Friday, March 11, 2011

End Times

Wisconsin Assembly passes bill to curb collective bargaining—CNN, March 10, 2010

We are indeed at end times.

Again.

It is really difficult for most of us to believe it, but almost all the turbulence we are experiencing—economically, politically, and societally—is an element of the massive and almost overwhelming shift the global economy has been undergoing for several decades now. Really, although it is probably sloppy to do this, the Recovering Bureaucrat suggests we can mark the date of this shift from November 9, 1989, the day the Berlin Wall was breached.

It was as if the American-Soviet stand-off that gave structure to the five decades of the Cold War evaporated overnight, making room for a number of pent-up energies to be let loose upon the globe. You may recall people making fun of President George H. W. Bush for proclaiming “the New World Order” in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, but in a major sense he was right—although it would probably have been more accurate to label it the “New World Disorder.”

The shift from the Industrial to Information Ages, gathering force since at least the invention of the transistor in 1947, seemed to explode onto the world scene in the 1990s. Peoples across the globe, beginning with eastern Europeans, clamored for release from longstanding tyrannies. And standards of living, literacy rates, and life expectancies accelerated their upward momentum.

Serious political discourse requires some familiarity with the big picture of the epoch-changing events underway. At the very least this will help us distinguish the serious from the frivolous over the course of the next months heading into 2012’s presidential election.

Why? Well, one of the key dynamics to observe and make peace with is the very human unwillingness to change with the times. This design feature of humanity tends to be a major source of discord, unhappiness, and even bloodshed in times of transition, for the devil we know (the old way of doing things) is almost always preferable to the one we don’t (the undiscovered country of the future). Further, you will no doubt note that the more profound the change, the more stubborn the resistance.

You can look at almost every dramatic turn of events anywhere in the world today, and you can observe the tectonic plates of change and resistance grinding against one another. Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Great Britain, China, Wisconsin, Ohio, Florida, California, to name just a few from the headlines—all caught in the onward rapids of change, and all coping with significant forces trying like King Canute of old to turn back those tides (to slightly mix metaphors).

Walter Russell Mead, James Clarke Chace Professor of Foreign Affairs and Humanities at Bard College and Editor-at-Large of The American Interest magazine, has written a series of posts on his blog Via Meadia about this state of affairs. Starting with “Can the L-Word Be Saved?” posted just before Christmas last year, Professor Mead examines the contours of the shift from the Industrial to the Information Ages currently underway with a vengeance.

He does this by examining the shifting meaning of the once noble word “liberalism,” the wellspring, in its classic form, of America’s founding principles.

In America today, while “liberals” and “progressives” still are sometimes out there on the barricades for some truly liberal and important values, most of what passes for liberal and progressive politics is a conservative reaction against economic and social changes that the left doesn’t like. The people who call themselves liberal in the United States today are fighting desperate rearguard actions to save policies and institutions that are old and established, that once served a noble purpose, but that now need fundamental reform (and perhaps in some cases abolition) lest they thwart the very purposes for which they were once made.
Once upon a time, America was the champion of classical liberalism, leading the world out of the epoch of kings, oligarchies, and clerics into a world of individual liberty and government by the consent of the people under the rule of law. One of the reasons hundreds of thousands of people from around the world continue to aspire to emigrate here is because this American commitment to our founding liberal values is still the exception to the rule globally.

A liberal is someone who seeks ordered liberty in politics: who seeks to reconcile humanity’s need for governance with its drive for freedom in such a way as to give us all the order we need (but no more) with as much liberty as possible. In this sense liberty isn’t divided into freedoms of speech, religion, economic activity or personal conduct: real liberals care deeply about all of the above, and seek a society in which individuals enjoy increasing liberty in each of these dimensions — while continuing to cultivate the virtues and the institutions that give us the order without which there can be no freedom.
When we remember these founding principles, these classical liberal values, we can make sense of the Preamble to the California state constitution—found also in the constitutions of most of the other states. We make government to “secure and perpetuate the blessings” of “our freedom”—period.

But something happened along the way that changed the meaning of liberty for far too many of us. That something was the Industrial Revolution—not so much in the United States but through its impacts upon the global political economy. The emergence of industrial Germany in the heartland of Europe set off the political upsurge that inspired the Progressive movement here and its democratic socialist analogs in Europe. It also was a key cause of two World Wars that both produced and fed the rise of fascism and the religion of the welfare state.

This turbulence was the result of the tectonic plates of the old world (then the agrarian/imperial orders that dominated most of what we came to call the Third World but still holding sway over much of Europe as well) colliding with the powerful new industrial order represented by the U. S., Great Britain, and Germany.

So, while the twentieth century produced the bloodiest wars since at least the Thirty Years War in the seventeenth century, it also produced the greatest expansion of wealth, health, and population in the entirety of human history.

Now, a decade into the 21st century, we are confronting powerful dynamics for which almost nothing in our past can prepare us. As futurist Ray Kurzweil has pointed out in his research into what he calls “the Singularity,” the time is rapidly approaching when “a merger between human intelligence and machine intelligence is going to create something bigger than itself.”

One thing that observers don't fully recognize, and that a lot of otherwise thoughtful people fail to take into consideration adequately, is the fact that the pace of change itself has accelerated. Centuries ago people didn't think that the world was changing at all. Their grandparents had the same lives that they did, and they expected their grandchildren would do the same, and that expectation was largely fulfilled.
Today it's an axiom that life is changing and that technology is affecting the nature of society. But what's not fully understood is that the pace of change is itself accelerating, and the last 20 years are not a good guide to the next 20 years. We're doubling the paradigm shift rate, the rate of progress, every decade. This will actually match the amount of progress we made in the whole 20th century, because we've been accelerating up to this point. The 20th century was like 25 years of change at today's rate of change. In the next 25 years we'll make four times the progress you saw in the 20th century. And we'll make 20,000 years of progress in the 21st century, which is almost a thousand times more technical change than we saw in the 20th century. [Italics added.]
So here’s the deal: we are living at the moment when the rate of transformation itself is accelerating, whether or not our awareness and our psychology are prepared to deal with it, much less turn it to our evolutionary advantage. This ever-increasing, ever-expanding change will sweep away all the old ways of doing things—and the turmoil over state and federal budgets is simply advanced notification that government’s turn is coming, and soon.

Professor Mead says it succinctly:

We need to reduce the ‘friction’ in American society: the costs of our legal, health, educational and other government services. Some of this will come through the use of exactly those abilities of the computer that Paul Krugman dreads: their ability to replace human beings for much routine office work. Making government (and private sector) bureaucratic payrolls massively smaller is what the general interest requires.
In posts to come we will look at how this is playing out in current events, and make suggestions of what 21st century government might look like. In the meantime, how can we prepare ourselves for tides and torrents about which we have little idea?

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always—
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.

--T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets

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