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Viewpoints: Changes for the better: It’s easier than ever to heal, entertain and inform yourself in the 21st century

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom,
it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity,
it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring
of hope, it was the winter of despair.”

– The opening to the classic  "A Tale of Two Cities,” by Charles Dickens

In a 2017 piece for The Buffalo News, I discussed the gloomy but accurate trends of economic and social decline bedeviling the nation over the past five decades. (“Chronic deficits in money, jobs and public trust have dogged the nation for decades,” May 7, 2017). But I ended on a positive note, saying: “Sharp technological advances have led to vast improvements in computers, cars, medicine and entertainment, trends which I’ll gladly elaborate on in a future article.” Well, here is that article and here is what has vastly improved in the 21st century.

There should not be any need at this late date to detail how much more powerful and sophisticated modern computers are compared to those of the 1960s. In 1965, Intel co-founder Gordon Moore promoted a theory that the capacity of computers would double roughly every two years for at least a decade. “Moore’s Law” has been triumphantly vindicated as computing power has repeatedly doubled for the last 50 years. Dr. Michio Kaku has written the widely quoted fact that an iPhone today has more power and capacity than the IBM main-frame computers NASA used for the Apollo moon landing in 1969.

And all that added computing power has led to vast increases in worker productivity in designing, manufacturing, selling and shipping new goods, thus increasing the overall standard of living. Want to find a used car, an old classmate, a vacation spot, an obscure collector’s item, sports or concert tickets, a ride somewhere, a new employee or even someone to date? It’s all there on the internet – and the search is often free.

Needless to say, the internet has made academic research much easier: anyone with a library card can research a term paper, get analysis of stock in a new company, check out reviews for a new restaurant or find out a candidate’s position on issues.

Besides the “high-tech” economy, these breakthroughs have carried over into the medical field, where lives are being saved and lengthened on a daily basis. Thanks to billions spent on research, AIDS, which was considered a death sentence 30 years ago, has been greatly alleviated in the developed world. New treatments have led to “an expectation of near-normal lifespan for most patients,” in the words of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh. The National Cancer Institute’s website reports that five-year survival rates for all types of cancer have increased from 50 percent in 1975 to 66 percent in 2012, thanks to “advances in treatment and declines in surgical mortality.” Now patients with breast and prostate cancer have more than a 90 percent chance of surviving for at least five years. And survival rates for childhood cancers have increased even more since 1975, to 85 percent. Due to statins, reduced smoking, faster emergency care and better surgical techniques, heart disease deaths have been reduced by 40 percent in the last generation. New high-tech “minimally invasive” surgeries result in less pain (and smaller scars) with much quicker recovery times. For example, knee injuries that used to end baseball seasons (or careers) can now be treated with arthroscopic surgery that allows players to get back on the field in two or three weeks. And both stem cell and genetic research promise even greater medical miracles in the coming generation.

The high-tech boom has also echoed through the entertainment field: Movies look better, music – whether old or new – sounds sharper and the explosion of cable channels allows viewers to entertain themselves on literally hundreds of channels 24 hours a day. (Although, whether the content on the screen or coming out of the sound system is as good as a generation ago remains a subject of debate). Regardless of the quality, there can be no doubt that the quantity is there: In the early 1970s, most cities just had the three major networks plus public television. Now, most cities have 30 to 70 free “over the air” stations. And any decent cable (paid) package will include half a dozen public TV channels alone plus more than 10 news channels, over 100 “lifestyle” channels, more than 50 sports, music and “premium movie” channels, numerous international channels and those devoted to local programming plus “specialty” networks that feature shows on shopping, cooking, pets, cartoons, history, nature, traffic and the weather.

We are also living through a third Golden Age of cars. The first was the roughly three decades following the origins of the industry in 1884; the second was the 1950s and ’60s. While I would give the cars from 1950-69 a definite edge in style, there can be no doubt that today’s cars are better than ever – faster, safer, more efficient and more comfortable. Elite European companies (Porsche, Jaguar, Ferrari, Maserati, Lamborghini, Mercedes and yes, even Aston Martin, Rolls-Royce and Bentley) are now producing “sport utility vehicles” that go over 150 miles per hour, handle like race cars, comfortably hold four adults plus their luggage and ride like old-style Cadillacs. Some even have hybrid engines. The next wave of hybrids and electric cars, along with increased energy production, may end the “American energy crisis” once and for all.

Even Peter DeLorenzo, the curmudgeon who writes the “Auto Extremist” blog that promises to deliver “the bare-knuckled, unvarnished, high-octane truth,” admits the great automotive progress: “We’re experiencing the finest performance and luxury cars ever built, and the best cars and trucks overall ever to emerge in the industry’s history. … These cars bristle with technological achievement and offer a level of performance that simply defies gravity. … The industry has never seen anything like this before.” Even “economy” cars today have standard accessories like excellent sound systems, power brakes, tight steering and safety systems that were considered luxury options four decades ago.

In a recent column, George Will quoted George Mason University economist Don Boudreaux about the “good news: You are as rich as John D. Rockefeller. Richer, actually.” (Rockefeller was the nation’s first billionaire and probably the richest businessperson ever. His fortune from the Standard Oil monopoly is estimated to be worth more than $2 trillion in today’s dollars). Will went on to write: “As a 1916 billionaire, you would be materially worse off than a 2017 middle-class American.” That seems like greatly exaggerated optimism. Was the world’s richest man really worse off than an accountant or sales clerk today because he didn’t have Facebook or HBO?

And however great the technological progress, it has all come at vastly increased prices. For example, Lee Iacocca deliberately designed the Ford Mustang in the early 1960s as a sports car meant to be affordable for the masses. The mid-’60s Mustang cost about $2,000. The minimum wage was then $1.25, so a restaurant worker could afford a Mustang (if he still lived at home) after about a year. Today, the Mustang has essentially the same body style and while admittedly being much faster and safer, would require a minimum wage-earner to save for more than four years. Simply put, wages at the lower end of the economic scale have not kept up.

It has been estimated that the “knowledge industry,” which includes high-tech and medicine, accounts for roughly 35 percent of the gross national product. It’s easier than ever to find entertainment, gourmet food or information. That one-third of the nation’s output is doing better than ever – and has made leisure easier and cheaper than ever. However, except for the medical field, many of those high-tech improvements are on the margins (i.e., they only slightly improve the quality of life). And we’re still not getting many of the big things right – our schools are mediocre, there aren’t enough good-paying jobs, we have massive debts in both the public and private sectors, and a drug crisis that shows no sign of abating. And on top of all that, the public is more divided than any time since the 1960s, as evidenced by the last year’s racial violence in Virginia. If we could combine the economic boom of 1945 to 1969 and the national unity of the 1950s with the admitted technological virtuosity of today, then we would really have another “American Golden Age.”

Patrick Reddy is a Democratic political consultant from California and the author of the forthcoming “21st Century America.”

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