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Witt: Country lacks common vision, faces challenges

A recent reading of “That Used to be Us,” co-authored by Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum, and an article by David Baker of Macquarie University in the Jan. 2 issue of ScienceAlert both give one pause when thinking about what the immediate future holds for all of us.

Friedman and Mandelbaum point out the past factors which have brought the American society to its current state, specifically referring to great events in our past which subsequently led to great advances, great innovation and great dedication.

The two most recent events which materially shaped how America developed were World War II and the Cold War.

As the authors point out, these events motivated the population to great effort and sacrifice because in both cases there was a single, well-defined enemy which required a concerted dedication, one to overcome Nazism and the second to forestall the advancement of communism.

During World War II, American industry rose to the challenge of producing the accoutrements of war not only for our own country, but for a good part of the rest of our allies. American industry was turning out heavy bombers at the rate of one every hour, and liberty ships in as little as three days.

During the Cold War, this country created its interstate highway system, necessary for the changing transportation needs and related to the effort to curtail the communist threat, and went into space.

It was also during these two periods our national government was able to frequently work across factionalized divides to do what the times demanded.

Friedman and Mandelbaum bemoan the current condition of this country as not having a common goal, a common vision which can bring everyone together.

Because of this, we see our infrastructure collapsing, our education system in disarray and, most importantly, our government so fractionalized by party and the influx of special interest hidden money that nothing seems to get done in a timely manner.

Looking to the future, Baker makes some big-picture predictions for the 2020s: stagnant real wages, faltering standard of living for the lower and middle classes, worsening wealth inequality, more riots and uprisings and ongoing political polarization.

He also suggests there is a moderate chance of a “trigger event,” a shock like an environmental crisis, plague (think of the current coronavirus epidemic or the ebola epidemic of 2013-2016) or economic meltdown.

America is in a period of stagnant wages and rising inequality, with wealthy elites jousting for more and more control at the expense of those at the bottom of the economic ladder.

Similar circumstances in the past resulted in the 30-year War of the Roses and the century-long conflicts in the Roman Empire in the first century BCE.

These “depression phases,” downcycles in the human condition, in the past have been often alleviated by sudden and dramatic advances in the technology like improved agricultural methods in mid-11th Century Europe, which led to relative prosperity and stability in the 12th Century.

While some may suggest our current rise in the use of easier communication could be one of those technological release points, it could also possibly be exacerbating the problems of today’s societies.

The inexpensive application of fusion energy or a concerted effort to halt global warming could be the relief valve to avoid predicted disasters in the coming decade.

To quote Baker, “…humanity’s task in the 2020s — and much of the 21st Century — is simply to survive it.”

But for now, the coming decade holds many challenges.

Chuck Witt is a retired architect and a lifelong resident of Winchester. He can be reached at chuck740@bellsouth.net.