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The Maine Legislature finally adjourned this week. In her closing remarks, Gov. Janet Mills suggested that the COVID-19 pandemic was possibly the most dangerous threat of the “last 100 years.”
Meanwhile, Bangor Daily News columnist and University of Maine Professor Amy Fried echoed Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 89-year old “New Deal” language to advocate for Washington’s proposed $3 trillion-plus in “traditional” and “social” infrastructure spending.
Now, I love history. It is critical to understanding the current context of our world. And human nature is fairly immutable; it is why Aristotle ridiculed the youth of his day and Roman graffiti wouldn’t be misplaced in modernity. So the lessons of the past — when it comes to people — have a lot to teach us.
But 100 years ago, assuming Mills was referring to the 1918 Flu, the height of computer technology was a mechanical “differential analyser.” Today, billions have personal devices that fit in their pocket which can solve an inconceivable number of equations. And make phone calls!
Similarly, when President Roosevelt first spoke of the “New Deal,” the height of aerospace technology was building aircraft out of metal instead of wood. Eccentric billionaire Howard Hughs designed and built his own “H-1 Racer” to set the world airspeed record.
Fast forward, we now have aircraft built out of carbon fiber and titanium traversing the globe. Our eccentric billionaires have begun their own space race, a battle once waged solely by massive superpowers — the United States and the USSR — leveraging the talent and treasure present in each nation.
Now rich guys try to go to space for fun. And profit. And bragging rights.
In many ways, this reflects the technological advances that have occurred — from a historical perspective — at breakneck speed. As we look at the challenges facing us today, we have to leverage both history and our current capabilities.
Our technological advances have presented new tools with which to tackle other challenges. The “rich guy space race” has broadened mankind’s ability to go into orbit; SpaceX’s rockets are reusable. That opens up new avenues for “geoengineering,” offering opportunities to manage the amount of solar radiation — and thus heat — that the earth receives. Modern construction techniques offer ways to sequester atmospheric carbon.
Meanwhile, our political history is instructive, yet restrictive. Roosevelt’s “New Deal” was a massive expansion of Washington’s role in the lives of everyday Americans. However, it was designed at a time when assembly lines were a state-of-the-art manufacturing process. Traditional employment models — with wage income earned from structured work schedules — ruled the day.
The minimum wage was established in 1938 at 25 cents an hour. If we had indexed it to inflation then, the federal minimum wage today would be $4.38.
Obviously that is an absurdly low wage today. Instead, activists are now pushing a “fight for $15.” But minimum wage only applies to the traditional employment relationships that prevailed when the Spruce Goose was being built. If you do “gig work,” such as freelance writing or driving an Uber, you’re outside these antiquated regulations.
Many of our political fights today are mired in history. Roosevelt’s “minimum wage” has defined the wrong problem. Rather than focus on minimum wages, we should leverage our technology and our current economic system to tackle minimum incomes. Traditional infrastructure spending remains important, but connectivity now holds a rightful place in the conversation.
Because overcoming the problems of tomorrow won’t take millions working on assembly lines for a day’s wages, helped along by differential analysers. They will be solved by individuals with economic freedom pushing the boundaries of science and technology to come up with new, novel ideas.
And maybe some of them will get rich and become tomorrow’s eccentric billionaires. History shows it doesn’t need to be a bad thing.