Government: Engine of technological stagnation?

America's progress was meteoric, until the last quarter of the 20th Century. Why? Photo: NASA

WASHINGTON, DC, December 20, 2012 ― Fueled by irresponsibility, modern states have brought technological progress nearly to a standstill.

It is interesting that so much technological progress took place from roughly 1800 until the late 20th Century, and that the pace has slowed so precipitously since then.

The technology of George Washington’s boyhood was closer to that of Julius Caesar’s than Abraham Lincoln’s. In agriculture, transportation, architecture and communications, Caesar and Washington would have talked of incremental improvements. Caesar and Washington both would have been speechless on a railroad trip or a trans-oceanic steamship ride. They would have failed to even comprehend the telegraph.

Within mere decades of his death (and well within the lifetimes of his contemporaries), Lincoln would have thrilled at a car or airplane ride, electric light, telephone call. His reaction to space travel (or supersonic air travel), television, computers, or nuclear power (or warfare) would have been unregisterable.

But something happened between the moon walks and today. Progress, on so many cutting-edge fronts, slowed radically or stopped altogether. Technology’s costs, though, have kept rising.

Since my non-academic background is in aviation and auto racing, I’ll use some familiar examples from those disciplines.

The F-4 Phantom, introduced in the mid-1950s, was faster than today’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. The B-52 Superfortress of the same era is still a front-line warplane – even though it’s been around for more than half the history of flight.

The fastest Indianapolis 500 was run 20+ years ago. All progress in that form of racing has gone into “safety,” with the result that greater numbers of less-talented people can drive these events. This shift has changed the focus of racing from “going faster” to “costing more money,” eliminating the edge that driving talent brought to the sport. This, of course, has reduced safety, as money rather than talent has become more-instrumental in getting one into the race car’s cockpit.

In Joe Sixpack’s world, it could be noted that, 50 years after the introduction of the Model T in 1908, Joe’s family could count on a reliable 70mph trip across the country on the Interstate. Another 50 years have elapsed, and…

A 1950s Boeing 707 still holds coast-to-coast records. A 1940s-designed P-51 Mustang and F8F Bearcat still trade first place trophies at the Reno Air Races … in the Unlimited Class.

We still hold telephones up to our heads, and we still lose connections during calls. Washing machines and driers still lose socks. Modern “high-efficiency” toilets need three flushes. Modern CF light bulbs take minutes to emit their full light, and in cold weather, they don’t light up at all. Our cars still need oil changes every three months, and their politically-adulterated fuel provides less energy than that of the 1960s.

What has killed progress? Some would argue that the unholy (and somewhat unlikely) alliance of environmentalists, lawyers, and unions have brought progress to an expensive halt, and they would be largely correct; but that argument would ignore the underlying problem: that all these groups are given special treatment and a special voice by government.

Without governmental protection and encouragement, these (and corporate near-monopolists, bankers, and bureaucrats, other commonly-mentioned culprits) would not have the visibility or special sanction required to do the destruction they do.

It’s not the politicians’ fault. That’s right – you read that! Government is simply too big to be managed by anyone, no matter how well-intentioned or -informed. A leader with bad intentions, or who is in over his head, is simply worse; but no one can manage the overwhelming scope of the monster that’s eating our future.

The only solution is to somehow get a smaller governmental sector, and that will not happen until the current one collapses. If it doesn’t happen on December 22 (yeah, right!), and we don’t have a “fiscal cliff solution,” there is still no doubt that it will come when those who run things run out of other peoples’ money. Sooner rather than later; then what path do we want to take, and who will have the courage and ability to point the way?

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Tim Kern

Tim Kern taught economics for fifteen years, and discovered that understanding life is easy; it’s recognizing reality that takes practice. He holds a music degree, and later earned an MBA in finance from Northwestern University. He has lived across the US, and now makes his home in Anderson, Indiana.

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