Back to the Future

This page written circa 29 December, 2013.

In his book One Summer: America, 1927 Bryson reflects around a mass of astonishing historical snippets, likely painstakingly collected by his researcher(s), to summarise that

To a foreign visitor arriving in America in 1927, the most striking thing was how staggeringly well off it was.
or later how everything was
...a reminder that while Europe [had been] at war America [had been] at the pictures.
Forty-two percent of the world's production and half of the world's gold was to be found in the USA. Consumer durables ruled. Bryson reels off a battery of facts and figures in some attempt to put the magnificence in context. He considered the Twentieth Century Limited running between NY and Chicago to be the most opulent train service, offering barber, hairdresser, bathrooms with hot baths, laundry facilities, an observation car with complimentary stationary, and a stenographer.

The Great Depression notwithstanding, Americans in the 1940s could be forgiven for forgetting that there was again war in Europe. In her autobiography No Bed of Roses, Joan Fontaine describes the magnificence of crossing the USA by train about that time:

As the long black train snaked eastward over the Rockies, fresh Colorado trout would be boarded, then crisp Utah celery, next grouse and pheasant from the western plains. The uniformed dining-car steward would tip you off in advance---stowing away the best of the delicacies, so he implied, until you appeared in the dining car. Here silver cutlery danced on starched white table cloths. Napkins as large as newspapers would slip off your lap at each bump in the roadbed. Bud vases containing a rose or two stood sentry on each table. Genial waiters balanced laden trays on outstretched arms. Wineglasses tinkled against the silver as you looked out of the steamy window. Lights from tank towns flashed by during the meal, then sudden darkness until moonlight revealed snow-capped mountains or a shining desert floor. [In spontaneous parties] camaraderie and good cheer would follow as porters passed frosty glasses to eager hands over the heads of the sardine pack.

Fontaine's book feels as if it depicts many aspects of her life more like its egotist author would like them to have been, rather than how they probably were. Her first ex-husband felt that her book would be more appropriately titled "No Shred of Truth", but it holds a few lessons, as should any good work, fiction or otherwise. On the moral front it makes wonderful history, echoing the theme of Four Weddings and a Funeral, on the benefits of not getting married, something Joan discovers through a program of action research (that's the glamorous Ed Biz term for what you might know as "trial-and-error", or what engineers call "sucking-it-and-seeing").

Historical works dwell on the enchanting parts. All of the above came before antibiotics, space flight, microwave ovens, TV, computers, and cellular phones. All of those were in place by the 1980s, and by the 1990s, the internet and cheap electronics. Do you get the feeling that something has gone wrong today? The only recent advances I can think of are drones, body scanners, and range-imaging cameras. I don't get parties and banquets on my travels, I get to repeatedly unpack my computer and take off my belt or braces.

If Americans think life is not as good as it used to be, they would be right. Their standard of living has fallen longer and more steeply over the past three years than at any time since the US government began recording it in the 1960s. Income is stagnant, the worth of property and retirement investments have fallen, and consumer prices rise. The misery index, another measure of economic well-being, echoes the finding. In the UK, the predicament is similar. Voters blame the government, a report that feels very British, both in seeking someone to blame rather than seeking to understand the cause, but more so in the response being "The Government". Households face falling standards of living for at least another two years as rising prices outstrip wage increases, the UK Government's official economic forecaster has warned. A plethora of organisations quote various depressing statistics, as a little Googling will confirm. Spain and Greece already have a higher percentage of their workforces out of work than did the USA in its Great Depression.

The reason for this is fundamental: Baby boomers are retiring earlier, living longer, and expecting a lot. Meanwhile, fewer people are left in the workforce. One source claims that in the USA there are only 1.65 workers for every person on benefits, or 1.25 workers for each person who is either on benefits or working for the government. The west is going under a bloody big wave, and it's time to hold your breath, economically speaking.

Aotearoa may rate 35th for GDP/capita but it scores 6th on the Human Development Index (HDI). The Norwegians are #1 on HDI and #5 on GDP, pretty much top-of-the-pops. I have reflected before that a top score in quality of life is not all that there is, but that and GDP say a lot, and we see that Norway is managing its national finances very well. Money may not buy happiness but it is an "important means to achieving" what makes you happy. Qatar must be squandering their cash, while NZ seems to be buying wisely.

New Zealand, high in the OECD nations for standard of living a century ago, is more recently rated in the bottom GDP quartile. Nevertheless, things may be looking up, even if this is because it is sliding backwards less fast than the rest.

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