Saturday, May 14, 2016

Life in America ... Our Past, Present and Future ... Innovation, Productivity and Making America Greater (We're Already Great!)

What Was the Greatest Era for Innovation? A Brief Guided Tour is subtitled 'Which was a more important innovation: indoor plumbing, jet air travel of mobile phones?'

Reading it in its entirety should be enjoyable as well as better inform and cause us to think about America's greatness and how lucky we are to live as part of We the People. At least that's the effect it had on me. 

So enjoy, think, remember, reflect, plan and prepare for the future. It's going to be a bright one for those who choose not to waste but instead invest our valuable time and energy during our brief time here on earth. The glass is half full for those who choose to see it that way, and I do.

Here's a sample:

"We’re in the golden age of innovation, an era in which digital technology is transforming the underpinnings of human existence. Or so a techno-optimist might argue.

We’re in a depressing era in which innovation has slowed and living standards are barely rising.

That’s what some skeptical economists believe.

The truth is, this isn’t a debate that can be settled objectively. Which was a more important innovation: indoor plumbing, jet air travel or mobile phones? You could argue for any of them, and data can tell plenty of different stories depending on how you look at it. Productivity statistics or information on inflation-adjusted incomes is helpful, but can’t really tell you whether the advent of air-conditioning or the Internet did more to improve humanity’s quality of life.

We thought a better way to understand the significance of technological change would be to walk through how Americans lived, ate, traveled, and clothed and entertained themselves in 1870, 1920, 1970 and the present. . . .

Trains, turnips and pigs


The Civil War was over and a transcontinental railway newly completed, allowing easy (or at least easier) passage from the great cities of the East Coast to California and many points between....

The lights go on


The Great War was over, the Great Depression had not yet started, and life in the United States in 1920 was profoundly different from 50 years earlier....

Houses that were once dark and isolated were becoming intertwined. They were starting to be connected to electric grids, providing clean, bright light without emitting smoke. Urban water networks supplied clean water, and sewer systems removed waste without the pungent odors of chamber pots and outhouses. Telephones allowed people to converse with distant friends....

It’s hard to overstate how revolutionary the advent of electric light was. In the 1870s, a kerosene lamp could produce 5,050 candle hours worth of light a year at a cost of $20. That same $20 in 1920 bought 4.4 million candle hours a year from bulbs.        

In Muncie, Ind., in 1890, there were not more than a dozen bathrooms with running water and sewers across town. By 1925, 75 percent of Muncie’s homes had running water and two-thirds had sewer connections, including almost all newly constructed houses.

This is thought to be a major reason public health and life expectancy improved in the years leading to 1920. Many of the major advances in medical treatment, like antibiotics, were yet to arrive, but clean water and waste removal — chlorination and filtration were introduced — cut back the death rate from typhoid fever by a factor of five from 1900 to 1920. The number of modern hospitals grew to 6,000 in 1920 from 120 in 1870, and medicine became more of a science, with doctors getting away from selling dubious cure-alls....

Consumers were starting to have more options, as chain stores arose to offer more variety and lower prices than the small-town general store, which in many places had a monopoly on all manner of goods. The grocery chain A.&P. had 67 stores in 1876 and 15,000 by 1930. Local merchants fought the rise of the chains much as they have fought the rise of Walmart more recently....

And increasingly, anything not available in a local store could be obtained by a mail-order catalog — the Montgomery Ward catalog was first issued in 1872, the Sears catalog in 1894. By 1900, Sears was fulfilling 100,000 orders a day, and its catalog featured fur coats, furnaces, furniture and much more. The catalog business was helped along by a technological innovation — parcel post, which arrived in 1913. By contrast, in 1890, only about a quarter of American households received mail at their door.

It wasn’t just consumer goods arriving at Americans’ doors. Better printing presses and transportation made publishing newspapers more economical, and the average American household read more than three newspapers in the time frame from 1910 to 1930, up from 0.9 in the 1870s.

Telephones were not yet ubiquitous but were spreading quickly. In 1880, the telephone was used for 10 conversations per household per year, a number that reached 800 by 1929; a popular form of entertainment in rural areas became using a “party line” to talk with far-flung neighbors....

From newfangled to normal


The changes in transportation and communication starting to be seen in 1920 had become fundamental parts of daily life half a century later....

Cars in 1920 were uncomfortable and prone to breakdowns, and were driven on dirt or irregularly paved roads. A 1920 Ford Model T had to be hand-cranked to start. By 1970, cars were comfortable, with options like radios and air-conditioning. They were driven on comparatively smooth, safe surfaces on the Interstate highway system, most of which had been built by 1972....

Homes were changing, as the innovations that were being increasingly adopted in 1920 became truly universal. Electric light was in 79 percent of households in 1940 and 100 percent in 1970; running water was in 98 percent of homes, up from 74 percent.

Refrigerators rose to 100 percent adoption in 1970 from 44 percent in 1940, and their quality improved a great deal as well; Consumer Reports described constant repair needs in 1949 that had been mostly solved by 1971. The same was true of almost all household appliances.

Air-conditioning, first introduced in the United States in 1923, transformed cities with hot weather, propelling the population growth of places like Las Vegas, Miami and Houston. There were 48,000 room air-conditioning units sold in 1946, which rose to two million by 1957. Still, by 1970 only a minority of households had air-conditioning — 11 percent with central air, and 26 percent with room units....

The size of grocery stores exploded, with a wide variety of processed foods; a small chain store in the 1920s offered 300 to 600 items, while a 1950 supermarket stocked 2,200, and its 1985 equivalent 17,500.

The age of mass communication radically shifted the way Americans entertained themselves. A person living in 1920 could listen to a phonograph at home or go to a silent movie at the nearest theater. By 1970, color television and radio were both widely available. Movie attendance in any given week fell to 20 percent of the population in 1970 from 60 percent in 1940....

A person had fewer TV channels and fewer movies to choose from than today; the videocassette recorder was years away, so you were captive to what broadcast networks happened to be showing. This resulted in huge audiences; in 1953, 69 percent of televisions were tuned in to the broadcast of the episode of “I Love Lucy” in which Lucy has a baby.

Awash in a sea of content


In 1970, anyone who needed to reheat leftovers faced a messy, time-consuming task at the stove — not the quick minute in a microwave of today. The microwave was introduced in 1965 and was not widely purchased until the 1980s, partly owing to falling price. It cost $495 in 1968, and a compact model with more bells and whistles fell to $191 by 1986....

But the microwave is the exception. Most of the advances in home appliances since 1970 have been trivial in the scheme of things: a little more energy efficiency here, a more ergonomic handle there, greater reliability, meaning fewer repair calls. Indeed, while fashions have changed in homes since then, in terms of décor and layout, the American household works largely as it did then.

Airplanes continued getting safer, with the number of deaths per 100 billion miles traveled falling to less than 1 from more than 100 in 1970. Travel became considerably less expensive — though the rate of price decrease for air travel was slower from 1960 to 1980 than it had been from 1940 to 1960. Still, air travel had been an upper-middle-class activity in 1970, and now is affordable to the masses....

By some measures, air travel has become more onerous since 1970. There were no security screening lines (those were introduced after a series of hijackings in the late 1960s and early ’70s). Seats were larger and came with free meals and drinks. Arguably, though, the bundle offered by circa-1970 airlines for coach class seats is still available: You can still get a bigger seat and free drinks at a higher price, but now it’s called first class.

Once you factor in the time it takes to arrive early and get through security, flying from New York to Chicago takes about the same time, and costs about the same in inflation-adjusted dollars, as it did in 1936; modern planes are faster, but then one could show up at the airport 10 minutes before the scheduled flight time and hop on the plane.

Automobiles became more reliable, and car travel far safer, with widespread use of seatbelts, adoption of airbags and anti-lock brakes, better technology to understand how to build a car so that it protects occupants in a crash, and legal and public-awareness efforts against drunken driving. Deaths per 100 million miles driven have fallen from about 11 in 1940 to about five in 1970 to around one today.

Compared with 1970, Americans today eat a good bit less beef, pork and eggs, and about twice as much chicken. They eat more fruits and vegetables. But that’s only part of the story. Americans are eating more of their meals away from home, and in restaurants more varied than people in 1970 could have imagined. Thai, Japanese, Middle Eastern and Indian food is now for sale even in small cities....

Some of the biggest changes to everyday life since 1970 have been around information and entertainment. The cliché about TV going from three channels a generation ago to hundreds actually understates it. The television itself has gone from a 19-inch screen to 50 or more inches, with much more vivid color and definition. Besides many more channels, thousands of movies and television shows are available at any moment of the day or night through on-demand streaming services.

And that doesn’t even account for the Internet more broadly. In effect, a person can get access to nearly any notable work mankind has ever produced — novels, movies, visual art — instantly and at home. Or thanks to Internet-enabled mobile devices that have become widespread in the last decade, nearly anywhere the person is.

Keeping up with distant friends and relatives once required expensive calls on land-based phone lines; now there are free or nearly free conversations through text messages, mobile phone calls or video communication services like FaceTime and Skype. Sending a more detailed message once meant writing it by hand or on a typewriter, putting it in an envelope, driving it to the post office, and waiting a few days for the recipient to get it; now it is an instant, free email....

In short, the sheer number of ways a person can be in touch with others, and consume information or entertainment, has exploded, and the price has collapsed.

This is the area in which human life has changed the most in the last 46 years. We live and travel much as we did in 1970. We eat more variety of foods. Products of all types keep getting a little safer, a little more efficient, a little better designed.

But the real revolution of recent decades is in the supercomputer most people keep in their pocket. And how that stacks up against the advances of yesteryear is the great question of whether an era of innovation remains underway, or has slowed way down."

Summing Up

'This tour (was) both inspired by and reliant on Robert J. Gordon’s authoritative examination of innovation through the ages, “The Rise and Fall of American Growth,” published this year. These are portraits of each point in time, culled from Mr. Gordon’s research; you can decide for yourself which era is truly most transformative.'

We the People can and will do great, innovative, productive and life changing things over time.

Government 'leaders' can't and won't do them for us.

That's my take.

Thanks. Bob.

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