Agriculture, Industry, Technology
Most people who farm do not live where they farm, and those who
do so number only four millions. For the most part, farmers are
industrialists, managers, specialized staff and workers.
Farm and ranch circles compose the most extensive and
powerful single political force in the country.
There are more Polish-Americans than farmers of all ethnic origins.
If they were as strategically placed in American government as the
farmers, they would control a score of Senate seats, four score seats
in the House of Representatives, supply half a dozen governors to
the States, and any number of state legislators, plus thousands of
county officials, and operate out of several of the most powerful
interest group organizations in the nation. If they did not fill these
positions themselves, they would choose, dominate, or hire the
people holding the posts. They would also be subsidized each year
by numerous special government services and given
$25,000,000,000 of public monies, making about
$5,000.00 apiece, man, woman and child. That,
for a change, would be a good Polish joke.
Such is the outcome for a country that was born originally on the farm
and never got over the birth trauma. Representative
government, when it was taken over from the medieval Catholic
religious orders, based itself on land tenure and existing towns, and
geographical units sent their delegates to the
parliaments of the commons.
Democratic government, later on, seemed to be irrevocably based
on a division of the population into geographical districts, including
within them such settlements as occurred. In America, most counties
are sized and drawn to permit a farmer to
ride to the county seat in a day.
This strong attachment of the form of government to the land, as if it
were the land and not the people who were being represented,
accounts for the original and continued discrimination in
apportionment against the towns and cities. It is part of the mystique
of the farmer and helps to explain also why the industrial revolution
moved much faster in handling inorganic matter than in agriculture that
deals with organic material. Agriculture resisted rationalization.
Yet, inexorably, it succumbed to economic considerations, and
agriculture has become more and more like the rest of industry in its
basic corporate organization, ownership by negotiable shares, large
production goals, use of continually changing skills, machines, and
scientific discoveries. It developed a thirst for oil on an industrial scale:
to produce an acre of corn, a farmer used 140 gallons of petroleum.
If oil were not a gift of the Earth,
the bargain would be a bad one.
Farming is world-sensitive; Chinese drought can be
more important to a Dakota wheat farm than hurricanes
along the American East Coast,
and its manager will know it immediately from the
movement of ciphers on his computer screen from the
Chicago commodities exchange.
(The farming regions of the latter twentieth century are depicted on the map below.
One could detect from it the grass-roots of political forces in state capitals and Washington.)
Amazingly, with all their political clout, farmers have suffered
interminably from many kinds of problems, as I have interminably said.
They have been plagued by locusts, the real thing, and Chicago
Merchandise Mart Commodity Markets locusts. Thus, the boll-weevil
crossed the border near Brownsville, Texas, in 1892 and devastated
the cotton-growing regions of the nation by 1912; insecticides
developed against the insect could not make progress until incentives
were offered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture beginning in
1978, such that by the year 2000 it is expected to be extinct in the
U.S..- but not in Mexico.
But cotton belongs to one of the list of expensive price-supported
commodities, which means that the taxpayers have been paying
twice for the success of extinguishing a pest. American taxpayers
also paid for the machinery that transformed cotton from
labor-intensive to labor-extensive during the period of the boll weevil,
for a million Black farm workers were displaced by the technological
revolution and sent penniless into the cities, soon followed by poor
White cotton farmers in great numbers; the welfare services of the
cities, stingily and hatefully deprived by rural legislators, had
somehow to take on the new burdens.
A great many farmers, out of ignorance, poverty and shiftlessness,
misused the land and themselves. They went through several phases of
the industrial and technological revolution and were devastated by
each in turn. Because, like the European peasant, the American
peasant believed that land was everything, land was true wealth, the
real wealth, and if he had land he must survive and prosper.
The great farm depression of the nineteen twenties continued right on
into the thirties, was stopped by World War II with its infinite demand,
and proceeded in new forms after the war. The novelty was the
abandonment of the farm by millions of the poor and the sell-out of the
small farmer, and the expansion of commercial large-scale farming, which,
by 1970 was accounting for 75%, and by 1995 was accounting for
95% of the total commercial farm production.
American agriculture was "progressing," in certain senses.
Technical, chemical, organizational, and educational advances
were many in the period following World War II. But,
as all of these reached new production records, they left behind a
majority of farmers bankrupted or otherwise driven out, for the
machine and other improvements only occasionally
paid for themselves and yet were still utterly
necessary if a person were to stay in the cash crop
commercial farming business.
The USA regularly produced twice as much farm products as its
population could consume. Dairy farming was always tempting and
prolific, yet so perched on the brink of failure, that one Department
of Agriculture program required the government to pay the going
price to a farmer for slaughtering his herd and promising to stay out
of the business for five years. (Considering how cruelly dairy
animals have come to be treated all their short lives for the sake of the
"bottom line," slaughtering a herd is merciful.) Obviously, and
for most of a century, the USA has not been a free-market economy,
so far as agriculture was concerned.
I have mentioned that, when Americans moved into the cities,
and had a modest success, they promptly thought of moving out
to the suburbs where they dreamed
they might find their ideal life on a farm without work and risk.
No doubt millions of Americans lived this dream,
not the reality but the dream, and were content.
It began to appear in reality that the productive farm should be
regarded as agro-industry, simply another branch of business, like
making nuts and bolts. Perhaps it should be classified with the
chemical industry, since the present success and future of farming
lies in chemicals - fertilizers, hormone injections, artificial
insemination of genetically preferred stocks, cloning,
preserving and processing formulas.
Precious genetic banks are being set up by governments and drug
companies to hold as long as possible ( a century is the average
estimate) as many biological species, especially plants, as possible.
Cereals in their myriad forms, for example. Tens of thousands of
species and varieties are already preserved. There may be millions
left unguarded. Theoretically, the foundation of a useful industry in
any of a hundred fields might emerge from any one of the
thousands of genes in an organism.
A century ago, the hog butchers of Chicago boasted that they
processed for sale every part of the pig save its whistle. In the
1990's hog farming could claim an industrialization
like the most efficiently machined inorganic materials factories.
Hogs were bred with the care given thoroughbred horses.
They were confined and fed fattening foods,
injected with hormones, cleaned by mechanical means
and injected against diseases; they were moved
from one feeding regimen to another as they aged;
and then finally shipped carefully to the slaughterhouses.
North Carolina and Iowa were the main domiciles of
these malodorous myrmidons.
Jeeter Lester would have been absolutely confounded if he could
have seen, when Caldwell was writing about him in 1930, the
ultimate ascent of the spiny skinny pig running hog-wild in the
woods around the mountainside, eating scraps of anything.
The news that pork had become a billion-dollar industry
was enough to send dieticians of the Mediterranean
persuasion into shudders.
And what would Willa Cather's Nebraska corn farmer
say about how the tall corn grew? Hybrid corns
varying with soils and meteorological differences,
continuous flows of information on television sets and computers,
great agricultural colleges where the old traditional farmer
would find himself in a never-never land:
where's the farming in all of this?
Corn that is mechanically and chemically treated to degerm it
and separate out the protein gluten for livestock feed and meal,
starches for food and manufacture of plastics,
corn oil dextrose, corn syrup, fructose, toothpastes,
cosmetics, sorbitol pharmaceutics, feed additives,
ethyl alcohol for ethanol, grain alcohol.
The price of agricultural land continued to rise
in the latter part of the twentieth century and some questioned
whether the farmer was really going out of business.
How could a whole kind of people be eliminated
and their land go up in price? Easily..
Farmers bowed out or were thrown out,
as the value of the land for other purposes rose.
(We remember the sheep enclosures that sent its hordes
of humans to the city streets and to America.)
Large companies, capital-rich, could combine pieces of
land and profit thereby. Other land was on the approaches
to cities or in the path of developments;
farmers could sell out profitably or hold
for a profitable sale in the future.
Public forests, colleges and other schools bought up land.
Governments wanted land for waste plants,
reservoirs, garbage dumps, etc.
In the end, a true chthonian would survive,
but not very many farmers were rooted in the soil.
Direct payments and loans to farmers were strongly
intimated in the 1920's but began on an annual basis
in the 1930's and never ceased,
growing almost all the time,
from $162 millions in 1934 to
$20 billions per year in the late 1980's and 1990's.
This was and is a fantastic subsidy, and only the
stranglehold that farmers and their support groups had
on policy and governance could explain it, plus the
mystique of the farm in American ideology.
Moreover, the vastly greater part of these annual raids on the
Treasury has gone to the corporate and large farmers, the very ones
best able to survive in a free-market economy, one more bit of
evidence that the United States was a plutocracy. Non-storable and
non-fiber crops have only rarely been subsidized; growers of fresh
fruits and vegetables were not, except by local and state
governments, who gave them tax reliefs and other benefits.
The federal government, besides lending and guaranteeing prices,
paid farmers to put their land out of production
and then to act as conservators of their own land,
receiving cash for their benevolence.
Low-interest loans and subsidized insurance helped, too.
All along, crops that deserved or needed no cultivation, were
subsidized: the cento-million dollar tobacco subsidy was and is a
crowning irony, but there were and are peanut-grower
subsidies and sugar beet subsidies, too.
Near the end of the twentieth century,
government direct payments to farmers averaged
about a quarter of the farmer's total income.
other "freebies" attended the pursuit of farming.
Presidents and Congressmen swore that they would put a halt to or at
least reduce these extravagant indulgences of a small fraction of the
promised often to bring the farmers
into the free-market economy;
his staff exacerbated the problem for eight years.
But both, not one, major parties submitted to farmer forces.
In 1996 Congress framed a generous divorce settlement.
It would pay farmers declining sums for seven years,
asking few restrictions in return, and then quit the arrangement.
Few sincerely believed it would be quits.
When on the defensive, politicians said: look at the champion
efficiency of the American farmer; also, if we abandon subsidies,
other countries that subsidize their farmers will take away our
markets abroad; anyhow, the farm lobbies are the strongest there are,
and the Department of Agriculture itself is a twenty-thousand-person
army of farm lobbyists, plus a hundred thousand farm lobbyists in
the state and county farm "militias."
The schizoid character of most Americans was manifest.
When polled, many beneficiaries denounced themselves:
37% wanted the whole system scrapped.
41% supported it.
22% wouldn't give a straight answer.
Add city dwellers to the farmers, and the 'nays" would overwhelm.
The cattlemen of the country - a romanticized aggregate - had a
good thing going with the governments as soon as they arrived in the
West, and this has continued: they leased public lands to graze their
beasts. They could not keep out barbed wire by law where land was
held by farmers in good title, although they shot some of the farmers.
They did manage to procure land from the majority of "homesteaders,"
often merely speculators, and combine these into vast ranches held in
fee simple. The real profit came from large tracts of land that could be
used at will for a pittance, one-fifth the cost of a
private lease on grazing land.
In 16 western States, half of whose lands is owned by the
government, the federal government has leased to ranchers 280
million acres, an area larger than the thirteen original states, but the
total number of permit holders has been a mere 23,000. The top 500
permit holders lease half of all the land; they include such cowboys
as the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company (800,000 acres), a
Japanese conglomerate called the Zenchiku Corporation, and the
Mormon Church. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management
officers arrange for the conditions of the use of the land, trying to limit
its damaging effects. Extremely rich individuals have taken to
buying grand spreads and leasing government land to
play at ranching.
At stake has been the preservation of wilderness and species and the
conservation of land, plus getting a reasonable rent from the lessees.
They, representing the whole American public, and the pressure
groups that grew as part of the general conservation movement in the
later twentieth century - the Sierra Club, the National Wildlife
Federation, the Wilderness Society and Nature Conservancy - with
millions of members in all, have found it nearly
impossible to control and reduce the claims of these
few thousands of ranchers.
Again, one ponders the effects of history:
the American system has been conservative from beginning to end,
and once an economic interest has been established
it could be protected and enlarged most successfully,
against other private interests and against the public,
more easily against the government and public
than against private encroachers.
The true "dirt farmer" has departed in some numbers, too, because
investors have been going into farming as a hobby, or a second way of
life, or an experiment in running a second business. Many farms were
bought up deliberately to perform unprofitably, and therefore profitably
as a tax loss, reducing by their failure as businesses the taxable income
on the books of the rich.
For the really well-to-do, the suburbs were sometimes succeeded by
the exurban farm property. Most of the independent farmers of the
country, so-called, came not only to depend upon government
subsidies, but had other members of their families working in
nearby businesses and factories. No one, not even a sentimental
historian, would call these people "yeomen." That it was a
commendable way to live - things being what they are -
was likely in most cases, and one could only hope that
more and more people could diversify their existence
and enjoy a decent life in the process.
While these were practically city-folk, with urban advantages, a
different life was passed in the small towns still dotting the great
prairies and plains of the Midwest and West; there a person, a woman,
would be encouraged to be "sociable" and could choose from one or
more church groups, a Homemakers Extension Club, the clinic and
American Legion auxiliary, a bridge or sewing or general club, and
various community service clubs such as the Jaycettes (wives of
Junior Chamber of Commerce members), all
nicely organized with their constitutions,
rule books and worried-over programmes.
The number of such towns diminished with the passage of the farmer.
Since the farmer produces for the outside world, his
community can usually count upon seven jobs (and families) for
every farm family, these supporting each other and also the farmer
with the help of the "new money from export sales." Hence the loss
of a few farms in a neighborhood can reduce significantly the
viability of a village of a thousand persons. Nevertheless, there
being no general accounting for, projecting and planning of, and
oversight of the details of the vast nation, except by the cameras of
satellites in outer space, the farm has appeared to be moving out of
sight, taking with it the country town, and rendering largely useless
a huge number of county governments.
In 1995 the Department of Agriculture ordered the shutting down of
1,274 farm field offices around the country; they had long outlived
their usefulness as centers for processing government farm business
and information; a number still existed in the suburbs of Savannah and
Atlanta, for instance. There were still 2,500 offices left for the
dwindling farm industry; attention needed to be given to the
possibilities of the fax machine and computers in further reductions.
America became generally over-governed, and there has never been
conceived a zero-sum activity formula, whereby every activity and
office would regularly be submitted to analysis on the theory that a
new device must reduce a cost and every new activity must be joined
with the equivalent reduction of an existing activity.
One could demonstrate on paper, technocratically, considering air
travel and computer networks, how well the nation could do with
two-thirds less counties (1000 instead of 3000) and twenty less states.
(In the course of the French Revolution of 1789, traditional provincial
boundaries were wiped out and efficient new departements were
The Southwest, the Great Basin, the High Plains, the Upper
Midwest, Upper New England -
one could see these effectively managed from single centers.
Or, to make the picture and the need more clear, you could readily
redraw the constitutional map of the USA to contain a set of
city-states, regions of fairly equal population, with a metropolitan region
as its nucleus: the Chicago Region, the Los Angeles Region,
the Houston Region, the New Orleans Region, the Miami Region,
and so forth, to the number of perhaps only twenty states,
where modern problems could be handled upon
a modern constitutional infrastructure.
Agriculture in all of its forms, already diminishing rapidly as a
source of employment, dropped from 37% of the working force in
1900, without counting the hardworking farm women, to 2% in
1995. Manufacturing did not increase by much; it rose and lowered
in the century; the automation of manufacturing increased
exponentially after the 1950's, with American industry hard-pressed
to keep up with the Japanese and European competition.
Worker productivity rose as a result,
but the situation of the blue-collar worker declined,
and, shortly following, that of the White-collar worker.
Banks, for instance, a haven for low-paid respectable
employment, went heavily into automation and computer
bookkeeping. In relation to farming and manufacturing, the trade
sector and all other services, including education and government
services, rose markedly in personnel and volume.
The warm discussions of industrial democracy with which the
twentieth century began were but the faintest echoes at the century's
end. If anyone needs convincing of the genius and leadership of
Woodrow Wilson, he will find it in the coincidence of his addressing
Congress from the epochal Paris Peace Conference in
May 1919 on this peripheral subject: "genuine democratization of
industry," giving workers the right to "participate in some organized
way in every decision which directly affects their welfare or the part
they are to play in industry," bringing "a new form and spirit of
industrial organization." Here resonate the ideas
of a political scientist, Mary Parker Follett, and,
back a long political generation, the ideas of
Charles Goepp on applying the true principles of
representation within corporate bodies.
One forgets the hopeful wishes and prognostications of President
Wilson, seconded by John Dewey, Jane Addams and others of the
intelligentsia. A century later it would appear that they mistook the
then existing dinosaur age of steel manufacturing,
startling monopolies, huge plants, and masses of workers
in the shop and offices as the likely future.
They were striving to find ways of representing workers with or
without unions in the councils of industry, beginning at the level of the
workshop; there were in Europe at the same time brilliant
writers seeking, too, industrial democracy in movements such as
guild socialism, in anarchist thought, and in communism itself, which
promised workers and farmers the chance to own and operate
their factories and farms. Typically, in America, a pragmatic
approach was taken, with a strong belief that somehow workers
could be fitted into the organizational direction and share ownership
of industry, in both small-scale and large-scale business.
The media, schools, and elite hammered in the myth
that true Americans loved to work. If any such love
existed - and there may have been more of this than in most lands -
it was thwarted and defaced by the awful conditions of almost all jobs.
In the middle of the last century, a movement to limit
work hours to ten arose, but took a half century to succeed.
A movement for an eight-hour day followed on its tail and
scored its successes within another half-century.
Throughout the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth,
the worker, whatever his origins,had to resist the
system at his own risk and in his own way.
Petitions, riots, demonstrations, and strikes were dangerous; taking
days off, slowdowns, and quitting were the pathetic instruments of the
lone worker or his work group. All over the manufacturing belt from
New England to Georgia, plants had to shut down when the circus
came to town. Immigrants took off without pay on their particular
saints' days. The practice increasingly common in
these last pre-millennium decades, of giving a certain number
of sick leave days with pay to workers, would have
seemed preposterous then.
The Armour meat-packing company averaged in 1914 8,000
employees, but in the same year had to hire an additional 8,000 to
replace those fired or quitting. In that year, in a depression
economy, the normal turnover of a working factory was at a 115%
annual rate. The Ford Motor Company in 1913 had a turnover rate
of 370%, and a sample of all Detroit industry in 1916 revealed an
average turnover rate of 252%. These figures
hardly bespeak the steady, well-treated worker.
Ethnicity was not usually an important factor in explaining quit-rates;
in Holyoke, Massachusetts, in 1860, 50% of the women
workers had been on the job for less than a year; similar figures
characterized the New York City factories with different immigrant
groups late in the century. The average worker, even the skilled
worker, suffered unemployment for from one to three months of the
year. This helped to explain the turnover rate.
Once laid off people left town or found other work.
The average American worker hated his job. The ordinary worker
wanted to work as much as was comfortable for him, not as much as
he could. It took a century and more for "human relations specialists"
to be called upon the scene to advise acceptance of this
norm and to find ways of making it profitable. The shop, factory
and office became much more comfortable places to work,
the hours less, the back-breaking jobs obsolesced
by a variety of machines.
Did he and she now still hate their job? Much less.
They hated commuting. They were driven to distraction by the
conflicting demands of home, children and schools versus the
factory and office. Polls showed that a plurality of women still
wanted to have both. Men agreed. Yet single households increased
greatly in number, and the birth rate dropped, as reality took hold.
We are speaking now of a typical middle-class set-up, not of a
typical impoverished situation.
Soon after Nagasaki was blasted, the scientists involved began to
convert from war to peace, to wit, fissioning the atom under controls
that would excite energy production. An Atomic Energy Commission
was created in 1946 to develop and supervise an appropriate industry,
with due respect to private enterprises. A critical specification to be
satisfied was that the issuing power be cost-competitive with fossil
fuels, a moving target that depended upon not only the
technical and regulatory problems encountered but also upon the
ability of the oligarchy of petroleum producing nations
to control prices, and the rate of discovery of new oil and natural
gas fields, plus the alternative costs of coal and hydroelectric power.
Many years passed before the first reliable plants went into
operation, and they went into construction, on-line, and off-line, as
costs varied, with 109 of them operative at the end of the century
and producing about 20% of the electricity of the country.
Because of an abundance of oil, and a failure of the monopolists
(de facto conservationists, it should be observed) to keep its price high,
also because of inherent cost factors, the plants were
not highly competitive and construction stopped.
The only severe accident occurring during the entire period was at
the Three Mile Island complex in Pennsylvania in 1979, where a
general fright over escaping radioactivity occurred, and a billion
dollars of damage was suffered. The ensuing new regulations played
a significant role in halting work on new plants. The Chernobyl
(Ukraine, USSR) nuclear radioactivity release, several years later,
alienated public opinion further.
The disposal of radioactive waste material continually caused
acrimonious debates; no one wanted the stuff nearby; radical ideas
had to be broached: send it flying into farther space never to return;
prepare indestructible containers for the waste and
dump them in the oceanic abyss; bury the waste in similar
containers under the Nevada desert.
Meanwhile, research into the ideal power plant went on, creating a
controlled hydrogen nuclear fusion that would use a tiny bit of the
infinitely available deuterium of the oceans, merge its particles, and in
the process, without large explosiveness or radioactivity, bring about
the release of energy beyond belief.
The main problem encountered in the first generation of research in
several countries was the inability to contain the super-Sun heat of
the fusion in a vessel and then to feed it out under restraint.
Before this would happen, two other newly developed
forms of energy would be on the shelves, because
they were rapidly cutting costs at the source:
solar panels and windmills. As the century closed,
their costs per kilowatt hour of electric power were within
a couple of pennies of petroleum-generated electrical power.
They both had the inestimable advantage of infinite source supply:
the one had free sunlight focusing, heating, and withdrawal of the
proceeds, for conversion to electric current, adapting,
in one of its favored techniques, the old principle of the voltaic cell;
the second had free wind turning blades that operated generators.
Both, if developed massively and in time - requiring a campaign,
such as the U.S. spent huge sums for, to land on the Moon first -
might forestall the catastrophe of world flooding from global
warming, by reducing drastically fossil fuel burning. Cloudy and
windless areas would have to be reached by long transmission lines,
however. Southern Californians were pleased, and some mountain
ridges, with a hundred towers and great blades turning, began to
look like surrealist images of old Holland.
In order to bring a halt to the menace of global
warming by stabilizing carbon dioxide outputs of the
world population and economy, a ten-fold increase in
carbon-free power generation from the Y2000 1.5 terawatt
generation to 15 terawatts in 2050 was called for.
There was, however, no practical means yet for doing so,
and therefore a high risk of climatic disasters and
population crashes was accruing.
The prestige of the automobile industry declined in America
beginning in the sixties, by virtue of successful competition from
abroad and numerous traffic and commuting problems
that took the fun out of the vehicle for many.
Further, Ralph Nader, a courageous, if obsessed,
proponent of safety, pursued diligently the industry,
leading public opinion and then politicians to demand
improvements in manufacturing.
The alliance of environmentalists, besides demanding
improvements in exhaust systems, sought to persuade and coerce the
industry to build new electric cars; Californian legislators emerged
from clouds of smog to insist that a certain proportion of electric
vehicles be put on the market by the end of the century, a
requirement for "zero emissions" that could not be met.
A heavy gasoline tax (like two dollars a gallon ) would make up the
federal government's budget deficit and a three-dollar tax might cut
traffic and pollution: they were impossible politically. A great
public transportation program and a reconcentration of urban
populations would be equally effective and impossible. But perhaps
petroleum deposits of the world would give out, before too many
strangulated from emissions. Especially if China and the Third
World continued their steep rise in production.
Small business dropped sharply in importance in relation
to large concerns as the twentieth century closed,
hastening a tendency already remarked since early
in the nineteenth century. New large-scale
industries such as radio, television, and computers
brought about hosts of new small businesses,
but more failed. In search of larger profits and
lower taxes, large businesses sometimes allowed or
created many tiny home-sized businesses,
making people feel good but hardly
affecting the grand scene.
Retail market stores became ever larger and all-embracing.
Newly arrived East Asians and Puerto Ricans, however,
ventured in large numbers into "Pop and Mom" stores, and held on;
the "bottom line" was obviously not the sine qua non of tenacity.
Shopping malls, with which immense supermarkets
(invented in France as the hypermarché)were often associated,
came to dominate retailing. Located principally in suburban areas,
they forced out of business many a famous city department store.
Communications technology achieved marvels of invention
and sales in the last decades of the century, especially in television,
telephonics, computers, and a number of peripheral electronics. In
tandem with the spectacular expansion of novel manufactures
came a revolution in the entertainment world,
with the giant markets less in cinemas than in home video-viewing.
The ancient Chinese abacus, for easing arithmetic operations, and a
geared mechanical computer found in an ancient Greek shipwreck,
are early forerunners of the modern electronic computer, which got
its start in 1939 at Iowa State University with a single-purpose
algebraic electronic computer using vacuum tubes. In 1946 at a
military project housed at the University of Pennsylvania, a general
purpose computing machine was invented whose acronym was
ENIAC. Cumbersome machines at first, computers shrank in size
greatly with the invention and production of transistors.
Yearly for the next social generation, speed and size were
exponentially enhanced and prices lowered. From the early
theoretical work of Alan Turing and Alonzo Church,
working in American and English milieus in the 1930's
to the defeat by a computer of a master chess player
took a single memorial generation.
Great fortunes were created quickly in the new digital age.
Among the 400 richest people in America in 1996,
43 were new names and of these most made their fortunes
in computers, software, electronics generally, and media.
The new billionaires were cashing in on ideas and organizing principles.
But stock manipulations were a large part of this.
For the time being, hard goods - metals, real estate, timber, and oil,
even Boeing and General Motors - proliferated less new wealth.
English historian D. W. Brogan in 1956 opined that
"No great business magnate will ever know
the complete command of wealth that Rockefeller and
Carnegie knew," quite missing the potential
breeding grounds for new "robber barons" in
financial speculation and computerdom.
A quantavolution of office and intellectual work occurred.
Accounting and bookkeeping, records management of all kinds, data
banks, and correspondence - thousands of occupations and
procedures were radically altered by computer hardware and
software. A great many scientific operations that would have been
impossible with non-electronic means of gathering , recording, and
processing sprang into being. Photography was merged with the
computer, so that, for instance, total art collections of tens of
thousands of copied items could be put into computer memory and
despatched around the world in an instant.
Computers and the new workplaces appeared clean,
quiet and comfortable, yet studies
at the end of twenty years of the computer age
found fears of radiation damage
(exaggerated), widespread hand, wrist and back
inflammations of nerve and muscle. The myriads of
machines were tiring, monotonous, irritating.
One in six computer workers displaced hostilities
to the machines upon co-workers or office furniture, and
one in four was found to have physically assaulted machines.
was called "computer rage."
Attempts were continuously made to construct intelligent machines
which could beat an expert at chess, and venture empirical
hypotheses that had not been considered or proposed heretofore.
Chess being a non-hypothetical game, that is,
having all of its rules and conclusions implicit in the play,
won over human genius before the clocked turned 2000.
It would appear that the computer would ultimately
in the twenty-first century come to "think" by
redefining thought; scientists would find irresistible the
prospect of solving a great many problems by letting
computers do their thinking on the problems. One would
compromise his own wishes somewhat in order to
do a job by computer.
Operations of the digital computer were organized around
the ultimate thesis that strings of combinations of zeros and ones
could compose the most complex of mental activities,
like the world was composed of atoms.
Transferred from the virtual world of the mind to the reality of the
material world, thanks to machines (computers).
such operations can control and command this world to the
limits of human ability to prescribe instrumental sets of
effective procedures. That is, if you can describe how
to get from any situation into a new situation in
simple digital language - and seemingly everything
might be so described - then the computer can
simulate and direct the actualization of your description.
So it happens that computers came to play master chess,
compose music that was nearly indistinguishable from true
work of Bach or Chopin, and paint pictures that could
illustrate a magazine or carry out a movie cartoon.
They could operate factories, ships and planes.
A great many tasks would be performed -- up to the triple peaks of
human sensation, poetic hypothesis, and will to do -
for here, simply by definition,
the machine must fail in imitating the human.
Nothing can come from nothing.
"Spiritual machines," "transcendent minds," and "smart programs"
would be always in the last analysis frustrating
because they would need instructors,
unless they were programmed to disobey and
go to hell in their own way,
which would have to be a random procedure.
When computers were made small and simple to operate, in the
seventies, games were designed to be played upon them, ever more
complicated and active. Children became expert before their adult
guardians. Was it a law of invention: technology simulated ontology?
Computer games led to ever more sophisticated computer
networking, to multi-media audio-visual-tactile personal systems,
and to interacting computer-operator programs. Profitable
games supplied capital.
Book and magazine publishers were in part declining and in part
becoming adjunct publishers to the computer industry that demanded
its own large variety of how-to-do-it literature.
They trotted into computer publishing in steady numbers.
Floppy disk and CD-Rom disks were produced that contained
encyclopedias, reference works of many kinds, classics
of literature. The market was small but enlarging.
Sound and motion pictures were added to the
printed words on the screen.
In 1969, the University of California at Los Angeles set up Internet
as a potential mass communication medium, and
by 1995 some ten million points of contact
were set up globally. This number quickly doubled.
A system of electronic mail (E-mail)
was introduced in 1977. In 1992 the
Web was set up to carry regular pages of
news and publicity from as many thousands or
hundreds of thousands of sources as wished to communicate
with other Internet users. Modems were devised that could
transmit loads of material at pages per second
along telephone wires and wireless. A fourth of all
households assumed the charges for freely using the
Web and Internet with their modem.
The automobile took a memorial generation to develop from the
first German models of Karl Benz and Gottlieb Daimler
around 1885, and a half century from the first batch of
reliable vehicles at the beginning of the century,
to its substantially present form with the installation of the
automatic gear shift. The computer revolution seemed to be
taking the same amount of time, the latter
two-thirds of the twentieth century.
Advanced telephonics and computer technology permitted and
encouraged a trend, wherever possible, into a new decentralization and
home industry, both for employees working out of their homes and
self-employed business people operating home offices. The number of
occupational duties that could be performed by
at-home technology increased steadily. The early modern
cottage industry was returning to some importance.
Retailing was revolutionized via the Web.
At the same moment, the same inventions globalized
the nations. A three-minute phone call in 1930 from
New York to London cost almost $250.00,
in 1950 about $50, in 1998 36 cents.
Computers were faster and also cheap. Global
trading of currencies daily averaged nearly
$200 billions, in 1998 $1500 billions.
From relatively modest sums in 1970,
American foreign investments rose in a single
generation to more than double the total value of the
gross domestic product.
Computers also enabled hackers to act
fast and from far, whether to manipulate money
illegally, or to break into governmental, scientific and
corporate systems for burglary or vandalism;
Australians were arrested for U.S. burglaries from afar.
Educational establishments at all levels felt a desire and a pressure to
teach their old or new students from one center to as many terminals
as possible located in residences or offices. Rapidly educators were
learning that the student equipped with the proper software systems
for data-processing could be better-off than if captive
in the classroom. The use of electronic bulletin boards allowed
students (and any other kind of group in the world including hackers
and criminals and terrorists) to communicate collectively.
There was no way of telling, however, what would be the long range
effects of students not meeting with fellow students or meeting with
them only rarely. Certainly the new systems would be much superior
to the simple post-office correspondence courses that were already
teaching students by the millions in the 1950's.
If higher education consisted solely of attending a few lectures a week,
then the universities should disappear except for laboratory functions:
even their vast libraries were becoming available to computer
screens of the wide world. Or perhaps to sponsor
clubs for companionate learning.
Pirating software was a universal business, reminding us of
the beginnings of American commerce and industry.
Now the U.S. was the principal "victim", allegedly
losing almost $3 billions annually in 1994,
with Japan as runner-up at $2 billions. The USians were
last of ten top robber states with only a third of its
software consisting of stolen goods from abroad,
whereas China, number one, operated 98% on stolen software.
Of course, domestically, Americans stole from one another
seemingly without limit, but in fact not enough to
disable an industrial environment that was producing
millionaires by the hundreds and helping,
through their misconduct, to build an ever-larger market,
including general education, for all.
Without such gross violations of copyright
everywhere in the world the development of the
computer industry and its ramifications into every aspect of life
would be much reduced. Moreover, national statistics
(and the effects which they represent) are considerably reduced by
the internationalization of computerdom and therefore of piracy.
As with crime, disease, arms, science, popular and sophisticated culture,
communications, demography, and so on,
one country's problem was also another's.
They all made up a world organism, lacking a head.
Yet the question: would a head be intelligent?
In competition with the military for trained personnel, funds, and
projects, the National Space Agency was formed in 1958, a year
after the Soviets had surprised the world by sending a dog orbiting
high around the Earth. Americans went into a frenzy of construction
and placed men on the Moon sooner than anybody. NASA's annual
budget for a quarter of a century ranged between three and five
billion dollars, save for one year when replacing its lost shuttle.
A civilian organization for space exploration and investigation, it
directed itself excessively toward getting men to operate in space,
did get astronauts onto the Moon, suffered the grave Challenger
explosion in 1986, that killed its crew - a year was lost in morale
crises and critical examinations and advancing safety devices. NASA
then continued to spend large portions of its budget on the possible
exploration and colonization of Mars.
Its voyages to the planets were majestic, if little vehicles propelled and
signaling by flashlight batteries could be so honored. The astronomical
information obtained from interplanetary space probes was sufficient
to nullify a number of prominent theories of the preceding age, having
to do with such matters as the temperature of Venus
and other planets, and the large differences in the character
of the many moons of the Solar system.
Astro-physics, geology, and meteorology
quantavoluted as well as astronomy.
The next great project, that should last forever, thought NASA
planners, who suddenly became neo-catastrophist or
quantavolutionary in search of functions, would be to prepare for
the detection and destruction of bodies approaching Earth from outer
space, such as extincted the dinosaurs. If, as newly accumulating
evidence indicates, there have occurred similar catastrophic episodes
since the cretaceous extinctions, even perhaps as late as a couple of
thousand years ago, the fears of a comet or meteoroid intruder are
not baseless, and a world defense agency would be justified.
NASA could be conceived of as a vast government-owned farm and its
large budget as a subsidy for a variety of industries and the military,
also a TV show for the public. It has received as much for these tasks
as all the farmers received together.
Still, there are closer analogies to
agricultural subsidies in the funding provided to many projects and many
businesses by the federal government. Too, many states and localities
subsidized businesses, in many ways.
The ideas behind these subsidies expanded imaginatively from the
original business loan programs of the Hoover administration's
Reconstruction Finance Corporation. Helping minority businessmen
who faced discrimination, by means of easier and guaranteed loans
and counseling about how to get started, was another idea. Like all
affirmative action programs, its opposition came understandably
from non-minority small businessmen who were teetering
perpetually on the edge of bankruptcy.
Rarely you heard: "Well then, help everybody!"
Resembling this program was a $400 millions annual program to
develop new technologies, benefitting almost entirely
giant companies in the first instance. An operation called Sematech
in the semiconductor field benefitted a dozen large companies
of "Silicon Valley," California to the extent of
$100 millions annually.
Electric facilities for rural areas were part of the New Deal
program, and grew to two billion dollars annually to cover all
possible electrical needs of the poorer sections of the country until
those sections in many cases were self-supporting, including resorts
for the rich in Aspen, Colorado, and elsewhere.
America's ocean-going merchant ships declined in number from
over 2000 in the 1940's to 850 in 1970 and 320 in 1945. Only one
in eleven seafaring jobs remained. Throughout this time the industry
of ship-building and operation swilled among subsidies of credits,
loans, tax easements, and grants. The rationalization was that the
boats would be needed in times of emergency, notwithstanding that
the U.S. Defense establishment had spent billions all along to
maintain a wartime specialized carrying capacity.
Some $110 millions annually went
to promoting American products abroad, including
Pillsbury muffins and American Legend mink coats.
Ethanol, the fuel from corn, which presently takes more energy
to produce per gallon than it delivers, has benefitted its corporate
developers by at least $500 millions in tax exemptions and
rebates. In 1994, the Clinton administration sought for research and
development $333 millions for American car companies whose profits
for the year netted near $14 billions.
Altogether 125 such subsidized programs cost $85 billions per year.
They were four times the agricultural subsidies; various tax breaks
raised the subsidy total farther to an estimated $100 billions.
But tariffs, usually called "protective," are also a giant subsidy of
particular industries; we have indicated that from the beginning of the
nation, the protective tariff has been taken as a means of taxing
consumers to help enterprising businessmen engage in manufactures.
Naturally they would hire workers, and logically it followed that the
workers were beneficiaries of the tariff. And, when the workers
obtained the vote, they were continuously reminded that
protective tariffs protected their jobs.
So they, too, supported tariffs.
We have mentioned also how the tariff issue has plagued
American politics from beginning to end, a flagrant example of
how a nation can waste its political energies in quarreling
ignorantly without end. Endless is what it has been.
In 1995 American consumers were spending $12 billions
extra annually because of the price lifts that tariffs inflicted
on goods entering the country.
The world price for raw sugar was then half the U.S. domestic price, but
restrictive quotas, backed by price supports, prevented enough imports
to bring down the price. The more expensive sugar cost the
consumers, commercial and individual, $3 billions a year. The
Archer-Daniels-Midland corn sweetener
company sold its product for enough to make a profit
of nearly $300 millions annually. Thus
every dollar of its profit cost the U.S. taxpayer about $10, or at
least some large part of this sum.
Some jobs were saved as a result of tariffs and subsidies
of one kind or another, but considering how few these were
in the total picture of spending, it developed
that tariffs cost consumers $170,000 a year per job saved.
Obviously the worker whose job was saved got
only a small fraction of the sum, and the owners of the industries
involved appropriated most of the rest.
A worst case scenario was conveyed by the luggage industry, with
7,500 workers earning $6.91 per hour. The 16.5% custom duty on
imported luggage saved an estimated 226 jobs, at a cost to
consumers per job of $934,000.00, which, after subtracting the tariff
revenue, and the unemployment payments and welfare to be paid to
the workers, would still amount to
$115,000 net loss per worker to the nation.
(Note that these costs would disappear with the transfer of the
workers to other jobs and industries or ways of life;
still, not alone here, but nearly everywhere,
unemployment occurred in these decades,
government performed ineffectively,
and the owners inadequately and indifferently,
in assisting affected workers.)
Remarkably, in a nation whose environment was deteriorating faster
than compensations could be introduced,
the real wages of all except the rich were going down,
first among the underclass, the illegal
immigrants, the unskilled and the uneducated workers,
then the more skilled, the high school graduates and finally
the male college graduates, who lost 3% in real wages
between 1979 and 1995. This
last decline was less significant in the light of the
17% loss in the real wages of male high school graduates.
Also the pay of college-educated women went up 15%,
as a result of pressures for equal wages.
(No contradiction exists between deploring the decline in
real wages in the US and elsewhere, on the one hand, and
proposing universal economic plans that would seemingly
reduce wages greatly. Many factors compose a
real wage, a wage, too, that will provide
a superior way of life, and this is what I meant to say,
a few pages back, can be done with a lower per capita wage.)
The three quarters of the work force suffering stagnant
or declining wages bode ill for the succeeding decades
and for the next bio-generation. Nor does the future
appear to be replete in new kinds of jobs: only 140,000 jobs
were estimated to be forthcoming between 1995 and 2005.
Of these, half would require only a high school education,
but none would pay a minimal budget for an adult and two children.
The competition for the jobs of skill would be as tough
as for the unskilled, for far too many
college students would be seeking them.
Gabbing about, and providing, ill-aimed retraining opportunities
were not slowing the long-term retreating tide.
Who knew what occupations these millions of workers
might well be trained for, and whoever could be at all confident
that a retraining program, no matter how vast,
would work, when the public education system of
the nation as a whole was exposed, in one study after another,
to be minimally effective.