Sure the '70s were full of advances. Telecommunications started exchanging analog for digital. That brought us touch-tone phones and the common but clumsy hand-held calculators. But these products couldn't seem to get past the "almost there" stage as revolutions for industry and our daily lives.
Not coincidentally, the '70s were also plagued by economic malaise. President Richard Nixon tried to end it with wage and price controls. President Gerald Ford launched his "Whip Inflation Now" campaign, which included lapel buttons to boost morale. President Jimmy Carter presided over both high inflation and high unemployment. Whether led by Republicans or Democrats, those were years Americans just couldn't find a way out of the darkness.
The first years of this decade are looking eerily similar. The early '70s were polluted by the last phase of the Vietnam War. The past few years have been similarly overshadowed with the unprecedented battle against terrorists, including the aftermath of the war in Iraq. Serious international conflicts like these often drain capital and other resources that might otherwise be channeled toward the kind of groundbreaking public and private innovations that keep societies moving ahead.
Until we as a nation create something truly new, we will keep seeing our economy being powered by "the service industry." This economic model boils down to people endlessly handing the same dollar back and forth among themselves.
Unfortunately, the office of the president can't fairly be expected to be the source of the economic rabbit out of the hat we need to produce a "new new" product or invention. As a result, it's likely next year's election will be more about dealing with the economic and technological hand we've already been dealt.
So with modest expectations, a marginally improving economy over the next year may be enough to lift Americans' spirits -- and to keep Bush in office for another four years. But let's not be fooled. Ignition of the next economic boom likely depends on, well, something that most of us have yet to hear about, or even to imagine.
But take heart: The 1980s started slowly, even as many laughed at Gingrich's computer tax-break proposal. And given the unprecedented years of prosperity that soon followed, few of those amused observers will now admit their error in judgment.
Laugh at your own risk.
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