In an effort to reduce frivolous spending, politicians looked to environmental regulations as a critical obstacle to economic development and job growth. Republicans were divided on balancing the importance of income tax as a means of addressing the economic pressures of a country reportedly emerging from a deep recession. Patent fights were breaking out as technology competition – particularly threats coming from international trade – was fierce. The French and Germans were trading diplomacy and barbs as the economic future of Europe seemed to be increasingly tenuous. 3-D entertainment was emerging as a radically new way for audiences to consume media. China was weighing its economic and military options as the United States imposed increasingly protectionist policies to deal with the economic imbalances created by labor out-sourcing. The President was advocating massive ‘shovel ready’ infrastructure projects to jump-start an economy that was not responding to other stimulus. Ford and General Motors were both trying to navigate financing for the revitalization of the automotive industry. These events described the state-of-the-world my Grandmother, Elizabeth Martin – turning 102 on Monday – entered on her birth, October 31, 1909.
I just spent part of my weekend with Elizabeth and sat in rapt amazement as I heard her describe events from the 1920s and 1930s as though they had just transpired last week. Recalling freak October snow storms where the tree limbs snapped up and down the East Coast as I watched the snow pile up 4 inches outside the window; describing the reuse of feedbags to make dresses; recalling the bumper crop of peaches canned in two quart jars with an apricot thrown in for a bit of color and flavor; all memories as present today as they were the day she imprinted them. As I sat with her, my mind took two simultaneous paths. The first impulse was to rush home and open one of my favorite books – The Illustrated World History: A Record of World Events From the Earliest Historical Times to the Present Day published in 1937 – and reread the entries from 1909. I wanted to revisit John Maynard Keynes’ first economic publication, “Recent Economic Events in India”, and see whether from these and other sources, I could find any evidence of an awakening in our times. And, rather than opining on a conclusion, let me share with you the words of Sir John Hammerton and Dr. Harry Elmer Barnes from the conclusion of the Illustrated World History in 1937. After you read it, I wonder what you’d tell my Grandmother on her 102nd birthday to convince her that we’re on the edge of something “NEW”.
“The period since 1929 has been on of the most critical in world history. It is an era comparable to the opening of the sixteenth century. Then the typical and familiar medieval institutions – the feudal political order, the agricultural economy dominated by the manorial system, the guild organization of industry and commerce, and the unity of the Catholic Church – were being challenged, and most of them were on the eve of breakdown. A new epoch – the modern – lay ahead. That slowly developed from the sixteenth century to the twentieth. It produced capitalism, nationalism, representative government, pure and applied science, our mechanical age, the factory system, urban life and the like. Now, in the second third of the twentieth century, there are grave signs that the modern world order is to be superseded by other institutions and ideals. Capitalism has all but broken down. Nationalism threatens the collective suicide of mankind. Representative government, parties and democracy are being forced to retire before the onslaughts of Fascism and the growth of dictatorships. Imperialism is curbed by the shortage of capital for export, the collapse of foreign credit, and the exhaustion of virgin areas for investment and the export of capital. Our technology for production has far outrun the mass purchasing power of man necessary to utilize this increased volume of products. City life produces new strains and stresses and leads to a great increase in mental and nervous instability. World war, using the deadly methods of destruction now available, may drag all civilization down once more to the level of barbarism. Only in the degree to which we understand the critical and transitional character of the contemporary age shall we be able to avert calamity and build a world order which will not only be new and different but better, when measured by standards of general human well-being.”
Hammerton and Barnes, in 1937, saw the dimly lit vision of a world where humanity would wake up. They, like thousands before them in epochs stretching across humanity died with that world unfulfilled. Until we see that it is not the time we’re in that calls us to transformation but the nature of ourselves and our communities, we’ll see inflections come and go unaltered. We’re not on the verge of transformation. We The People are in need of transformation of our responses to the world – the one variable that past inflections and the current – seem to be ignoring. After all, it is the ‘man-in-the-mirror’ that is the constant and those optics lead us to a very tired, very monotonous end. Let’s remove the silver from the glass so that we can see into a world of opportunity rather than seeing a reflection of our own arcane tedium.