Everything old is new again

Globalization, the Internet, Silicon Valley and US politics, especially the wealth of a few, are all a repeat of the past. There have been other Silicon Valleys and moguls who became very rich.

Previous Silicon Valleys sprung up in Pittsburgh and Detroit, one with steel and the other with cars and trucks. Both withered on the vine and were replaced by California, New York and Boston where much of today’s venture capital is found, especially in communications and related industries. Both Pittsburgh and Detroit are making comebacks with university backed research in the case of Pittsburgh, and new startups around Detroit. One of Steve Case’s arguments in The Third Wave is that venture capital is migrating to many US cities not typically considered as entrepreneurial hangouts.

While American politics presents daily a sad sequence of Mad Magazine adventures, US business remains strong. It is the world’s strongest and most dynamic economy embedded in a third world political system, although parts of the economy spill over into tax havens like Panama.

The entrepreneurial forerunners of Bezos, Gates, Jobs, Page, Musk and Zuckerberg, were Carnegie, Ford, Morgan, Rockefeller, and moguls in the railroad and banking businesses. Public reaction to these titans was the passage of antitrust laws in the US, the Sherman Act, Clayton Act and FTC Act, and the 1889 Combines Act in Canada. Monopolies and price fixing were the focus of public outrage in this earlier period leading to this legislation and the prosecution of price fixing and mergers.

Steel, railroads, automobiles and banking are examples of developments which affected many industries, and were in many ways the equivalent to the way information technology is impacting all economic sectors today. When I was growing up (1934 and on), I seldom travelled far from home, when I did it was by bicycle, bus or train, certainly not air. When I communicated with family and friends, it was by letter, occasionally by telephone, but not long distance which was far too expensive. Telegrams were a cheaper means but provided nothing like Facetime, Skype and email. News came from newspapers and the radio with few broadcast stations. Public libraries were widely used for reading material, and music was sold on vinyl records often with one song per record.

Today, the allure of Trump to his supporters is because they feel disadvantaged as a result of the rapid pace of change in many economic sectors, resulting in either the loss of jobs or the receipt of lower salaries. One issue becomes the means of retraining the existing workforce, always more difficult for older workers, but similar changes have happened before. For example, in the printing industry, metal typesetters transitioned to keyboard typesetting. And the farming sector has become mechanized, so that less than two percent of the workforce now produces a far larger output than the thirty percent did a century ago.

Steinbeck in the Grapes of Wrath portrays what happens to a rural population when a natural disaster and the depression hit simultaneously. But adjustment did occur eventually as a result of a combination of migration, retraining and a war. Today, people expect faster adjustment, and communications provides the means to lobby for change politically. It is just weird to see a business tycoon represent those who are much poorer, and feel disadvantaged by the system which makes him rich.

Today, some similarities exist with the French Revolution described in Wikipedia as follows:

The French Revolution was a period of far-reaching social and political upheaval in France that lasted from 1789 until 1799, and was partially carried forward by Napoleon during the later expansion of the French Empire. The Revolution overthrew the monarchy, established a republic, experienced violent periods of political turmoil, and finally culminated in a dictatorship under Napoleon that rapidly brought many of its principles to Western Europe and beyond. Inspired by liberal and radical ideas, the Revolution profoundly altered the course of modern history,  triggering the global decline of absolute monarchies while replacing them with republics and liberal democracies. Through the Revolutionary Wars, it unleashed a wave of global conflicts that extended from the Caribbean to the Middle East. Historians widely regard the Revolution as one of the most important events in human history.

I make no claim to be an historian, and Trump may be no Napoleon, but the political commotion in the US, and the rise of the right in many European countries, added to the turmoil in the Middle East and North (and other parts of) Africa, suggest that some fairly significant changes are afoot……especially if you believe everything old is new again.

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