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Wednesday: Life, the Universe and Change!

I was hanging around YouTube the other day, aimlessly clicking away, when I found what looks like the entire catalog of James Burke’s Connections and The Day the Universe Changed series in neat little 10 minute packets.  For those of you who were mere twinkles in your fathers’ eyes at the time, James Burke is a historian whose specialty is the history and philosophy of science.  His series traced the route of technological breakthroughs from their humble beginnings to the modern era.  He’s full of nifty facts and his presentation style is wry and witty.  Yesterday, I got to episode 8 of The Day the Universe Changed, Fit to Rule, where Burke lays out Darwin’s theory of natural selection and describes how three societies got it horribly wrong in three different ways.  Yes, America is in there as example number 2:

Now, why bring this up?  I think it’s because at the time this series was produced, back in the early eighties, we were right in the middle of a renaissance of the “rugged individualist” model.  Ronald Reagan had been elected and the movie Wall Street, with Michael Douglas in suspenders chanting “Greed is good!” was just around the corner.  Burke doesn’t pass judgment on our attitudes and misinterpretation of Darwin.  But let’s face it, the two other examples of the social Darwinism, the Third Reich and Soviet Communism, aren’t exactly great company.

What Burke discovers is a peculiar characteristic of the American culture.  Our mindset and philosophy is very much formed by our experience of leaving it all behind and facing new challenges on the wild frontier.  It was shaped by the need to survive a hostile environment and sometimes hostile native Americans.  But the interpretation of natural selection that the pioneers understood, violent struggle and take what you can before someone else takes it from you, has outlived its usefulness.  What Darwin really said was that organisms that had the ability to adapt to their environments would survive.  Right now, our country is failing to adapt.  In part this is due to the Randian business culture that sees globalization and the race to the bottom in wage compensation as an inevitable thing.  But the problem with that philosophy is that what allowed wealth and prosperity to flourish in the United States was the rule of law and democracy that gave average Americans the opportunity to succeed, protected from the most of the outrages of corruption that plague less prosperous countries.  That is not to say that the industrialists didn’t have their way before The Great Depression.  But the years following World War II saw one of the greatest expansions of wealth and equality that the world has ever known.  And part of that was due to the fact that Americans who had good ideas were not confined to the lower stratums of society where birth determined their futures.  If you’ve seen Slumbdog Millionaire recently, you know what I’m talking about.  The idea that a mere chai walla would know the answers to some pretty sophisticated questions in India still seems to be improbable in that country. However, those of us who are losing our jobs to globalization know that even in India, there are hundreds of thousands of well trained people who will do the job cheaply.  What they *aren’t* allowed to do is create.  The PhDs in India are merely a pair of hands to their corporate masters in the United States.  They’re overqualified.

What would happen if individuals had the power to create again?  That is the part of Darwin’s theory that I think our MBA culture ignores in its pursuit of the bottom line and one of the reasons I think America is going to go the way of the do-do if it doesn’t change its ways.  Back when Pell grants were not impossible to get, before Reagan came into office, it was possible for a person of humble origin, yours truly, to become the first in her family to go to college.  Back in those days, people still had health insurance and pensions.  Social security meant that if you decided to strike out on your own and create a business, you had something to fall back on if you failed.  Yes, crime was a problem, but corruption was dealt with more seriously.  What made this country successful as an organism were the institutions that allowed creativity to thrive.  What happens to a country that rips all of that away in its pursuit of draining the public of its wealth just because it can?

Let’s not get too depressed.  There is still plenty of opportunity in this country to turn this around.  For example, we *could* make sure that students get the financial aid they need to go to college without it becoming a lifelong crushing debt and indentured servitude.  We could invest in alternative energy and become world leaders in the field.  We could get it into our heads that teleconferences in the middle of the night with programmers in India are not the best use of either country’s personnel.  We could recognize that if we don’t shore up the middle class and improve their compensation packages and safety net, there will be significantly fewer consumers of new products in the future.

The question is, how do we neutralize the Randian MBA culture that brought us to this point?  Maybe that is the Change! we all need.

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