Here’s some big thinking from Paul Kedrosky:
How many calls to a typical U.S. fire department are actually about fires? Less than 20%. …
Why, then, are they called fire departments? Because of history. …
Everywhere you look you see fire departments. Not, literally, fire departments, but organizations, technologies, institutions and countries that, like fire departments, are long beyond their "past due" date, or weirdly vestigial, and yet remain widespread and worryingly important.
The next point is one of my pets:
One of my favorite examples comes from the siting of cities. Many U.S. river cities are where they are because of portages, the carrying of boats and cargo around impassable rapids. This meant, many times, overnight stays, which led to hotels, entertainment, and, eventually, local industry, at first devoted to shipping, but then broader. Now, however, those portage cities are prisoners of history, sitting along rivers that no longer matter for their economy, meanwhile struggling with seasonal floods and complex geographies antithetical to development—all because a few early travelers using transportation technologies that no longer matter today had to portage around a few rapids. To put it plainly, if we rebooted right now most of these cities would be located almost anywhere else first.
I grew up in the Buffalo suburbs, and lived most of the 90s in New Orleans: two cities whose raison d’etre is long past.
But this is not a list-making game. This is not some Up With Technology exercise where we congratulate ourselves at how fast things are changing. This is the reverse. History increasingly traps us, creating paths—and endowments and costs, both in time and money—that must be traveled before we can change directions, however desirable those new directions might seem. History—the path by which we got here, and the endowments and effluvia it has left us—is an increasingly large weight on our progress. Our built environment is an installed base, like an ancient computer operating systems that holds back progress because compatibility gives such an immense advantage.
I loved the last point. Savor it for a minute … it’s subtle:
Writer William Gibson once famously said that the "The future is already here—it's just not very evenly distributed". I worry more that the past is here—it's just so evenly distributed that we can't get to the future.
Every time I hear Obama I hear “More past … with better windowdressing”. Of course, the Republicans seem to have the most trouble with the windowdressing part. They like the past too.
It seems to me that this is a fundamental problem with the way contemporary governments work. Just about everything they do is about protecting the past.
Think about it.
Social security and Medicare about protecting the past “because we worked for it”.
Our defense systems are perpetually fighting the last war.
Our social safety nets for the young ossify the bad habits and outcomes of the past.
Our urban planning is largely targeted at fixing the decaying cities, not making the newer ones more functional.
Telecommuting becomes easier every day, millions prefer it, and yet we fund money-losing public transportation.
And don’t even get me started about the post office … where Tuesday now seems devoted to bulk mail only.
Lastly, what about the national debt and the debt ceiling – the issue of the season? Is it fair to say that we’re allowing this to cripple us? Having said that, most of what’s going on is the desire for relatively small amounts of new spending that are precluded because of all the old purchases we haven’t paid for yet.