion people in the world. There are about 250 million people in this country. Doing a bit of rounding off here, we can say that there are about 20 of "them" for every one of "us". These figures were about the same at the end of World War II. Further, let us say that we had one idea for every idea created in the rest of the world. This resulted in this country having the prosperity, goods, services, etc, equal to what all the rest of the world had. It is generally believed that at that time we had about 50% of the worlds wealth. And wealth starts from ideas. But that was nearly 50 years ago.
In todays world about half that population of 5+ billion people has an education equivalent to that of our population. It is from these educated people that the world gets its ideas--and subsequent wealth. So we can say today that for every idea produced here, there are 10 ideas produced elsewhere in the world. Even if we say that the average American has twice as many ideas, we are still left with 1 idea for every 5 produced elsewhere. We can also see that the resulting prosperity in the rest of the world has increased accordingly and relatively in proportion. About half the world has nearly the same level of prosperity as here. Furthermore, there are another 2.5 billion people who are not exactly sitting still. They are educating themselves and also moving up economically.
So can we, the United States, regain our old position, an oft heard promise in the recent, and past, political campaigns? Can we raise up the educational level of our people to produce that old ratio of new ideas? Probably not without a miracle. Probably not unless every person in the country gets a PhD. And everyone is just not capable of that. The country is probably maxed out--except for gradual improvements and new ideas that make small leaps in creativity and productivity. Meanwhile, the rest of the world will be hard on our heels to make the same creative and productive leaps. But eventually most of the people in the world will reach certain minimum standards of food, clothing, shelter, and education, that will allow them to take up all available improvements in education, knowledge, and capabilities. Before long automobiles and airplanes will be produced on every continent (except Antarctica), and nearly every country.
But the political promise is that "our party will do something to restore America to its once great past". Nah. I doubt it. Education and spreading democratization, the fluidity of information, capital, labor, and raw materials, is slowly robbing us of our once formidable advantages. The world is witnessing the first generation of universal teenagers (also called global teens by others) who know the same music, art, dance, language, vacation spots, literature, and I-want-my-MTV! They sweep and flow around the world--just like information, capital, labor, and raw materials. It is becoming more and more possible to manufacture market and move anything anywhere anytime. But every combination of these capabilities begins with an idea. And these ideas can now come from anyone anywhere anytime and go everywhere anytime. In the future economic disadvantages, mistakes, misses, will come about because you were asleep in the wrong time zone! (How about an idea alarm clock that goes off the moment something that matches your interests and abilities hits the world network? Even better: how about some software that sieves the universe for this information, while you sleep, prepares background, double checks, investigates for fraud and deception, and wakes you no sooner than absolutely necessary? Actually, software of that sort already exists.)
Some of the science fiction novels of my youth described worlds without work. Rather, a world where you didn't need to work because robots and automated factories did everything, but where you could work. There were always some people who couldn't help working. It was in them too deeply to resist. So everyone else was busy with whatever intrigues made up the story line and plot, or big theme. It was never really explained just how this world of no work came about (or maybe I missed the novel(s) that explained it). But somehow we got from today, where everyone has to work, to then, when nobody would have to work. Well, that's not exactly true. Not everyone works today. There are the unemployed. Those on welfare. The disabled. Those who live on trust funds, interest, the lottery, etc.
What seems to be different about the current state of economic affairs is that many very bright, well educated, talented, experienced people are having great difficulty finding new jobs. Or the new jobs they find don't pay nearly the same as the last one, or it is a job that just does not require their education or experience. That future world of robots and automated factories is bearing down on us, the whole world, in the form of increased productivity, efficiency, and "down-sizing". Fewer people doing more "work". Fewer people making more things. Agriculture is a good example of this phenomenon. About 2% of the people produce enough food for the country--plus a large surplus that is given away in this country and around the world. About 90% of the people once worked to produce food. The same thing is happening to every widely consumed product. Fewer people are required to produce all of whatever is needed. If you put all those people to work they will start producing a surplus. The agricultural work force has diminished because it is just too absurd to produce food and then leave it to rot. One sees examples of this rotting of food when farmers in various countries protest the way changing world markets are impinging on their economic situation. They block roads into a city. Or they dump potatoes, or milk, or herd sheep into the center of town. They don't want to change, but the global market that brings them MTV, and 500 other channels from around the world, is producing potatoes, milk, and sheep more cheaply and efficiently than they are. What about cars? What about when you reach the point of having manufactured a car for every human on the planet? How about teaching dogs and cats to drive? Nah. Dogs are too stupid, and cats would never obey the rules.
One of my favorite eco-cartoons starts out with a large bulldozer sitting on the surface of the Earth. The bulldozer starts moving things around, out of sight and mind. It represents development and progress. By the end panel the bulldozer is the only thing you see. The Earth has been completely developed--and consumed. In order for everyone to be employed we will have to produce and consume at an ever faster pace--primarily because production is becoming constantly more efficient. About two decades ago (I say that, rather than 20 years ago, because it is easier to stomach two than 20) a friend and colleague started a newsletter/publication titled "The Effluent Society". A play on the words "The Affluent Society". The latter was also becoming more and more the former. While increasing affluence means more comfort and better health, the dark side, the down side of that affluence is effluent. Garbage, waste, pollution, the consequences of making anything. It takes energy to make and move everything. The expending of energy means electromagnetic and thermal radiation loosed on the environment and the living things in it. To make a car with a coat of paint that won't chip, flake, rust, dull from sunlight, or disintegrate from road salt--you must use considerable energy and some powerful chemicals. Neither of which all end up on the car. You get a nice car. You get some nasty things in your environment.
Some might say that the solution to the countries unemployment problem is exactly in doing something about cleaning up the environment, making new ways of making products that use less energy and material, and that have fewer harmful byproducts. They might say we need a new generation of scientists and engineers to do these things. That the future of the country, and the world, is in this direction. Nothing wrong with that.
Let me say, before you become convinced that the writer of this what-you-are reading is a pessimist, that there is another little thought about, and not realized direction that might be utilized to return this country to a really dominant position in the world economy. This is possible because of something very unique about America. But first, let me digress to what it is that makes most countries economic powerhouses in the world. Exports. And what, you ask, is Americas number one export? Airplanes, of course. But Europe, Brazil, Japan, Russia, and others are all getting into that great game. Doesn't look too good there. How about our second largest export? Don't know what it is? How about... art and culture! How about films, video, TV, music, MTV, books, magazines, etc. Close on the heels of airplanes. And our competitors? Ask yourself about the last time you heard a really great Japanese song being played on the radio. See any wonderful Russian films lately? No way! At this point in history, America really has no competitors in the arts & culture that is more and more becoming a part of the every day life of people everywhere in the world. Step into a taxi in Ankara, Turkey. The driver is wearing a Walkman. What kind of music is playing? American pop, jazz, rock & roll, whatever--but definitely American. A bus driver in Indonesia, also wearing a Walkman. What music is playing? The answer is left as an exercise for the reader. Art products will become even more valuable for this country as the rest of the world recognizes intellectual property rights and ends illegal copies. American fashion is often copied. One reads, regularly, stories in the newspapers of cheap fashion "knockoffs" imported into a country that are stopped because they are forgeries and illegal copies. In Beirut, Lebanon, during the many years of civil wars, you could count on a bit more peace and quiet during at least one hour a week. It was calmer once a week, for an hour, for some years because of an American art product. Once a week the latest episode of "Dallas" would be shown on national TV. Everyone went home to watch. It was quintessentially American. But it was also universal and about something that everyone could understand. Power. Getting it and keeping it. And money. And women. The archetypes shown were people easily understood in a society engaged in a battle over the very same things. But not all American art/culture is understood around the world in the same way we see things. It may have quite a different appeal. An American reporter describes an incident during the Gulf War. He was in an Arab city, entered a room, and noticed some Arab friends watching Tom and Jerry cartoons. As usual, Tom and Jerry were engaged in a frantic chase. They were fascinated and completely hypnotized by what they saw. As soon as it ended one of the Arabs turned to his reporter friend and asked, who are you for, Tom or Jerry?
American art & culture is appreciated and consumed worldwide. And this presents a very interesting possibility for continued economic growth. While computer chips, steel, and automobile industries in this country have made a surprising comeback during the last decade, there are still fierce, and increasing numbers of competitors for these commodities. Airplanes, primarily from Boeing, are currently the countries number one export. Right behind it we find art, in the forms of film, TV, music, books, etc. America has strong competitors for airplanes and most commodity goods. The country has, effectively, no competitors for art. Huh? Heard any good Japanese pop music lately? Watched any interesting European TV in the last few years? This writer believes that American art dominates the world for a very simple reason. It is similar to the reason why so many people want to come to this country from every corner of the world. We live in a less authoritarian and conformist society. While this can be a dangerous place to live, it is seldom because of government or social convention. For those who would respond that we do live in an authoritarian society, we can paraphrase Albert Einstein, and say that everything is relative. Imagine the surprise of American female soldiers who went to Saudi Arabia for the Gulf War, and had Saudi religious police whacking them on their exposed calves and shins with special whips made just for that purpose! Or that Saudi women weren't allowed to drive.
Nearly every country encourages education (political movements in Cambodia and Peru being the two main exceptions) in mathematics and science. Art education is feared and discouraged in many place. To be an artist is to be an explorer of human experience and the human condition. Vaclav Havel, once a tenant of his state's prisons, and later his countries leader, is an example of how dangerous art can be for some governments. The best art needs complete freedom to explore and consider every possibility. Everything has to be open to consideration. Every feeling has to be touchable and open to exposure. Or consider the case of Salmon Rushdie, and his book Satanic Verses, and how the government of Iran has offered several million dollars to the person who kills him. We won't be hearing a lot of good pop music from Iran! The citizenry there is mostly walking on tiptoes to avoid doing anything that doesn't fit in. An important journalist in Egypt was recently murdered for his openness to new ideas. And so it is, mainly to a lesser degree, in much of the world. In no other country does the individual or collaborative effort in the arts have such a free reign as here. This means that America will continue to be the source of much of the world's consumable art.
For who knows how long one has heard the refrain of arts teachers and advocates that we must fund arts education better. And now there is, it seems to this writer, clear economic justification for doing so. Democratic systems of government are becoming more and more common in the world. But it will be a considerably longer time before those governments result in really free people, and people free to make art. Meanwhile, America has a clear and unambiguous hold on the market and the attention of the world's people.
In this area America still has almost no competition. At the same time, as material conditions in the world improve, the market for these products will continue to grow. It seems obvious to this writer that America will miss the boat if this avenue is not given serious consideration. Everyone should study math and science. The country needs mathematicians and scientists. The mathematical algorithms build into electronic sound and audio products, that convert magnetic spots on tape and disk to sound and light, were invented by... That's right, American mathematicians. The first transistors and VCRs were invented by... You guessed right again. At the same time the country can't afford to waste the chance to take advantage of a growing market in art. And artistic values, and aesthetic, should continue to be integrated into the design and final versions of all products. A product pleasing to the eye and easy to work with is a clear direction in commerce.
Finally, let me say that everyone, mathematician and scientist included, would be well served to do something in the arts. There's writing and painting and the theater. Everyone should learn to play a musical instrument, the saxophone, for example. In fact, training on a keyboard instrument seems to improve spatial-temporal reasoning, which is important particularly in science and mathematics. Test scores can be improved by as much as 34%. Here's a URL pointing to the research report: www.musica.uci.edu/mrn/V3I2F96.html#Reasoning