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Looking back to the 1964 New York World's Fair

by William McGaughey *

On the 50th anniversary of the 1964 New York World’s Fair, people remembered how things were then compared with how they are now. This fair was focused upon technology, especially automobiles. Like the 1939 New York World’s Fair, it was optimistic.

Some predictions of the future came to pass: We have computers that are able to retrieve information easily. We have microwave ovens. However, visions of people traveling in flying cars have not been realized in the subsequent half century. Neither have colonies been established on the moon.

Of greater importance than these would be progress in how people live. Has society been improved? Are people happier today than in 1964? From my perspective as a 73-year-old man, it seems that America has moved in reverse. The 1960s were comparatively creative and free. Today we are chained to dreary media productions, militarism, and slave-like financial arrangements.

Writing about the 1964 World’s Fair, New York Times columnist Gail Collins observed on April 24, 2014: “The way people see the future can define their present. A century or so ago, when Americans were trying to imagine the year 2000, the talk was about ending social ills. The best-selling novel ‘Looking Backward’ told the story of a man who fell asleep and woke up in a world where crime, unemployment and mental illness had virtually vanished, where college was free, and laundry was cheap and people ate their stupendously delicious meals in communal dining rooms ... In 1964 at the fair, everyone was thinking about building stuff ...’progress always seemed to be about cars and skyscrapers and gadgets to make your life easier.’ ”

In contrast, she wrote: “And what of our visions of the future now? Imagining things 50 years in the future, our novelists and scriptwriters generally see things getting worse - civilizations crash, zombies arrive, the environment implodes ... And who would have imagined 50 years ago that we’d get to the moon and then give up on it? Microwave dinners really did arrive. But, like 3-D, the thrill is limited.” When people begin to identify with zombies, you know they have limited horizons of opportunity. In their own eyes, they are like the walking dead.

Gold Party aspires to turn this situation around. Yes, there are problems, but these can be overcome. However, it is necessary to have a vision of a better future before improvement can take place. One needs a goal toward which to be working.

In political terms, it is the leftists who want to change society for the better. Rightists generally believe that the free market (or a free society in general) is our best hope for improved conditions in society. I would generally agree with the latter assessment. However, there are some problems that cannot be solved by the free market or a free society but require government intervention. Problems relating to environmental degradation and (in an era of robots) employment are among them.

The failure to have a vision of the future is related to the ideological collapse of leftist politics. The type of socialism described in Bellamy’s “Looking Backward” was compelling but real socialism came along in the form of Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany. After those experiences, no sane person could believe in “scientific” management of society, a genius leader, or the collectivist dream. Short of this, leftists believed in government programs, safety nets, and the like, to alleviate problems while the capitalistic system was kept in place. These, too, have led to self-interested bureaucracies, offering limited hope for the future.

The leftist collapse goes beyond this, however. It involves a failure of nerve. I have noticed that commentators on the left, even the most intelligent ones, are adept at describing problems but seem unwilling to present possible solutions. They are incapable of utopian thinking of the sort that Edward Bellamy, Karl Marx, Horace Greeley, and others practiced. Why is this?

First, I think that commentators on the left need to be respected as intellectuals. They must be well-educated and in synch with their peers to maintain their position with the media or other opinion-setting organizations. To describe a problem that is obviously real poses no risk to their reputation. To suggest a solution, on the other hand, opens oneself up to criticisms of various sorts. The commentators risk being called “ill-informed” or “naive”.

Leftist (or "progressive") politicians are reluctant to suggest solutions for another reason: They are elected to public office through the process of building constituencies. Constituencies are usually formed around problems. For example, if U.S. auto workers’ jobs are threatened by a free-trade agreement with Mexico, politicians can win votes from auto workers by citing the danger of job loss if free-trade agreements are concluded. What is the alternative to concluding such agreements? Is it simply no action, thereby affirming the status quo; or is it some other type of arrangement?

This aspect is seldom discussed. To suggest a specific alternative is a no-win situation for politicians; it would alienate certain voters. To keep the alternative open offends no one. Therefore, positive alternatives, though sometimes implied, are seldom presented with any degree of specificity.

I am familiar with the debates of free trade - NAFTA, in particular - having published one of the first books on the subject in 1992. I even handed a copy of this book to presidential candidate Bill Clinton. While the focus was upon opposition to NAFTA, the movement flourished. But after Clinton made a deal with Wall Street donors to back NAFTA in exchange for parity in Wall Street campaign donations between the parties, most Democrats backed off this issue. Some continued to warn of problems, but few have advanced to proposing solutions.

I am one of the exceptions. I published papers on the subject in the Green Party publication Synthesis/Regeneration (See A Model of Trade Oriented toward Labor and the Environment and A Search for Labor-Standards Auditing in International Trade.) I also ran for President on a platform of employer-specific tariffs for firms producing goods for export. I spent five weeks campaigning in Louisiana’s 2004 Democratic Presidential primary and, as a political unknown, finished fifth among seven candidates with 3,100 votes after DNC chair Terrence McAuliffe kicked me off the South Carolina ballot. However, those efforts went largely unnoticed. No one else has picked up the banner of employer-specific tariffs or anything remotely like it.

Since then, there has been a major hurricane in Louisiana (2005) and a potential collapse of the U.S. financial system (2008). Trade deficits remain as large as ever - around $40 billion a month. The U.S. national debt has risen from $7.4 trillion in 2004 to $17.5 trillion today, ten years later. The housing market, whose bubble threatened the banking system six years ago, has rebounded somewhat; but now there is another bubble in financing student loans. Young people, promised good jobs if they graduated from college, will be chained to repayment of those loans for years to come, even while their employment prospects diminish. While race-base slavery in the 19th century is universally deplored, today’s financial enslavement of young people brings comparatively little complaint.

We need a better vision of the future. The first order of business is to stabilize employment at an acceptable level of wages. The fact is that a modern economy does not require as many workers as in the past because machines have assumed much of the production work. It is not just “blue-collar” jobs that are at risk but also “white-collar” managerial and professional jobs. Computers will supply the knowledge base utilized in the professions. That being the case, there would seem to be less need to acquire this knowledge in schools. There would seem to be less need to spend time at work if computerized robots will be taking over much of the production.

The obvious solution is to cut the scheduled hours of work for human workers while arranging that part of the production value added by machines goes toward maintaining the level of wages. For, it is only by maintaining wages that we maintain consumer demand; and only by maintaining consumer demand do we keep the economy producing at a high level. The alternative - less desirable in my opinion - is for government to take control of economic resources and put people on welfare. Work, not welfare, is the moral basis of our economy. With some exceptions, you should get only if you put into the pot.

It is possible to cut working hours substantially - to 20 hours a week or less - and still meet people’s material needs because much of the work done in today’s economy supports various forms of wasteful activity undertaken or required by the government. It takes the form of dealing with “necessary evils” in the justice, health-care, and other industries. This type of “production” needs drastically to be curtailed.

The net result - which I see as the basis of a better future - is a materially satisfied society with much more free time. The fact that it is free time means that individuals decide how that time will be spent. Adequate free time is a requirement of a free society. No one - not government, not education, not religion, not business, not entertainment - has a right to tell us individually how we should arrange our lives in a leisure-rich society. Still, in view of pessimistic predictions that people would only waste that time, I feel compelled to suggest some alternatives.

People with more free time and enough material support will naturally be more creative than people chained to time-consuming jobs. They will naturally invent new kinds of commercial products. Beyond this, they may invent new living routines. A premium may be placed on perfecting personal identity. People will want to know who they are and how they can become better or more interesting and compelling persons. They will create their own life dramas.

And so, social competitiveness may come to rely less upon economic advancement within the career system and more upon spiritual advancement or production of culturally valuable works. College campuses may come to be places where likeminded persons gather, and express themselves and compete intellectually, and less places that prepare young people for careers. It may be that careers will become like military service - fulfilling one’s obligation to society - rather than a lifelong opportunity for acquiring personal distinctions. My own life did really not take off in terms of fulfillment until I had “retired” from a career. The years of free time while I remained vigorous and healthy have been so much more valuable than those previously spent working for employers.

We must also take into consideration that the years ahead will pose environmental challenges. Especially in America, people will need to consume less material and recycle more of what they consume. To have more free time will aid in that process. People may grow more of their own food in gardens, they may mend their own clothing more, and they may learn to do more home repairs.

However, the main thing is that “keeping up with the Joneses” will not require earning more money and consuming more goods; there may be a new social competition based upon what type of person one becomes. That means that consuming fewer material goods will mean, not a decline in living standards but a shift to improvement in other areas of life. The “better society” of tomorrow may not be better by today’s materialistic standards; it will likely represent instead an improvement in terms of human happiness and fulfillment.

I think it would be a good thing to recognize that the earth has limited resources for human beings to exploit, especially with human populations growing at a fast pace. We need to change our thinking to take the new realities into account. We need to discard or disregard old attitudes and myths that prevent us from dealing with today’s realities. This is a pivotal time in world history. Are we up to the challenge? Gold Party gives people who agree with the need to change along those lines an opportunity to assume government powers.

Back to the 1964 New York World’s Fair. Yes, I went there, too. After visiting the Minnesota state exhibit at the Fair, I decided to move to Minnesota where I had never been before but where I have now lived for almost fifty years. That decision may or may not have been wise, but it set in motion a series of events which, on the whole, I do not regret.

I made my decision to move to Minnesota in hopes of finding a better future. (It had Control Data, Honeywell, 3M, and other corporate giants.) Had I stayed on the Greyhound bus marked “Seattle” to the end instead of getting off in Minneapolis, the opportunities might even have been better. But then it would have been harder to maintain contact with my birth family who lived on the east coast. We also need to keep in touch with where we have been.

 

* William McGaughey is the creator of this web site.

 

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