Pale Blue Dot

Maria Popova reflects on living in turbulent times:

When the Voyager completed its exploratory mission and took the last photograph — of Neptune — NASA commanded that the cameras be shut off to conserve energy. But Carl Sagan had the idea of turning the spacecraft around and taking one final photograph — of Earth. Objections were raised — from so great a distance and at so low a resolution, the resulting image would have absolutely no scientific value. But Sagan saw the larger poetic worth — he took the request all the way up to NASA’s administrator and charmed his way into permission.

PIA00452_hires.jpg

And so, on Valentine’s Day of 1990, just after Bulgaria’s Communist regime was finally defeated after nearly half a century of reign, the Voyager took the now-iconic image of Earth known as the “Pale Blue Dot” — a grainy pixel, “a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam,” as Sagan so poetically put it when he immortalized the photograph in his beautiful “Pale Blue Dot” monologue from Cosmos — that great masterwork of perspective, a timeless reminder that “everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was… every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician” lived out their lives on this pale blue dot. And every political conflict, every war we’ve ever fought, we have waged over a fraction of this grainy pixel barely perceptible against the cosmic backdrop of endless lonesome space.

In the cosmic blink of our present existence, as we stand on this increasingly fragmented pixel, it is worth keeping the Voyager in mind as we find our capacity for perspective constricted by the stranglehold of our cultural moment. It is worth questioning what proportion of the news this year, what imperceptible fraction, was devoted to the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics, awarded for the landmark detection of gravitational waves — the single most significant astrophysical discovery since Galileo. After centuries of knowing the universe only by sight, only by looking, we can now listen to it and hear echoes of events that took place billions of lightyears away, billions of years ago — events that made the stardust that made us.

I don’t think it is possible to contribute to the present moment in any meaningful way while being wholly engulfed by it. It is only by stepping out of it, by taking a telescopic perspective, that we can then dip back in and do the work which our time asks of us.

I love Valya Balkanska’s “Izlel ye Delyo Haydutin”, the Bulgarian folk song from Carl Sagan and Voyager’s “Golden Record”. That sort of folk song is something I can imagine our earliest ancestors being moved by, tens and hundreds of thousands of years ago. And someday maybe it will move others, too.

American economic growth

Warren Buffett is optimistic:

I have good news. First, most American children are going to live far better than their parents did. Second, large gains in the living standards of Americans will continue for many generations to come. …

We can be confident that births minus deaths will add no more than 0.5% yearly to America’s population. Immigration is more difficult to predict. I believe 1 million people annually is a reasonable estimate, an influx that will add 0.3% annually to population growth.

In total, therefore, you can expect America’s population to increase about 0.8% a year. Under that assumption, gains of 2% in real GDP–that is, without nominal gains produced by inflation–will annually deliver 1.2% growth in per capita GDP.

This pace no doubt sounds paltry. But over time, it works wonders. In 25 years–a single generation–1.2% annual growth boosts our current $59,000 of GDP per capita to $79,000. This $20,000 increase guarantees a far better life for our children.

In America, it should be noted, there’s nothing unusual about that sort of gain, magnificent though it will be. Just look at what has happened in my lifetime.

I was born in 1930, when the symbol of American wealth was John D. Rockefeller Sr. Today my upper-middle-class neighbors enjoy options in travel, entertainment, medicine and education that were simply not available to Rockefeller and his family. With all of his riches, John D. couldn’t buy the pleasures and conveniences we now take for granted.

Two words explain this miracle: innovation and productivity. Conversely, were today’s Americans doing the same things in the same ways as they did in 1776, we would be leading the same sort of lives as our forebears.

Replicating those early days would require that 80% or so of today’s workers be employed on farms simply to provide the food and cotton we need. So why does it take only 2% of today’s workers to do this job? Give the credit to those who brought us tractors, planters, cotton gins, combines, fertilizer, irrigation and a host of other productivity improvements.

To all this good news there is, of course, an important offset: in our 241 years, the progress that I’ve described has disrupted and displaced almost all of our country’s labor force. If that level of upheaval had been foreseen–which it clearly wasn’t–strong worker opposition would surely have formed and possibly doomed innovation. How, Americans would have asked, could all these unemployed farmers find work?

We know today that the staggering productivity gains in farming were a blessing. They freed nearly 80% of the nation’s workforce to redeploy their efforts into new industries that have changed our way of life.

You can describe these develop-ments as productivity gains or disruptions. Whatever the label, they explain why we now have our amazing $59,000 of GDP per capita.

This game of economic miracles is in its early innings. Americans will benefit from far more and better “stuff” in the future. The challenge will be to have this bounty deliver a better life to the disrupted as well as to the disrupters. And on this matter, many Americans are justifiably worried.

Let’s think again about 1930. Imagine someone then predicting that real per capita GDP would increase sixfold during my lifetime. My parents would have immediately dismissed such a gain as impossible. If somehow, though, they could have imagined it actually transpiring, they would concurrently have predicted something close to universal prosperity.

Instead, another invention of the ensuing decades, the Forbes 400, paints a far different picture. Between the first computation in 1982 and today, the wealth of the 400 increased 29-fold–from $93 billion to $2.7 trillion–while many millions of hardworking citizens remained stuck on an economic treadmill. During this period, the tsunami of wealth didn’t trickle down. It surged upward.

In 1776, America set off to unleash human potential by combining market economics, the rule of law and equality of opportunity. This foundation was an act of genius that in only 241 years converted our original villages and prairies into $96 trillion of wealth.

The market system, however, has also left many people hopelessly behind, particularly as it has become ever more specialized. These devastating side effects can be ameliorated: a rich family takes care of all its children, not just those with talents valued by the marketplace.

In the years of growth that certainly lie ahead, I have no doubt that America can both deliver riches to many and a decent life to all. We must not settle for less.

I share Buffett’s optimism for America’s economic growth, with the caveat that history would suggest that our meager birth rate might be a signal of a cultural malaise that could diminish economic growth. I also agree with Buffett’s point that the gains from wealth must start trickling down more than they have for most of the past half century. If they don’t, the next generation of Buffetts will (probably rightly) face pitchforks and torches.

Jackson Magnolia

Kate Bennett reports:

The south facade of the White House will undergo a dramatic change this week: the historic Jackson Magnolia, a tree that has been in place since the 1800s, is scheduled to be cut down and removed.

The enormous magnolia, one of three on the west side of the White House and the oldest on the White House grounds, extends from the ground floor, up past the front of the windows of the State Dining Room on the first floor and beyond the second-level executive residence. The tree has had a long and storied life, yet has now been deemed too damaged and decayed to remain in place.

Specialists at the United States National Arboretum [wrote] … in part: “The overall architecture and structure of the tree is greatly compromised and the tree is completely dependent on the artificial support. Without the extensive cabling system, the tree would have fallen years ago. Presently, and very concerning, the cabling system is failing on the east trunk, as a cable has pulled through the very thin layer of wood that remains. It is difficult to predict when and how many more will fail.”

Another excerpt on the history of this tree:

After a brutal presidential campaign in 1828, Andrew Jackson’s wife, Rachel, died just days after his election; according to historians, Jackson believed the particularly divisive campaign contributed to his wife’s untimely demise. When he took up residence in the White House as a widower following his inauguration, it is believed Jackson insisted on planting a sprout from Rachel’s favorite magnolia tree from the couple’s farm, Hermitage, in Tennessee.

That tree eventually grew into the sprawling magnolia the American public has come to know and recognize to this day. (A companion magnolia was planted on the opposite side of the South Portico years later for symmetry.) The official Jackson Magnolia has been in the background for numerous historic events, from state arrival ceremonies and Easter Egg Rolls, to thousands of photo ops, social and athletic activities, and countless Marine One departures and arrivals. …

From 1928 to 1998, the tree was featured prominently on the back of the $20 bill.

In 1994, a single-engine plane crashed onto the South Lawn of the White House, sending debris from the wreckage into the Jackson Magnolia, cutting off one of its larger branches.

Laura Bush commissioned a set of White House china inspired by the tree, called “The Magnolia Residence China,” painted with magnolia leaves and blossoms.

In 2016, Obama also clipped a seedling as a gift to the people of Cuba; it was planted during the Obamas’ visit there. Various other dignitaries and first ladies have gifted or replanted seedlings from the tree throughout history.

A view of the Jackson Magnolia on the $20 bills of my youth. The magnolia can be seen on the reverse bill below. These bills were phased out in the late 1990s.

2077hstar_449_0

Version 2

Despite this end of the Jackson Magnolia, a new generation will follow:

…the silver lining of its demise is that White House groundskeepers were prepared. For several months, at an undisclosed greenhouse-like location nearby, healthy offshoots of the tree have been growing, tended to with care and now somewhere around eight to 10 feet tall. CNN has learned the plan is that another Jackson Magnolia, born directly from the original, will soon be planted in its place, for history to live on.

Trees like this can be symbols and focal points for a nation or a community’s history, memory, and identity. They remind those who admire them across time and over so many human generations how short the sweep of seemingly-long time can be, how close we really are to those who came before, and how near we are to passing from the scene. In this way, they remind us to be stewards of the best of what we’ve received, and to strive to pass along that best for the better of those yet to be.

War and the ‘pleasure of agency’

Shadi Hamid writes on Omar El Akkad’s American War and asks, “what holds a society together in the absence of common ideas?” Excerpting:

During the war, dying, as Drew Gilpin Faust writes in her seminal history This Republic of Suffering, became an art, and Christianity was central to dying well. “It is work to die, to know how to approach and endure life’s last moments,” Faust writes. Christianity, already infused in daily life, became even more so as the death toll rose: “Redefined as eternal life, death was celebrated in mid-nineteenth-century America.” After the war, as the realities of defeat settled, there was inevitably the question of “why?” Was the fall of the Confederacy, suffering a significantly higher mortality rate than the north, a punishment from God?

Both sides, with presumably “fine” people on each, prayed to the same God and, therefore, believed they were right, and that God would grant them victory. Presumably, if their cause were indeed just, he would also spare them a long and grinding war. In a war’s early stages, ideas and ideals seem more pure, untainted by political calculation or the atrocities of one’s own side. But once you pick a side—or once you’re already on a side because you happen to be of the South or of the North—there isn’t much you can do. War becomes “tribal.” Sarat, a Southern rebel and American War’s protagonist, asks her mentor Albert Gaines, a Northerner by birth and a veteran of Iraq and Syria, why he chose to side with the South:

“I sided with the Red because when a Southerner tells you what they’re fighting for—be it tradition, pride, or just mule-headed stubbornness—you can agree or disagree, but you can’t call it a lie. When a Northerner tells you what they’re fighting for, they’ll use words like democracy and freedom and equality and the whole time both you and they know that the meaning of those words changes by the day.”

Gaines goes on: “Right or wrong, you own your cause and you never, ever change your mind.” This seems to worry Sarat, and so he asks her: “If you knew for a fact we were wrong, would it be enough to turn you against your own people?” “No,” she says.

But for those predisposed to fight—perhaps if they witnessed a massacre, as Sarat did—there is a kind of joy to be found from taking up arms for a cause. Writing on the motivations that drew El Salvadorian insurgents to join together during the 1970s and 1980s, Elisabeth Jean Wood captures this feeling, arguing that “they took pride, indeed pleasure, in the successful assertion of their interests and identity.” Wood calls this “the pleasure of agency.”

There’s something to this, isn’t there? War and the urge toward it boiled down to the simple “pleasure of agency,” with so much justification as some kind of window-dressing for the latent violence in our hearts that flows from the desire to justify one’s existence by one’s own force of being?

The “pleasure of agency” versus the law of the cross.

Ross Ulbricht

Brian Doherty reviews Nick Bilton’s “American Kingpin: The Epic Hunt for the Criminal Mastermind Behind the Silk Road:”

Bilton rushes through Ulbricht’s trial. He does not discuss, even to debunk, the legal problems with the prosecution that Ulbricht’s lawyers have brought up. He never addresses any of the Fourth Amendment issues raised by the case, such as what Ulbricht’s team argues was an unconstitutionally broad search of the contents of his laptop. He doesn’t mention that the story he repeats uncritically about how the FBI found the Silk Road server has been declared impossible by various computer experts, or that the government has provided no verifiable corroboration for it and didn’t put the agent in question on the stand for cross-examination.

Nor does he discuss some obvious alterations in the computer records from Ulbricht’s stolen laptop—discovered by his lawyers after the trial—or the fact that someone was logging into Silk Road servers as “Dread Pirate Roberts” after Ulbricht was behind bars. When discussing the second set of alleged murders-for-hire, he lets nearly 100 pages pass before he lets the reader know that the killings never happened.

And then there’s the book’s end, which robs the cops’ whole cat-and-mouse game of any real meaning.

The conclusion calls back to the book’s opening, when a Homeland Security agent discovers an MDMA pill in some mail that a colleague blithely decided to open. (Bilton’s authorial voice sees nothing problematic in police opening any mail they want from overseas, a sad legal reality that’s key to many aspects of this story.) In the book’s final anecdote, with Ulbricht in prison for life, that same agent encounters a package with 200 such pills.

All the detailed sleuthing to find Ulbricht, all the lives upended and community destroyed, were ultimately for naught. Drugs are still sold, drugs are still shipped, drugs are still consumed. Silk Road’s encryption-and-bitcoin model is being used to traffic more illegal substances than were ever moved over Ulbricht’s website.

And they always will be. Ulbricht pioneered a new way of meeting a constant human desire, and that approach is unequivocally better, in every way, for sellers, users, and society at large. The pointless quest to arrest him did nothing to kill that innovation.

Yet the people who dedicated their time—and our money—to “taking him down” are the heroes of this narrative. Bilton’s book does what he thinks it does: It tells a harrowing and depressing story of a moral compass gone hideously askew, destroying lives. But that broken compass isn’t Ross Ulbricht’s.

I met Ross Ulbricht at Penn State in 2008, when I was an undergrad and he was working on his master’s degree. We only interacted maybe twice, and I doubt he would have any memory of me, but I remember him. When news of the Silk Road trial broke a few years ago, I was amazed that the same Ross Ulbricht was the “Dread Pirate Roberts” referenced in the federal allegations.

Ross’s sentence of life imprisonment without possibility of parole, given his age, given the nonviolent nature of his offenses, and given the corruption of the FBI agents who built the case against him, is a travesty.

Student debt and outcomes

Far better than legislation to socialize the cost of college education would be for Congress to ensure interest rates for loans reflected the true risks/rewards behind specific colleges and degrees. Nick Phillips lays out “how we got here” and the specifics of what a modest but important market-based reform to American higher education policy might be:

Total student loan debt has tripled since 2004 and currently amounts to $1.31 trillion, making it the largest consumer debt category in the country behind mortgage debt. Current default rates stand at 11 percent, eerily mirroring the peak of mortgage delinquency rates during the subprime crisis. And student loans carry the highest delinquency rate of any category of consumer borrowing. This should worry everyone.

The growth of student loan debt has depressed home ownership and consumption, creating an ever-growing headwind to economic growth. Missed payments ruin the credit ratings of individual borrowers and limit their capacity to assume risk—for example by starting a new business or moving to a new state.

The harms aren’t just economic. By dampening entrepreneurialism and creating a new generation of immobile, risk-averse young people, student debt actually has the capacity to change our national character. Borrowers have lost confidence in themselves and have turned instead to government for protective bailouts.

Hopelessness is festering into radicalism. Young people are furious with these restraints on their mobility, and currently that fury is being channeled by Bernie Sanders with his plan to socialize the cost of public university for all students. Instead of ceding this all-important ground to progressive activists, conservatives should be leaping over themselves to propose solutions to this catastrophe. After all, it was created by the federal government.

That federal government holds over a trillion dollars of student loan debt, and taxpayers are expected to take a net loss of $170 billion on these loans over the next decade. And the losses will only get worse. The easy availability of federal aid incentivizes universities to keep raising tuition. Taxpayers cover those costs upfront in the form of federal aid, while the universities have no skin in the game if their students default after graduating. Tuition thus goes up and up, and the dominant policy response is always to make federal aid even more available, inflating the bubble further. …

When the government keeps interest rates artificially low for degrees that in fact carry a high risk of default, it induces more people to sign up for risky programs. Interest rates are supposed to act as a signal that such programs are not good investments. Absent that signal, students with unsophisticated understandings of personal finance and the labor market (and hopped up on Baby Boomer platitudes about following your passion at all costs) see no reason not to go deep into the red to attend a barely accredited university and major in film studies. …

The easy availability of federal money disincentivizes universities from lowering tuition or improving the quality of their education, while incentivizing bad universities that sell a terrible product to stay open. Under this scheme, student borrowers and taxpayers suffer together. Every incentive is misaligned. An injection of market principles is essential medicine.

The example Nick cites, of Thomas M. Cooley Law School, is devastating. No way that institution stays open, except for government policy that enables easy student debt from credulous young people:

The largest law school in the country is Thomas M. Cooley Law School. Its tuition is $50,790 per year, roughly equivalent to top law schools like Yale ($59,865), Berkeley ($52,654), and UT Austin ($50,480). And of course, the government will help you borrow at the same rate to attend Cooley as those other schools. But Cooley is not these other schools. Cooley is the worst subprime risk imaginable. Seventy-five percent of its graduates were not employed in the legal field one year after graduation. Fifty percent of its graduates weren’t employed at all. No rational lender would touch it, but the government’s drive for equity keeps it open. For the sake of its prospective students, Cooley must be made to get cheaper, get better, or close.

At some point, when the student debt bubble bursts, many people will be crying alligator tears and putting on a show to ask, “How could this happen?” Anyone who cares enough to pay attention to this issue knows exactly what’s happening—but it’s so much more attractive to get paid in whatever way by exploiting the present system, than to agitate for its collapse.

Those hardest hit are the students and professors themselves, but the lie that “access to higher education” is always and everywhere a path to success is too sweet a promise to contest—even if generations are stuck with trillions in debt to finance a law degree that’s left them jobless.

If I were a trustee or administrator in higher education, I would prepare for the inevitable shocks to come by trying to make my institution not the “most student friendly” college, but actually the “most professor friendly” college. Walking down that path ensures a robust college for decades to come, led by sparkling talent who will ensure young people continue to enroll even if debt-financed tuition becomes harder to obtain.

And it’ll be a heck of a lot more just for the professors and students, too—ostensibly the people who are at the heart of any great college.

Puritan capitalism

Dr. David L. Schindler reviews Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism:

Probably the most common reading of Max Weber’s argument in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism is that capitalism appeared for the first time with English Puritans (Calvinists) of the seventeenth century, as though the “impulse to acquisition, pursuit of gain, of money” began decisively at this time or with this people (17). Weber is sardonic in his dismissal of such a reading. The impulse to acquisition, he says, “has existed among waiters, physicians, coachmen, artists, prostitutes, dishonest officials, soldiers, nobles, crusaders, gamblers and beggars. One may say that it has been common to all sorts and conditions of men at all times and in all countries of the earth, wherever the objective possibility of it is or has been given” (17). He insists that “[i]t should be taught in the kindergarten of cultural history that this naïve idea of capitalism must be given up once and for all. Unlimited greed for gain is not in the least identical with capitalism, and is still less its spirit” (17). Weber’s argument is centered rather on a more basic and interesting phenomenon: what he terms the “disenchantment” (die Entzauberung, or Rationalisierung, “rationalization”) of life and work in Puritan theology.

In summary, we may say that Puritanism’s peculiar God-centeredness, according to Weber, conceived God’s transcendence “negatively”: God was pervasively “present” in the world only through the influence of his “absence.” The human being never participates intrinsically in God’s goodness. On the contrary, man remains a subject to whom that goodness must be imputed, incomprehensively and from outside. Likewise the things of the world are drained of all intrinsic worth.

Puritan “disenchantment” thus involves an utterly utilitarian view of the world. Man’s purpose in the world is to be ever-active in “rationalizing” things in maiorem Dei gloriam. But the point is that this “rationalizing” process is conceived in a thoroughly instrumentalized fashion. Nothing in the cosmos really bears value—or salvific value in relation to God—save as “rationalized” via the power of human activity. …

In this light, “the most urgent task” for the Puritan becomes “the destruction of spontaneous, impulsive enjoyment”—as a necessary condition for bringing “order into . . . conduct” (119). “Not leisure and enjoyment, but only activity serves to increase the glory of God” (157‒58). Restlessness becomes a sign of God’s salvific action. Inactive contemplation is valueless, or even directly reprehensible insofar as it detracts from the orderly demands of daily work. What gives glory to God, in a word, is the incessantly active performance of his will in one’s “worldly calling” (157‒58). …

It is important to see that the Puritan ethos as described by Weber persists in America even when, over time, the strength of Puritan piety wanes.[2] Pious Americans and secularized Americans continue to occupy largely the same cultural space, insofar as they both presume a distant God who is most effectively present in and to the world in his “absence,” and insofar as they (consequently) approach the things of the world most basically as apt for rationalization—if not any longer as a sign (for the religiously inclined) of God’s imputed favor, then in the interest of enhancing comfort and advancing the (secular) human estate.[3] What is crucial to see is the link Weber’s book defends (here set forth in terms of Puritanism and America) between the ethos of a culture and its (acknowledged or unacknowledged) assumptions regarding God and the orders of creation and civilization.[4] This link remains even when one is unaware of these assumptions.

Weber’s argument, then, implies not only that those in America who faithfully follow Puritan theology embody this ethos, but that any who live in America are inevitably shaped by this ethos, even if unconsciously. They tend to presuppose a God who is distant from the world, or acts ungenerously (or not at all) in relation to the world, such that the world is no longer symbolic of God, bearing inherent truth, goodness, and beauty as given (qua being). Human freedom becomes a simple exercise of choice, absent of any naturally ordered love of God. Knowledge becomes a matter properly of power over things and their meaning, as distinct from first “seeing” or experiencing things as they are (contemplation). The world becomes neutral (“dumb”) stuff awaiting controlled manipulation (experiment). Leisure is identified with idleness and enjoyment of external-bodily pleasure. Work is reduced to ever-more efficient activity for the purpose of producing the ever-greater wealth that enables idle comfort. Deepening the truth, goodness, and beauty of things for their own sake and as symbols of the good God, and thus simultaneously toward liturgical service, is no longer the proper concern of civilized public—economic, political, academic—order.

Weber’s argument in the end implies that no religion has more thoroughly instrumentalized the world and work and leisure than has Puritanism.

I’m instantly skeptical when I hear someone cast “capitalism” in a negative light, because behind the slight air of scorn that almost always accompanies the comment is some specific complaint or reading-into of a social/moral/cultural activity that the person has a problem with and assigns to “capitalism” broadly, rather than the actor specifically. Dr. Schindler sheds light for me on one of the legitimate problems of our age—this cultural “breathing in” of the Puritan mentality of justification through activity/work—that makes it difficult to even speak about “capitalism” without meaning a sort of capitalism wherein no one is ever at peace.

Catholics have lots of work to do if we’re ever to reform a cultural sense of capitalism that is closer to what Michael Novak so clearly recognized it is, at its core: an uplifting and ennobling force, so long as it allowed for the creative and virtuous channeling of human energies in a way that recognizes human dignity.

Thanksgiving

Happy Thanksgiving. While Thanksgiving certainly predates the founding of the United States and stretches back to the initial settlements in North America, it’s notable that the first “National Thanksgiving” was held December 18, 1777. Sheilah Vance writes:

On December 18, 1777, General George Washington’s army celebrated the first national Thanksgiving in Gulph Mills and on Rebel Hill. The celebration caused a one day delay in the army’s march to Valley Forge, which General Washington had decided a day earlier, was to be where the army would make its winter quarters.

The purpose of the Thanksgiving, according to the November 1, 1777 proclamation of the Continental Congress, was for “Solemn Thanksgiving and Praise” and “to inspire our Commanders both by Land and Sea, and all under them, with that Wisdom and Fortitude which may render them fit Instruments, under the Providence of Almighty GOD, to secure for these United States the greatest of all human blessings, INDEPENDENCE and PEACE…”

Reverend Israel Evans, chaplin to General Poor’s New Hampshire brigade, preached at least one of the Thanksgiving sermons. The text of his sermon was printed by Lancaster, Pa. printer, Francis Bailey, who is credited with being the first printer to name, in print, Gen. Washington as “the Father of His Country.” General Washington received a copy of this Thanksgiving sermon on March 12, 1778.

img_0047

First National Thanksgiving Celebrated by Washington’s Army

Here at “The Gulph” on Thursday, December 18, 1777 Washington’s Army delayed their march into Valley Forge by one day to celebrate the first Thanksgiving of the United States proclaimed by the Continental Congress with Chaplains performing the divine service. This Thanksgiving in spite of suffering the day before the march into Valley Forge showed the reverence and character that was forging the soul of a nation.

 

Old Ironsides

Another historical anecdote I enjoyed from David McCullough’s The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris, was the role that Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.’s “Old Ironsides” poem played in conserving the USS Constitution, commissioned in 1794 and our oldest serving naval ship:

Old Ironsides

Aye tear her tattered ensign down
Long has it waved on high,
And many an eye has danced to see
That banner in the sky;
Beneath it rung the battle shout,
And burst the cannon’s roar;—
The meteor of the ocean air
Shall sweep the clouds no more.

Her deck, once red with heroes’ blood,
Where knelt the vanquished foe,
When winds were hurrying o’er the flood,
And waves were white below,
No more shall feel the victor’s tread,
Or know the conquered knee;—
The harpies of the shore shall pluck
The eagle of the sea!

Oh, better that her shattered hulk
Should sink beneath the wave;
Her thunders shook the mighty deep,
And there should be her grave;
Nail to the mast her holy flag,
Set every threadbare sail,
And give her to the god of storms,
The lightning and the gale!

 

Horses, cars, and fleets

Elon Musk is having trouble ramping Tesla’s mass market Model 3 into production, and speculators of all sorts have an opinion about how rapidly cars will shift from internal combustion to electric. Bob Lutz’s opinion is worth probably more than most—he’s a former vice chairman and head of product at General Motors, and worked at Ford, Chrysler, BMW, and others. He writes:

For hundreds of years, the horse was the prime mover of humans and for the past 120 years it has been the automobile. Now we are approaching the end of the line for the automobile because travel will be in standardized modules.

The end state will be the fully autonomous module with no capability for the driver to exercise command. You will call for it, it will arrive at your location, you’ll get in, input your destination and go to the freeway. On the freeway, it will merge seamlessly into a stream of other modules traveling at 120, 150 mph. The speed doesn’t matter. You have a blending of rail-type with individual transportation. Then, as you approach your exit, your module will enter deceleration lanes, exit and go to your final destination. You will be billed for the transportation. You will enter your credit card number or your thumbprint or whatever it will be then. The module will take off and go to its collection point, ready for the next person to call.

Most of these standardized modules will be purchased and owned by the Ubers and Lyfts and God knows what other companies that will enter the transportation business in the future. A minority of individuals may elect to have personalized modules sitting at home so they can leave their vacation stuff and the kids’ soccer gear in them. They’ll still want that convenience. The vehicles, however, will no longer be driven by humans because in 15 to 20 years — at the latest — human-driven vehicles will be legislated off the highways.

The tipping point will come when 20 to 30 percent of vehicles are fully autonomous.  … there will be a transition period. Everyone will have five years to get their car off the road or sell it for scrap or trade it on a module. …

The era of the human-driven automobile, its repair facilities, its dealerships, the media surrounding it — all will be gone in 20 years.

Another way to think of this is the continuing democratization of travel generally, but freedom of movement specifically. When one can safely send their kid 1,000 miles away in an autonomous fleet vehicle for relatively little compared to flight—and direct from point to point—you’ve created an incredibly liberating set of social conditions where ties to specific physical place is likely to be even further reduced from what it is today.