US supply chains to reach ‘communities of color’

As noted earlier, the Biden Administration is seeking to link foreign policy with domestic policy. Specifically, Biden is seeking an economically stronger middle class and working class, while ensuring that historically disadvantaged communities, including those of color, benefit.

Yesterday, Biden signed an executive order aimed at more resilient supply chains with the longer-term strategic goal of competition with China.

The statement ends with a discussion about the impact on jobs and communities within the US.

President Biden has directed his Administration to ensure that the task of building resilient supply chains draws on the talent and work ethic of communities across America, including communities of color and cities and towns that have for too long suffered from job losses and industrial decline. As the Administration implements the Executive Order, it will identify opportunities to implement policies to secure supply chains that grow the American economy, increase wages, benefit small businesses and historically disadvantaged communities, strengthen pandemic and biopreparedness, support the fight against global climate change, and maintain America’s technological leadership in key sectors.

A warehouse (cc Reycenas)

So in the Biden playbook, the nation’s “unlimited competition” with China will run right through communities in need of jobs, higher wages and more opportunity. Whether Biden will be successful remains to be seen, of course. Biden will require support in Congress. Having said that, programs that see government dollars flowing to localities can always be shaped to gain a given representative’s support.

Is there any precedence for this? Yes, actually. NASA’s creation is a one example. People today wonder why NASA has so many facilities flung so widely across the US and the South. This was done during the Civil Rights era, in part, to assure that people in places like Arkansas, Mississippi, and Alabama benefited from the space race, as well as California, Texas, and Florida.

Viewing the future in dark times – more engineers, fewer bookies

In the past, confidence for the future in advanced democracies offered a counterpoint to endless security fears. The existential terror of nuclear Armageddon during the Cold War, for example, lived side by side with the promise and expectation of a better life, fundamental to the success of democracies.

Standards of living rose, lifespans extended and citizens enjoyed freedom of movement unimaginable in the past.

Now, instead of an optimism pegged to a concrete vision for a better future in Western democracies, there is wariness and doubt. The outlook is provisional, conditional, tentative.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that future terror attacks are discussed in terms of risks, as is the style today. Risks, likelihoods and odds have become the de facto way to discuss, not just the chance of a terror attack, but a politician’s prospects of winning an election. Taking alongside the risk-based view of major economic or ecological events and it seems odds now dominate how the future is conceived and discussed.

But is a horse-racing form guide the best way to view the future that we can shape?

Buckminster Fuller’s US pavillon at Expo 67. Fuller forecast techno-utopian visions.

In past times, people looked forward to the future. Their optimism was grounded in specific expectations of a better world: financially, socially, physically. The Depression and World War II generation, after surviving those events, witnessed technological leaps that changed their world, giving people every reason to expect a better life ahead.

Achievements as mammoth and varied as penicillin, the Hoover Dam, the Brooklyn Bridge, computers, vaccines to inoculate against disease, intercontinental jet travel, the Apollo moonshot or even national healthcare schemes fundamentally reshaped the world.

Entrepreneur and investor Peter Thiel eschews the power of risk and luck in favour of the power of planning. He believes that from the 1700s to the 1960s, optimists with definite plans led the Western world.

Since the long bull market of 1982 began and the string of major technological advances seemingly dried up, “finance eclipsed engineering as the way to approach the future”.

Peter Thiel

In Australia, you could argue that the mining and housing booms have further enshrined the concept of risk, chance and odds as a way to understand the future.

Individuals manage “risk” in their retirement savings. They “future-proof” their careers against as many different outcomes as they can. For a decade, the economic outlook of the Lucky Country, relied on the puzzle of what was going on inside China’s economy.

Australia’s real estate market placed further emphasis on sentiment and luck for the winners of auctions. Quite tellingly, Malcolm Turnbull, upon becoming PM, noted it was a “turn of events I did not expect.”

Mentions of ‘risk’ (red line) and ‘progress’ (blue line) in books from 1900 to 2008.

Even on the national security front, Australia “hedges” its risk, simultaneously hoping against but planning for an eventual China-related war in Asia. All of it, a risk-based future.

Perhaps Thiel is right in saying that “if you expect an indefinite future ruled by randomness, you give up on trying to master it”.

Watching politicians in Australia and in democracies beyond, one can only conclude that many have given up on trying to master the future.

Politicians govern from poll to poll in fear of voter or party revolts, while businesses can only see ahead to the next quarter in trying to placate the market. In the throes of the current US primary season, notice the absence of future plans and how abundant polls are.

Everyone fancies themselves an armchair statistician. A Nate Silver. A 538er. And so the future vision of a nation extends ahead only weeks, rather than years. This is particularly true on the Republican side, as the GOP contends with a leadership vacuum being filled by Donald Trump.

Metropolis of Tomorrow, Hugh Ferriss, 1929

Maybe the popularity of this risk-based view of the future accounts for how democracies generally have responded to the big challenges of the time. There is a lassitude, a wobbliness about decision-making in matters as diverse as the eurozone crisis, the migrant crisis, the war in Syria, Islamic State, and China’s island-building.

In Australia, mining taxes and climate change legislation have been enacted then reversed as governments watched their approval ratings oscillate. Even the national broadband network has somehow become a whipping post of successive governments.

If it’s true that Western democracies need new industries in order to keep incomes rising and employment full, then clearly a bit of engineering is in order. But let’s be honest: governments and people don’t embrace this kind of thinking unless they have to. Embarking on major projects means accepting a sizeable chance of failure.

Deep in France’s Trente Glorieuses – Jean Luc Godard directing a film in 1964

The question now is, have we reached such an uncertain point, that we need to begin planning big for the future. Economic growth is uncertain. Great power politics are emerging again in Asia but also in Europe. Islamic State is active abroad and lurks within Western nations, too. Mass migration is reshaping politics. Meanwhile, rising and revanchist powers use their military to jockey for influence.

Rather than drifting towards a future with options continually held, bets hedged, hoping for lucky days ahead, democracies can create their own destiny: economically, technologically and socially. Setting ambitious national goals – concrete, tangible, but rhetorical and political too – would give the future shape.

Then, the optimistic world view that acted as an engine for Western democracies in decades and centuries past can be put back in place. It would be an counterweight to the parade of dangers democracies confront. If liberal democracies know where they are going, they will be able to shape their future. If they shape the future, they can bend it in a favourable direction. In uncertain times, this can’t help but offer hope of a better tomorrow.

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How Charlie Brown’s Christmas matters today

In 1987 activist and writer Todd Gitlin titled the first chapter of his book about the 1960s (Years of Hope, Days of Rage), “Cornucopia and its Discontents.”

The chapter name comes to mind watching the 1965 Charlie Brown Christmas. Awash in material comforts, Charlie Brown has a serious case of the Christmas blues.

As Wikipedia notes:

The story touches on the over-commercialization and secularism of Christmas, and serves to remind viewers of the true meaning of Christmas (the birth of Jesus Christ).

Part of the nostalgia for the show today may also be wrapped up in the memory of the post-war economic experience, a time of increasing commercialization, sure, but a commercialization that went hand-in-hand with the kind of rising wages which are elusive today – not just in the US but in Australia and other developed economies.

Back then, rising wages and incomes (and expectations) must have felt like a given, because they had been so consistent in post-war America.

For example, in 1965, when the show debuted, wages had increased by about 70 per cent since 1948 (for white America, at least). The memory of the horrors of World War II and the Depression didn’t exist for the Baby Boomer generation, either. Cornucopia and its Discontents, indeed.

EPIFor viewers today to look back on Charlie Brown’s Christmas, it was a time when the US middle class was economically strong. The link between rising productivity and rising wages was still very much in place. It’s against this backdrop that Charlie Brown finds aluminum Christmas trees and Snoopy’s doghouse made out as a garish Christmas display.

Merry Christmas Charlie Brown! You didn’t know how good you had it in 1965!

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Science fiction as a bellwether

I have been reading more about optimistic and ambitious visions sketched by science fiction. Before the Walkman, Apple IIe, and Silicon Valley re-directed the creative imagination of much of the tech world, it was governments that led the charge into new frontiers. And rather than the anticipation surrounding new apps and devices that would be brought to market, the public marveled at big technology and science pursued by their governments. Saturn 5 rocket. The Space Shuttle. The Concord. The SST. The SR-71. Particle accelerators. Supercomputers. Of all the elements of the historical Cold War, this gaze upward to the sky and outward to the limits of possibility is one of the most missed aspects – and yet it is hardest to quantify or explain. There is an element of zeitgeist in the interplay between technological aspirations and the times and whether the outlook is hopeful or pessimistic.

A quote from author Kim Stanley Robinson in Smithsonian Magazine hints at this and it resounded with me in part because the glut of seemingly bad news out there these days. Robinson said :

“Science fiction represents how people in the present feel about the future,” Robinson says. “That’s why ‘big ideas’ were prevalent in the 1930s, ’40s and partly in the ’50s. People felt the future would be better, one way or another. 

The 1930s-1950s were marked by the Depression, war and post-war rebuilding – a pretty dark backdrop for writers’ imagination. The same article notes that the cyberpunk genre emerged in the 1980s, a time I remember as pretty culturally empty, full of angst and when the panic of the arms race gave way to a fear that a computer glitch could set off mutually assured destruction. Clearly, if sci-fi is a bellwether, we are living through the darkness the cyberpunks’ foresaw 30 years ago. Just look at the images of beheadings published online. The public is horrified and, like watching a car-crash in slow motion, can’t look away. 

Negative news today
Negative news today

It’s probably for this reason that I enjoy science-fiction from the 1960s because it was conceived of in a time when the Space Race was in full swing, incomes were rising and possibilities felt bright for the generation that had grown up with no memory of the Depression or World War. John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar concludes with an ambitious plan by a multinational company and the US State Department to lift a small African nation into the modern world. People believed in achieving big things.

Space elevator (courtesy Liftport
Optimistic visions for the future – a space elevator
(courtesy Liftport

So, given this casual linkage between science fiction and the era of its creation, what can we make of new optimistic visions in science fiction? Is it possible we’re entering a time roughly equivalent to the 1930s, in terms of geopolitical forebodings and slumping economies? Sure. And with unrest from Libya straight through to eastern Europe, there is plenty to worry about. The Islamic State captures the world’s attention with their lurid execution videos. West African countries – the same location of the fictional Beninia from Stand on Zanzibar – struggle to contain the Ebola outbreak, while the world fears the virus could mutate. It’s hard to see a cause for optimism.

But history runs in cycles. And maybe nascent optimism is the vision-thing in science fiction today. It seems counterintuitive, but just as event seem to worsen in unexpected ways, countercurrents continue to run. Surely, stories written now won’t change the world overnight. But the ideas introduced into the bloodstream of the culture have a way of catching on, refracting, expanding. Now the visions just need the economic and historical imperatives to pull them forward.