The idea that Modernity itself might go down is inconceivable to those in thrall to the Religion of Progress, which declares that the world (and life in it) only gets better and better every year. This would appear demonstrably untrue, just in the visible damage to the landscape and the living things that struggle to dwell there.
-James Howard Kunstler
In short: If machines can compete with people in thinking, what makes us humans unique? And what will enable us to continue to create social and economic value? The answer, said Seidman, is the one thing machines will never have: “a heart.”
No wonder one of the fastest-growing U.S. franchises today is Paint Nite, which runs paint-while-drinking classes for adults. Bloomberg Businessweek explained in a 2015 story that Paint Nite “throws after-work parties for patrons who are largely lawyers, teachers and tech workers eager for a creative hobby.” The artist-teachers who work five nights a week can make $50,000 a year connecting people to their hearts.
About That “Big Fat Ugly Bubble” and its Consequences
Part 1: History Lesson
The USA ran out of growth capacity around the turn of the millennium because we ran out of affordable energy to run our techno-industrial economy. It was hard to see this with seemingly plenty of oil available. And, of course, the computer tech fiesta was blossoming, but for all that glitzy stuff to attract dwindling real capital, other old stuff had to go, and did go, and when all was said and done the computers did not generate much wealth or social value. In fact, the diminishing returns and blowback of computer tech were arguably more damaging than beneficial to society and its economy. Look at where the middle class is today. Computer tech gave the magical appearance of growth while actually undermining it.
By affordable energy I mean energy with a greater-than 30-to-one energy-return-on-investment, which is the ratio you need for the kind of life we lead. That’s what the now-ridiculed Peak Oil story was really about: not running out of oil, but not getting enough bang for our bucks pulling the remaining oil out of the earth to maintain our standard of living. I’ll return to this issue in more detail later. But that was what provoked America’s 21st century economic malaise. Everything we’ve done in finance since then has been an attempt to compensate for our fundamental problem with debt — borrowing from the future to maintain our current (unaffordable) standard of living. Our debt has grown ever larger and faster each year, and our methods for managing it have become more desperate and dishonest as that occurred.
The culprit at the center is America’s central bank, the Federal Reserve, which is actually not a government agency as it seems, but a consortium of the nation’s biggest private banks, lately known as Too-Big-To-Fail. The Fed was created in 1913, when the complexities of capital finance were multiplying in step with the complexities of industrial production, which, remember, was a new and evolving phenomenon of human history. Mankind had no prior experience with industrialism. We discovered toward the end of the 19th century — decades of unprecedented industrial growth — that the system’s dynamic produced booms accompanied by very destructive busts. The operations of banking usually outran the cycles of trade, industry, and war that were coloring evolving Modernity. So the Fed was created to smooth out these cycles. It had two basic mandates for this: acting as the lender of last resort between banks during financial panics so that some money would always be available in an emergency; and stabilizing the money supply and prices in the system. The Fed failed spectacularly to smooth out the cycles of boom and bust and to maintain the value of the dollar over time.
Sixteen years after the Fed’s creation, America entered its worst economic downturn ever, the Great Depression, which was only mitigated by the colossal abnormality of World War Two. America emerged from that episode as the last industrial society standing amid everyone else’s smoldering ruins. That gave us an extraordinary advantage in world trade lasting roughly thirty years. That high tide of the era of seeming “normality” — the 1950s and 60s, which the Trumpian-minded might recall as “great” — started unraveling in the 1970s, which was not coincidentally the moment of America’s all-time oil production peak.