Continuing each Monday another excerpt from my 2001 book, which can be purchased as a PDF for $10 here: www.scribd.com/doc/25085990/The-Art-of-Enterprise-by-Gary-Hoover-January-2010.
As those of us in the “first world” or “developed world” – I am not fond of either term but have not unearthed a better one – live from day to day, worrying about how to pay our bills or complaining about our taxes, we often forget how far we have come and where we stand relative to the rest of the people on earth. Those of us in the United States, most of Europe, Canada, Japan, Australia, and a few other countries of equivalent wealth often forget how different our lives our. Since I am most familiar with the US, I will speak of that country here, but many of these thoughts apply to these other nations as well.
Compared with all the people who have lived before us, even the kings and queens, most of us live in unprecedented luxury, with unequalled options and choices. In many respects, the United States was the first nation to reach this amazing level of widespread wealth. Today, the average American, not just the wealthy:
¨ Has Internet access in their home
¨ Owns that home
¨ Has access to hundreds of cable channels
¨ Can get a plumber or locksmith to their house in a few hours
¨ Lives within thirty minutes of a shopping mall
¨ Can buy fresh food 24 hours a day
¨ Drives at least one automobile
This is a staggering achievement. This twenty-first century lifestyle is something that has come first to the US and has been developed here. We are the first country that can afford college. I don’t mean merely the price of the tuition, I mean the fact that so many of our young people can take four years out of their lives and spend most of that time thinking and learning rather than working. As of 1997, 81% of America’s college-age residents were in college (up from 56% in 1980); only in Canada and Australia are the statistics comparable. Germany is at 47%, the UK at 52%.
On a recent trip I took to Latin America, on three successive flights, the person next to me did not know how to use the seatbelt – a sure sign of a first-time flyer. Those folks are getting harder and harder to find in the US. In 1965, most Americans had never been on a commercial airliner. But by 1997, 81% of American adults had flown on an airliner at least once.
Recently I was driving through the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia on the beautiful Skyline Parkway. Only in America could we afford to build a road that goes from nowhere to nowhere, that is not a toll road, that is there only for the sheer sake of beauty. We can, as a society, if we so choose, stop and smell the roses. We are among the first to have the wealth and the luxury to clean up our rivers, to care about whether teenagers smoke. We are among the first nations to find new diseases that strike those in their 90s. We are among the first to have to wrestle with the ethical issues of voluntary suicide and plant genetics. We live in the only country on earth that has large expansive bookstores in hundreds of neighborhoods, even in medium-sized cities. We have museums that host cocktail hours where people of all ages, in large quantities, mingle and find dates. And our cats and dogs are on Science Diet for Seniors so they, too, can enjoy their waning years.
In short, the United States is the first giant society on earth that has gotten the basics out of the way – it has fed itself, clothed itself, and housed itself – and is now in some sense sitting back and enjoying the good life. I know it doesn’t feel that way when everyone in your family is working long hours or when you are stuck in traffic, but by any rational view through time and space, we are in a unique position. And the inventions of the last twenty years – the CD, the PC, the Internet – take all this to a whole new level. To pick just one example, the idea of downloading a digitally-perfect copy of the latest music at three a.m. on a Sunday morning so that you could replay it at will whenever you want would have been absurd even fifteen years ago.
So now I have drawn this picture of the United States at the head of the pack, leading the world to a new and unimagined place. But what is that place? What happens next?
There is also a dark side to the unprecedented prosperity we enjoy. People in a wealthy America sometimes become bored and do strange things that rarely happen in poorer countries. They spend all their money (and time) on drugs, they meddle in other people’s business, they surf the Net for hours a day, they search in vain for a new meaning to life (enriching successive infomercial-makers along the way), they fill tanning salons in cities where the sun shines all day every day, they become addicted to Home Shopping Network, they take their dogs to the psychiatrist. They live alone in big silent apartments and giant houses. A greater share of the American people are in prison than any other “first world” nation. These are not phenomena you are likely to find in the villages of Nigeria or even in the big cities of China.
As we become wealthier, will we just do more of these same things? Will we lose the drive, the hustle, the dissatisfaction with the status quo that is an American hallmark? And will the other countries who have emulated us in education, in building and buying cars, in promoting home ownership, now imitate us in these ways as well?
A recent story on CNN reported that over 50% of teenagers in Taiwan are now overweight, and the number is still increasing. The industrious parents of Japan now worry about their children becoming MTV-loving couch potatoes. Many Asians must be shocked when they read stories about members of wealthy American families, like the Hafts of Washington, suing one another.
I do not have any easy answers to these questions. America and the other wealthy nations will continue to get wealthier and to confront whole new ethical, social, and cultural issues. The rest of the world will be watching us, sometimes admiring what we do and other times aghast. I think it likely that each nation will adopt much that is American but also prosper in their own way and style. I certainly hope so, for the good of us all.
Gateways to Seeing the Biggest Picture
Start with Monitoring the World Economy 1820-1992 and Dynamic Forces in Capitalist Development, both by Angus Maddison. This fellow is the guy when it comes to looking at the long-term economic growth of nations. These two books, and his others, are fascinating. The State of Humanity contains a look at every major aspect of the welfare of the world and how it is changing, by the late king of positivism, Julian L. Simon.
Gateways to the World Economy
The best textbook on world economic geography, with lots of information and great maps, is The World Economy: Resources, Location, Trade, and Development, by Anthony R. de Souza and Frederick P. Stutz. The Geography of the World Economy by Paul Knox and John Agnew and Regions and the World Economy: The Coming Shape of Global Production, Competition, and Political Order, by Allen J. Scott are also very good. For ongoing reading, it is hard to beat the weekly Economist Magazine. It gives a different slant from the standard US media, and its articles cover the world on a balanced basis.