economics

The Mandatory Future

Once, I was the AUXO. That’s what people called me and that’s what I answered to. It’s one of the fun quirks of serving as a naval officer on a war ship. People just call you what you are instead of who you are. And I was the Auxiliaries Engineering Division Officer on a guided missile destroyer. The Auxiliaries Engineering Division-“A Gang” for short, owned just about every part of engineering equipment on the ship that didn’t actually turn the shaft. Which means my team had to know how to operate, maintain and repair just about anything from industrial grade maritime air conditioners to hydraulic steering units to the toasters in the galley. And they had to do it well, like people’s lives and the national interests of America depended on it. Because they did.

As the officer in charge, I never looked at my enlisted men, Enginemen by trade, as a bunch of people who wished they were me. They didn’t. I never thought that I had succeeded and they hadn’t and that’s why I was where I was, in charge, and they were where they were, doing damn hard work. It wasn’t because I was particularly enlightened as a 23 year old ensign. I simply understood an important truth. That their job mattered. And it was difficult. And that I probably couldn’t do it. I never told them how to fix something. I just made sure that they were resourced and focused enough to be the kind of group that fixed things right. That squared just fine with them. Because that’s all they ever wanted. No more. No less.

Working class America doesn’t want to be management class or professional class or any other class either. Like my team, they want to work. They’re not poor. And they’re not unsuccessful. And they want to continue to be the backbone of our country. They want to continue to be the most productive, efficient and effective group of humans that has ever gathered. They don’t wish they were me, peering out of my Silicon Valley tech firm office surrounded by walls of white boards with “big thoughts” on them. And they don’t want to be “in charge” either. We managers are stiffs. And we don’t know how to do anything useful. And we don’t have any value unless we’re supporting them in doing what they want to do-build and maintain and fix America. It is perhaps the purest, most honorable desire a human can have: to work hard at important work.

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Source: Bureau of Economic Analysis

We’re not going back to making things the way we used to though. We’re not going to employ millions digging holes in the earth or sowing and reaping the harvest or rolling out the last century’s modes of transportation. Those days are gone. We’ve found other ways to make money. We’ve grown finance and healthcare and insurance and real estate and business. We’re about to retire an entire generation that saw their nation grow in strength and their economy boom for almost every year of their life. Their legacy will be fifty years where the only thing that was built was the computer technology industry, by a handful of men, in a small town in Northern California.

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Source: Bureau of Economic Analyis

There’s good news though, for those who want to work hard at important work again, even if it doesn’t sound like it. That good news is that we’re in a whole heap of trouble again. And by we, I mean planet Earth. China and India and the rest of the developing world are trying to make their world look like ours. And that’s a problem. That’s 2.5 billion people moving from 18th century American technology and resource needs to modern America. China appears to be interested in doing it overnight. That’s 2.5 billion people worth of cars burning gasoline, power plants burning coal and air conditioners busting power grids. It won’t work. And they don’t care because it won’t be them that runs out of the resources. And there’s only one way to stop it.

21st century America needs to look a lot more like what the people of 20th century America thought it would look like when we went from the first manned flight to leaving the planet and landing humans on the moon and flying back in a short enough span for one person to have seen both with their own eyes. From 1830, to 1930, we went from horseback and drawn carriage to flight sophisticated enough to use in war. Now, nearly 90 years later, most of mankind is still using some form of the same vehicles today that they used then, burning the same fuel. That life, won’t scale. And it’s not because I’m a tree hugging liberal who cares too much about the environment. It’s because of math. And because the nation that will win the next two hundred years is the one that figures out how make power without burning things. That’s the problem. And it’s not an optional one. That’s the good news.

Putting our strong working class men and women back at the center of what we do and who we are as a country means that we’re going to have to start building and making and maintaining things that don’t exist yet, not last century’s things or the things other places have figured out how to build at scale for low cost. When we do, America will once again be tangibly stronger, with better things and a more effective way to live than anyone else. That’s what makes a people great, what they do, not how they feel.

And if you can’t imagine a future where we aren’t burning things to make our power, than you can’t imagine the mandatory future. And if that’s because of your political or financial interests, then you need to go. That’s the swamp I want drained. Mr. Trump, if you’re listening, put your energy and your ego behind driving the change that wins the race for a different power source and you will be remembered for generations as the man who won the 21st century for America. History forgives quite a bit in exchange for outcomes like that.

If any of my three boys wants to throw on the blue coveralls and get to work turning wrenches and solving problems by fixing material things that actually exist, I’ll be damn proud. But if they choose to enter the professional life, the “management class” then I want them to understand that the life my generation chased, finance and law and computer innovation, won’t change the world the way our future needs it to. If they want to change the world, they need to get back to work in fields like engineering and science that enable greatness. Because if the best and brightest of our young leaders keep growing up thinking that they want to get into Wall Street or be a lawyer or even break into crowded Silicon Valley to figure out the next great app that makes our lives nominally easier, then we’re in trouble. Because we’ve decided once again, to stop trying to solve new problems and focused instead on making more money solving old ones.

Fifty years from now if we are a culture of bankers and business managers, then we’ve failed. Banking and management are enablers to greatness. They aren’t the greatness. The greatness that is America is the genius to understand how to solve real problems and the strong back to solve them. We are a nation that makes things.

5 replies »

  1. Among my friends (of multiple political persuasions) there is a shared reverence for “making stuff”. For going to work and participating in projects which, at the end of the day, you can see. You can share. You can CHEW ON if you feel like it. For me it was working in print and broadcast advertising, then the printing industry and now high tech product development. I live in NYC and see the folks who inhabit the $50M apartments and I do not envy them because of the deep satisfaction I get from the work I do on a daily basis.

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  2. “Make, create, innovate”….making has never been sufficient. With the “end” of the nuclear arms race in the 80’s, we have failed to convert to a peacetime economy by addressing (among other things) how to shift responsibility and economically toward the environment and fossil fuel usage. Thirty years on, is this an opportunity delayed or an opportunity missed?

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  3. I read an interesting article that was talking about innovation being lost when the factories were sent overseas. Because innovation and change comes from those who are running the line, who see HOW things are made and therefore see how to improve the process or the product at the source. Hands on education is a critical alternative to working in a manufacturing plant. As a 10 year leader of an all girls robotics group, it amazes me how many girls (and boys) have never used a screwdriver or other tool. A lot of schools are trying to develop these hands on STEM classes and school districts are fighting to keep their vocational classes. I think this can – do spirit and hands-on education is hugely important. We can’t just be a country with workers in the service industry. We need to be the makers and builders of the world. Supporting public education and learning to value again that which is made/built is so important. At MIT, they call it mens et manus, Latin for mind and hand. The scholar and the laborer in the seal stand for the importance of knowledge and mechanical skills. It is a shame we have forgotten the link between the two. Those, in Donald Trump’s camp, deny knowledge and the facts of science, while the importance of the laborer seems to have become secondary to the democrats.

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