Writing about the future generally takes two forms, prediction and prescription. The first is more or less prophetic: we are told what’s in the cards, with warnings to get ready. There may be some choices at the margins of what is to come, but the major moving forces are already underway. Writers have always differed on those basic causes. Some emphasize technology, others an exploding population or new class configurations or an idea whose time has come. Or even the unfolding of a grand cosmic plan. “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes…. The world is heading toward a holocaust.” So predicts Hal Lindsey in The 1980’s: Countdown to Armageddon. He suggests we keep our sea lanes open, bring back capital punishment, and pray that our sins be forgiven. Even if the future is immutable, we are still free to forecast what we think is coming. In that sense, each effort at prediction reflects some current mood.
The prescriptive mode is more familiar. We are told a better world is possible; it is up to us to bring it about. The time span may be modest, settling for solving specific problems in the decade that lies ahead. Thus a report commissioned by President Carter, A National Agenda for the Eighties, recommends “relocation assistance efforts designed to link people with economic opportunity, wherever that opportunity might be.” Instead of trying to resuscitate “the older industrial cities,” government should give “large segments of the urban lower classes” bus tickets to the Sun Belt. Other prescriptive texts take a long view, urging underlying changes in the way we lead our lives. Kirkpatrick Sale’s Human Scale asks us to let our imaginations soar in the hope we see that living in small groups is better than living in large ones; he prefers to leave for later details of ways and means.
Whether predictive or prescriptive, all works about the future entertain a vision of how life should be pursued. Thus Life After ’80 (“A Solar Lobby/Center for Renewable Resources Book”) warns we must “re-establish man’s right relation with nature,” which means attuning what we do to what the earth can take. (“In this book, nature is discussed in terms of givens and social options as the variables.”) And those who, like Alvin Toffler, say the future is pretty much decided imply that from our adaptations will emerge a new morality. Unfortunately these and other assumptions are not always made explicit. At issue are conceptions of the good life and the good society, phrases which for all their antediluvian flavor refer to goals that never go away. Perhaps the best place to begin is with two recent volumes proposing programs for the Eighties. One shows that there may be more to the conservative future than its proponents wish to say, whereas with the liberal vision the contrary is the case.
The Hoover Institution was set up at Stanford University in 1919 to study the Russian Revolution and ensure that something similar would never happen here. In recent years it has expanded its activities, conducting research for a range of conservative causes. Thanks to its California base it became an early adjunct to Ronald Reagan’s career. The United States in the 1980s can thus be read as a ten-year plan for his presidency and beyond. Its thirty-three contributors include expected figures like Milton Friedman and Edward Teller, as well as Martin Anderson, now of the White House staff, and Murray Weidenbaum, the new chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, whose advice will have a hearing in administration circles.
What they propose, to put it simply, is that capitalism be given a chance to show what it can do. If tax rates for the affluent are cut to the barest minimum, we will see investment rise and with it higher productivity, full employment, and prices kept in line by vigorous competition. What will bring all this about is not so much specific measures from government as unleashing energies which lie latent in America’s entrepreneurs. The Hoover volume opens with the (“reputed”) statement of Thomas Jefferson about how the best government governs least. In fact, its position is stalwartly Hamiltonian, although the father of American capitalism is not mentioned once in its 868 pages.
The Hoover authors would have business regain its pride of place among the nation’s institutions, with those at its helm our foremost citizens. Others will understand that business must have a generous latitude to serve us at its best, and that competition rather than controls can give the country what it wants. “The price mechanism,” the editors tell us, “is the most efficient means by which to prevent environmental deterioration.” It is also in business’s self-interest to ensure the safety of its personnel and products.
The phrase that recurs throughout The United States in the 1980s is “individual freedom.” This is not construed as the right to stage a demonstration or make a seditious speech. Rather it means the freedom to make as much money as you can, to keep virtually the entire amount, to spend it as you choose, and run your business as you will. One consequence may be that the rich will get even richer. However this will benefit society, for dollars accruing to the well-to-do end up invested in economic ventures.
The Hoover authors acknowledge that with disparities in income not everyone will be able to afford the best that money can buy. One failing of social legislation is that it provides high quality services for far too many people at extravagant public cost. The chapter on health care would curb government programs and allow the free market to provide “substitution for physicians and dentists by less expensively trained personnel.” With this option, “consumers who wish to purchase less expensive and less quality care can do so.”
But won’t this lead to disaffection by citizens forced to settle for service of lesser quality, like dental treatment without anesthesia? Not necessarily. With the infusion of the capitalist spirit, they will realize that by hard work they can raise their incomes and afford a fully accredited oral surgeon. And with the return of the capitalist ethic, thrift will reemerge as a moral trait: we will “save more than we spend, work more than we play.” People will put aside substantial portions of their wages, to build up personal portfolios or even enough capital to start enterprises of their own. Not only will such saving fuel investment, but each person will have a sizable nest egg at the close of his career. So Social Security can be phased out; or, put the Hoover way, if the benefits aren’t there people will have to make their own pension plans. (“There are valid reasons for requiring individuals to provide, during their working years, for their own retirement.”)
The prescription for “less play” is not amplified, which is something of a letdown. If we have been enjoying ourselves overmuch, it would be nice to know just when and where. The only hint is the editors’ warning that we will have to become more “puritanical” if the nation is to survive. This may suggest why economic conservatives so often oppose abortion. Having that recourse available gives a go-ahead for sex. With abortion outlawed, sex will be less carefree, and energies may return to more productive channels. Like work.
Indeed, the Hoover Eighties will discover that most Americans can work, and will do so if the alternatives are withdrawn. The solution to the welfare problem is to limit payments to the genuinely disabled. Martin Anderson, now close to the Oval Office as Reagan’s domestic policy adviser, is candid on this score:
Our welfare programs should be guided by the simple principle that a person gets welfare only if he or she qualifies for it by the fact of being incapable of self-support. If they don’t qualify, they should be given reasonable notice and then removed from the rolls.
Anderson realizes as well as anyone else that the typical welfare recipient is a woman living alone with one or more young children. To the question, can she support her household on her own, he answers, of course. It may not be easy; but it certainly can be done. Many mothers are doing this right now. Some refuse to apply for welfare because of pride and moral fiber. Others have to work because they live in parts of the country where welfare is hard to get. The implication of the Hoover report is that most women now on welfare should take low-paying jobs: for example, in domestic service, leaving their children with relatives or friends. (The Hoover program does not include day care, doubtless because most such centers require public subsidies.)
Moreover, with the minimum wage abolished, teenage children would get part-time jobs and augment the family larder. Instead of a dependent population, we would have a low-income stratum, out of which energetic individuals would have a chance to rise. Neither Anderson nor the other Hoover authors seem fearful that persons deprived of welfare may turn restive or rebellious. Citizens gainfully employed do not threaten the public order.
Why all the concern over purging the welfare rolls? The 3.6 million mothers receiving stipends are not a huge economic drain. But money is not the major issue. Rather, the welfare mother exemplifies what has gone wrong with our system. In allotting her an allowance, we make leisure legitimate, with no penalty or shame. The welfare mother is also symbolic in another, nagging way. She has engaged in carnal pleasure and makes others pay the bills. Clearly, all those children came from sexual abandon, a luxury denied to other citizens who shoulder the world’s work.
Interestingly, missing from the Hoover volume is any sign of interest in government itself. Bureaucratic controls are deplored, as is ineptitude and waste. However there are no calls for structural reform, no plans for imparting rationality to governmental operations. American capitalism not only espouses a limited state but also has an interest in official inefficiency. Thus while incompetence is condemned, remedies might be even worse, especially if they worked. For it might then emerge that government has some capacity for solving social problems.
Nor do the Hoover authors propose that the state take on a coordinating role for the capitalist economy. It will do such things as are required to encourage business confidence. But most such acts are construed as administratively simple, like regulating the money supply; or, even simpler, removing regulations.1 American capitalism still mistrusts a rational state, even one dedicated to profits and prosperity. So it prefers to send in teams of businessmen to straighten out departments, rather than hope for a career civil service on which it can depend. Indeed, the business community in the United States has never wanted a public service on the European or Japanese model. In the Hamiltonian tradition, the Hoover authors reject a reliance on reason, which turns easily to perversity. In the end, it is courage and confidence that give capitalism its success, using ambition and self-interest to enlarge a nation’s wealth.
However there is one place where government must act strongly. The United States in the 1980s wants the nation to regain its primacy as “the dominant military power in the world.” America should once more show it has “the vision to act like a great power,” including a willingness and “ability to fight an extended war.” There follows a shopping list of armaments: rockets, nuclear submarines, antisatellite technology, along with chemical and biological warfare, plus the neutron bomb and cruise missile and the MX system.2
Yet even with this inventory, the editors warn, “we need to understand and accept the limits of American power.” This counsel comes as something of a surprise, given our possession of the world’s foremost arsenal. Still the plea has its point. The stress on high-technology weapons suggests some doubts about our conventional capacities. The lesson learned in Vietnam was our inability to defeat an enemy established in its own terrain. The only Hoover allusion to localized engagements is a “heavily armed, mobile force of 110,000 men capable of flying to any trouble spot.” But if the spot in question happens to be Angola, not to say Afghanistan or Iran, 110,000 men no matter how heavily armed or mobile may not do the trick. (After all, for a long time we had 500,000 men in Vietnam.)
This leads to the question of whether we will be able in the Eighties to raise an army, conscript or volunteer, to fight on foreign ground. All talk of “manpower” centers on our soldiers’ lack of literacy or simple technical skills. Operating manuals for million-dollar weapons are now put out in comic book form. But this still assumes that weaponry wins wars. More to the point is where we will find soldiers to go that extra mile in a jungle far from home. Nor can it be assumed that Americans at home will support such interventions once they show signs of bogging down.
So for all its martial airs, the Hoover volume does not ask us to prepare for localized adventures. When we assess its overall strategy, it looks a lot like a plan for a Fortress America, which trusts that brandishing our equipment will persuade the Soviets we mean business. That will probably deter them from rolling into Western Europe, assuming that after all these years they still harbor that intention. But they might conclude they could make some smaller moves without an ultimate response from us, especially if that response is the only one we have. If our only option is Armageddon, we just might make it through the Eighties and come out intact.
The Brookings Institution has quasi-public status, especially as an adviser to Democratic administrations. It too has come out with a collection of essays for the Eighties, perhaps anticipating that its party is in for a lengthy exile. As an agenda for a decade, Setting National Priorities makes depressing reading. Even its lists of proposals seem copied from past years’ file cards. (“In periods of high employment the federal budget should be balanced.” “Increase training programs for hard-to-employ youths.” “Expand remedial education for teenagers lacking basic skills.”) To the charge that these programs have been tried, with less than heartening success, the Brookings reply is that the fault lies not in the ideas but that agencies administering them never got enough resources. Rather than give up on government, we should strengthen its support.
Whereas the Hoover Institution puts its faith in the profit motive and the energies it inspires, Brookings looks to public service professionals and their special skills. During the Eighties we should develop “better data and analysis,” “frameworks for setting standards,” “coordination among agencies,” and “balance between desirable social goals.” If these sound like topics for a seminar, the analogy is apt. Brookings styles itself a graduate school for the administrative state. And if its underlying ideology has utilitarian roots, the American application of its viewpoint began with the New Deal and reached its height in the Great Society. Government should be the rational arm of society, staffed by committed experts who can take a longer view.
Of course, politics has always been a problem for such people. Special interests feel entitled to a say, even if it means undermining serious programs. The parties no longer play a useful role. Moreover the public misconceives its function, making it even harder for government to provide effective services. Brookings proposes a series of changes to align politics with administrative needs. In a closing chapter on “The Crisis of Competence in Government,” James Sundquist suggests that “the United States government can be made to work” if the rest of us mend our ways.
To start, each party should formulate “a program to address the central problems that concern the people.” After that, voters should give one of those parties “a mandate to lead the country in an indicated direction.” This can be accomplished if citizens cast ballots on a straight-ticket basis, so that the winning party controls the presidency and both chambers of the Congress. At the same time, states should give up their presidential primaries, allowing the candidates to be chosen at conventions where responsible party leaders have the final say.
In the same spirit, members of the Congress will pledge loyalty to their leaders and of course their president. What now passes for “independence” only strengthens special interests, which prey on disarray. Lawmakers pledged to a party program can stand up to lobbyists and, for that matter, constituents bent on local favors. To ensure professionalism at the executive level, Sundquist proposes a “corps of career governmental administrators who would be politically neutral, serving with equal loyalty whichever party came to power.” And the public, appreciative of the competence in this system, would agree to hold its peace in the times between elections.
This prescription derives from the British model, beloved of political science textbooks. Party discipline in Westminster permits the government to govern, while Whitehall’s civil servants serve with skill and continuity. The usual explanation why a similar system never emerged here is that. America is too large and diverse for so centralized a structure. In fact, the reason has little to do with size and is more a matter of character. Americans simply do not like being governed. Deference to authority has never been a national trait. Even immigrants off the boat soon learned to sneer at experts and others holding office. As the country had resources to spare, it could get along with a government whose demands were minimal. Moreover if citizens begin with the presumption that all acts of government are inherently illegitimate, then even minor measures seem unbearably oppressive. Walter Bagehot stressed that the British system rested on habits of acquiescence which went back to feudal times. The Brookings volume gives no reason to believe such traits will emerge here, even if conditions in the country get considerably worse.3
There are few signs, for example, that Americans are ready to be governed by a Reagan administration. If anything, I suspect, they are eager for reports of rivalries and quarrels, nodding knowingly as each proposed measure is postponed or watered down. The point is not that Reagan’s personal base is thin (no president today has a committed following) or that the press dwells on difficulties because they make a better story. Rather it is because the Reagan government (not that we call it that, as we do with Mrs. Thatcher’s) is viewed as an entity apart, so that even those who voted for it feel it within their rights to put obstacles in its way. Simply stated, Americans have never wanted leadership if it requires from them acquiescence to being led.
But no matter how his program fares, in one matter Reagan’s ideology has registered a success. Since his first campaign in California he has done much to persuade most Americans that government simply lacks the capacity for competent performance. This is the most telling of his attacks on the administrative state, especially its Brookings model which assumes that from public policy can come a frame for a more rational society. This has been the basis of the administrative-academic alliance, with its fondness for research. Reagan’s response has been that we will never know enough to put things right. At best, government can offer some incentives or discouragements and hope that they will work: free the rich from taxes and perhaps they will invest; restore the electric chair and killers may think twice; ban abortions and maybe we won’t see so much sex. Not surprisingly, some of Reagan’s deepest budget cuts were on the National Science Foundation’s social science wing. Why waste public money sustaining an illusion?
Kirkpatrick Sale lists the afflictions that beset our time: “loneliness, powerlessness, insecurity, anxiety, anomie, boredom, bewilderment, alienation, rudeness, suicide, mental illness, alcoholism, drug usage, divorce, violence, sexual dysfunction.” Another list—he has many—mentions Three Mile Island, Hustler, and the square tomato. A poll reveals 53 percent agreeing that “something is deeply wrong with America.” And what is wrong, Sale says, is that we allow too much to happen, events rush by too fast, we are called upon to take in more than we can absorb. Most critical of all, we have let the world grow too large for what the human body can bear. If we wish mental and moral health, we must return to circumscribed lives, consonant with our capacities. So Human Scale proposes
dismantling all the large-scale systems that one way or another have created or perpetuated our current crises, and their replacement by smaller, more controllable, more efficient, people-sized units, rooted in local circumstances and guided by local situations.
Like Jefferson and Rousseau, Sale would have us living in settings
of such a size as can be comprehended by a single individual, known at least by acquaintance by all others, where the problems of life are thus kept to manageable proportions, and security is the natural outcome of association.
On this reckoning, no community will number more than several hundred people. Sale feels such a life can be fully satisfying. On the material side, local workshops will fill our immediate needs, and communities will keep in touch with one another by exchanging products and ideas. Simplicity need not be stultifying. Even in a small village, variety will flourish if its inhabitants are encouraged to develop all their faculties. Indeed, only in a small-scale settings can humanity be whole. So we will see, Sale says, the “ascendance of womanly virtues: spontaneity, permissiveness, sexuality, emotion, softness, cooperation, lovingness.”
Sale bases his prescription on a biological premise. The human constitution can stand only so much strain. Past a certain point, crowding and complexity begin to take a toll. The effects are more than physical: mental health deteriorates and moral standards falter. The problem is that our species, unlike others, will not acknowledge its limits in the social sphere. Ants keep the hills they build to proportions they can manage. Human beings, unhappily, have lost touch with their instincts. Hence the all too common assumption that we can adapt to whatever we create. This overreaching attitude, in Sale’s view, underlies the faith in technological progress. Synthetic fuels and genetic splicing are seen as challenges to our ingenuity; so is living with nuclear fission and a chemical-laden climate. Sale calls all this the “techno-fix” mentality; if progress brings more problems, then cure them with more progress. He could have carried the argument further, for it is one that has been with us since Prometheus played with fire.
For the metaphysic of technology, mankind’s mission is to improve on nature, transmuting what we find by means of our intelligence. We can curb flood, famine, and disease, building an ever better life from the elements around us. Technology liberates humanity by expanding opportunities. Nature awaits to be developed; our battle for its bounty has only just begun.
To all this Sale, and those sharing his view, must reply that human interventions have reached the point where nature is so violated that it is itself in peril. It is not enough to say that pesticides, for example, can upset a natural balance. Nature is never in equilibrium, and upheavals wrought this planet prior to man’s arrival. It must be argued, rather, that we are causing changes as no species ever has; and if we do not stop our surroundings will rebel. Fluorocarbon sprays could so damage the ozone layer as to make this continent a desert. Acid rain can turn the weather against us in ways impervious to control. So the case against technology must be that we are not as clever as we think. The sciences man creates are no better than his intellect, at best a bounded instrument, never made to master the natural world. Mount St. Helens may have been sending us a message. Others may be on the way.
Sale is also anti-city. Once in our rural renaissance, we will “not have need for cities bulging with two, three, or seven million people.” For several thousand years, cities have been luring people from the land. Of course much of this migration was not a matter of choice, but resulted from crop failures, changes in land tenure, and less need for rural labor. Even so, there have always been people who, once there, found urban life to their liking. Persons of all classes have spent their entire lives in cities and would not have it any other way. The pleasures surpass the problems in their personal calculations. So when Sale says we will not “need” cities, he seems to be suggesting that while several million people claim they actually like being pushed against one another, efforts should be made to persuade them to another, better way.
Human Scale calls to mind Jefferson, who called cities “pestilential to the morals, the health, and liberties of man.” The charge, in Jefferson’s time as now, is that many city-dwellers fail to realize how their health and morals have undergone erosion. What passes for urban tolerance, for example, may reveal a weakening of character. Sale really ought to say whether his down-scaled world will disperse cities for their residents’ own good. A perennial problem for Utopias is what to do with citizens who seem bent on harming themselves. Rousseau at least grasped this nettle: those who remain misguided will have “to be forced to be free.”
In one unintended way, Human Scale makes a very convincing case. The book weighs in at 558 pages, bulging with quotations and statistics, summaries of studies and paragraph-long lists. Some readers may feel they lack the stamina for a book of this scale. Yet it may be that Sale feels he needs all these facts and figures to reach his audience, who would dismiss a terser essay as much too simple-minded. If that is the case, it shows we have become captive to the premises of an overscaled society: that in a world grown so complex, analysis must be elaborate to offer comprehension. That is why the social sciences have evolved in tandem with contemporary technology. If the latter can be checked, then the former can fade away.
The most sanguine views of the future pin their faith on new technologies. This in itself is not new. The machines of the nineteenth century also brought predictions of amazing things to come. Indeed, technology has always attracted camp followers ready to announce how much better life will be once the next phase is in place. Alvin Toffler’s The Third Wave, a bestseller last year and now out in paperback, bids us welcome the inevitable: semiconductors and petrochemicals and biological engineering. His chapter headings herald what’s in store: “Enhancing the Brain,” “The Electronic Expanded Family,” “The Rise of the Prosumer,” “The Decisional Implosion.” Of course there will be transitional pains and problems to be solved. But we will be smarter and more creative, experiencing freedoms and enjoyments never known before.
With computer terminals in every home, we can order products to our taste (“prosuming”), register opinions on public issues (“electronic town meetings”), and expand our circles of friends. Society will be “demassified,” owing to “imaginative new arrangements for accommodating and legitimating diversity,” along with “new institutions that are sensitive to the rapidly shifting needs of changing and multiplying minorities.” We will have individuality and community, participation and consensus, not to mention, “new grain varieties which produce higher yields per acre on non-irrigated land.”
How seriously should all this be taken? Toffler finds space for every prediction and projection he could lay his hands on. Anyone who calls himself a “futurist” gets a solemn, uncritical hearing, from Jagdish Kapur, who runs an experimental “solar farm” on the outskirts of New Delhi, to Randy Goldfield of Booz-Allen and Hamilton, who sees secretaries rising to “para-principals” with the phasing out of typewriters.
The issue is not whether the new technologies are coming: they are already in our midst. Thus banks can transfer funds electronically, just as libraries are shifting their card catalogues onto computer tapes. Hardly a day goes by without reports on the latest industrial robots and nuclear-based medical miracles. My own favorite is a software system called HACKER, described in The Microelectronics Revolution, which
writes programs to perform such tasks as stacking bricks in specified ways, and is able to correct its own mistakes—and to avoid similar mistakes in future tasks of a generally similar nature—by way of its understanding of the purposive structure of task and program alike.
Toffler’s delineation of the future shares the same general assumptions as Daniel Bell’s “post-industrial society” and Zbigniew Brzezinski’s “technetronic era.” Certainly few will disagree that in a growing number of societies manufacturing no longer plays the dominant part in providing employment. The question is whether post-industrial technologies will turn out to be the central characteristic of the world we are to see. For these process require a certain set of conditions to carry out their promise. The first which may be mentioned is that a sufficient number of people must accept the new technologies as compatible if not congenial as adjuncts to their lives. On the whole this will probably happen. As modes of production have developed throughout history, people have adapted to their presence. Whereas students once wrote essays, they now attune their minds to machine-graded examinations. For earlier generations of family doctors, diagnosis was largely intuitive; today’s physicians tend to see their patients as reflections of the printout. Consumers accept their food in frozen form, if they even know the difference, and many actually prefer their music mediated by electronic means.
But we will only really be ready for a technetronic era if we agree to see ourselves in ways compatible with the new productive modes. Herbert Simon, in The Microelectronics Revolution, suggests the time is ripe for just this step. Her writes:
Perhaps the greatest significance of the computer and the progress in artificial intelligence lies in its impact on man’s view of himself…. The elementary information processes underlying human thinking are essentially the same as the computer’s elementary information processes.
Simon, a recent winner of the Nobel Prize in economics, truly believes this, which means that he—and others who accept this analogy—will make apt citizens of a post-industrial age. Needless to say, the notion that both computers and human thinking involve “essentially” similar process is a view specific to our time, and only comes about because we have built computers and put them into use. Doubtless the Phoenicians believed that the best model for the mind could be found by watching how their triremes rode the waves.
Daniel Bell, another contributor to The Microelectronics Revolution, charts a country’s post-industrial progress by the number of occupations involving verbal symbols. Bell calculates that by 1980 the United States had become an “information society” in that 51.3 percent of its “experienced civilian workforce” consisted of “information workers.” To get up to this figure one must include a lot of people, such as telephone operators who provide you with a number. (Or tell you that it is unlisted, which is at least the information that you cannot have it.) A smaller group, says Bell, consists of “knowledge elites,” who produce and codify knowledge which ranks as theoretical. Indeed, what they do is what makes the system work:
The axial principle of the post-industrial society is the centrality of theoretical knowledge and its new role, when codified, as the director of social change.
As time proceeds, the combined labors of “information workers” and “knowledge elites” will engender an “information explosion,” which is already underway. This growth can be measured in many ways; for example, the exponential increase in scientific journals.
Because of this, Bell tells us, “the information explosion can only be handled through the expansion of computerized and subsequently automated information systems.” What he is also saying is that knowledge of the future will have to be in forms suited to computers. It follows that knowledge, to rank as such, should have a mathematical dimension. Bell’s own phrasings reflect this disposition: “A Knowledge Theory of Value,” “The Statistics of Language,” “The Measurement of Knowledge.” With information rendered into data, and theories expressed as models, knowledge takes on a form required by the new technologies: “By letting us know the risks and probabilities, the computer has become a powerful tool for exploring the permutations and combinations of different choices by calculating their odds of success or failure.” The “knowledge elites” of an “information society” will be ready, as “directors of social change,” to instill a greater measure of rationality into the human enterprise. Harvard University, ever in the vanguard, has updated its curriculum to require a computer course of every undergraduate.
Bell apparently agrees with Toffler (“enhancing the brain”) that we will be smarter in the future, both in our individual capacities and organized pursuits. (Throughout the 1970s scholastic aptitude scores actually fell, but this trend, we are asked to believe, will be reversed as students learn how computers, which grade their tests, conceive of problems.) Since at least the Enlightenment we have been told that as reason replaces superstition, and analysis emotion, more of our world will be amenable to control. That hope is closer to being realized because the technologies we create now augment intelligence. Or so we are being told; the evidence, after all, is all around us: more people are living longer, two grains of wheat grow where one did earlier; and it is only a matter of time before we find safe ways to dispose of radioactive wastes.
One reply to such expectations is that they are not coming true. “College achievement test scores,” the MIT economist Lester Thurow writes, “have been falling for more than a decade. At every grade level, Japanese children outscore US children in mathematics. Among graduates of big-city school systems, functional illiteracy is so common it is not clear where tomorrow’s work force will come from.” 4 But the more traditional response to such predictions has been that each advance brings new dislocations; if our understanding increases, so do our discontents. Such a view either regards human capacities as finite (Edmund Burke) or holds that we will break the cycle only when technology ceases serving as an arm of exploitation (Karl Marx). As matters now stand, the new machines and processes require protected settings. That is, they function well enough in factories and offices, which are organizationally enclosed. The same presumption applies for private households which can purchase space-age appliances for their kitchens and playrooms. However outside these enclosures stand whole segments of society—both at home and abroad—who benefit hardly at all from this electronic bounty.
Right now it is apparent that considerable parts of the population are not being absorbed into the economy, either as workers or consumers, in a meaningful way. The most recent figures (for 1979) show that America’s productive system could create only 63.4 million full-time jobs, and of these 17.6 million—largely held by women—paid less than $10,000.5 Alongside those currently listed as unemployed is an even larger number not counted on those rolls who will go through life never knowing steady work at decent pay. Not the least reason for this shortage of employment is that of the $1.3 trillion available (in 1979) for wages and salaries, a disproportionate share goes to middle-class “information workers,” which means less payroll money to give other people work.6
The result, as we know, is that those excluded from employment can make life quite uncomfortable for those who are inside. Whether called an “underclass” or by any other name, this group shows no sign of diminishing in size, let alone disappearing. Yet somehow they do not figure in forecasts of the future, except for ritual remarks that poverty can be abolished if we follow one prescription or another.
In this connection it is worth nothing a term which entered everyday language at the outset of the Eighties. “Terrorism” has become the foreign counterpart of crime in the streets at home. Both are condemned as wanton violence, undermining social order. Both can also be viewed as acts of desperation, brought on by sustained exclusion.
If the future is to be built on finely tuned technologies, it will also need protection against violence in various forms. One reason corporations have been moving to the suburbs is that their “information workers” are less likely to be mugged, there when leaving after nightfall. Front-page coverage of hijacking attests to anxieties over how easily a few men with machine guns can capture a jetliner. (Next time will it be the computer consoles that control our basic grids?) In a similar sense, El Salvador’s insurgents are seen as threatening forms of organization on which a continent depends.
The most pressing issue for the future transcends liberal and conservative programs, and even what we may do to nature or with the impact of technology. Rather, given the possibility of the good life in any of its conceptions, we must wonder which of the world’s inhabitants will be allowed to share it. On this, one prediction may be safely made: those who are excluded will make their presence known, and not necessarily politely.
April 30, 1981
For a rather different view, see Business Week‘s special issue on “The Reindustrialization of America” (June 30, 1980), which ends with a call for “a new social contract” embracing business, government, and unions, to include “indicative planning that encourages growth.” ↩
While the Hoover editors quote Richard Nixon’s dictum, “We have learned that we cannot solve social problems by throwing money at them,” they see no analogy to handing money to the military. ↩
In the past, most Americans identified themselves with one of the major parties. People would say “I am a Democrat” (or a Republican) much as they would affirm being a Methodist or a Presbyterian. These loyalties have disappeared largely because citizens of today do not want it thought they are in any party’s pocket. ↩
Foreign Policy, Spring, 1981. ↩
Current Population Reports, Series P-60, No. 125, US Government Printing Office, October 1980. ↩
Such a swollen upper echelon can become a competitive disadvantage. Unlike Europe and Japan, Immanuel Wallerstein writes, “In the United States the well-to-do middle stratum is a significantly larger percentage of the total population. Hence, the social bill of the US middle class in dramatically higher.” Foreign Policy, Fall, 1980. At the same time, most industries looking toward the future are themselves technology-intensive and create little new employment. California’s “Silicon Valley”—the center of the semiconductor industry—has few if any openings for refugees from Detroit. ↩