Is Amer­ica

Forbes - - Thought Leaders -

Al­fred Kroe­ber’s 1944 book, Con­fgu­ra­tions of Cul­ture Growth, is a mas­ter­piece in the feld of an­thro­pol­ogy. He was a 68-year-old pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia in Berke­ley when his 882-page book came out. Youth fa­vors math­e­ma­ti­cians and mobile phone app writ­ers but not an­thro­pol­o­gists. They have no way of by­pass­ing the decades of read­ing and re­search and deep syn­the­sis it takes to be­come good in their feld. And so what did the great Kroe­ber con­clude af­ter all his work? First, that in­di­vid­ual ge­niuses in the arts and sciences tend to rise from ad­vanc­ing cul­tures, not de­clin­ing ones. The peak pe­riod of a cul­ture is sig­naled by a spike in ge­nius con­trib­u­tors in the sciences and the arts. (We could add tech­nol­ogy.) The best Greek tragedies and come­dies were writ­ten within a 100-year pe­riod when an­cient Greece was at its peak. The peak in Ger­many’s mu­sic cul­ture lasted less than 200 years. Of longer du­ra­tion was England’s peak cre­ative pe­riod in sci­ence and tech­nol­ogy, which ran from about 1680 to 1910. The de­cline in ge­nius con­trib­u­tors af­ter that fore­shad­owed England’s de­cline as a global su­per­power.

Sec­ond, that cul­tures ad­vance when ethics and val­ues be­come un­der­stood and are deeply em­braced and when com­pe­tence is tested through com­pe­ti­tion. Cul­tures de­cline when the op­po­site hap­pens. Most cul­tures don’t fall by be­ing con­quered, not at frst. They wither from an ero­sion of val­ues, in­su­lar think­ing and a lack of com­pe­ti­tion. Not be­ing ro­bust from within or tested from with­out, cul­tures be­come weak with­out know­ing it. Or sens­ing they might be rot­ting, they cling to comic book val­ues, cen­tral­ized author­ity and thicker walls of pro­tec­tive in­su­lar­ity as a means of stop­ping the de­cline.

Us­ing pro­fes­sor Kroe­ber’s anal­y­sis, would you say the U.S. is ad­vanc­ing or de­clin­ing? Well, suc­ces­sive Amer­i­can Pres­i­dents have sought to con­sol­i­date power. Not a good sign. The two pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates lead­ing in the polls as of mid- Oc­to­ber, Clin­ton and Trump, have turned their backs on trade poli­cies that freely en­gage with the world. An­other bad sign (have we lost our com­pet­i­tive conf­dence?). How’s the coun­try do­ing on the ethics and val­ues front? Sheesh— do we want to go there? Clin­ton and Trump should avert their eyes. Con­clu­sion: The Amer­i­can po­lit­i­cal sys­tem is in de­cline. How about in the arts and sciences? Too long a topic, too short a col­umn! But let’s say this is mixed. Con­trast that with the 100-year pe­riod in the U.S. from 1865 to 1965, when arts and sciences were rapidly ad­vanc­ing. How about Amer­i­can com­pa­nies? Here at last is some good news: They are ad­vanc­ing in the world. Trump says Amer­ica no longer wins. But Amer­ica’s tech jug­ger­nauts—ap­ple, Google, Face­book, Ama­zon and Mi­crosoft— are so pow­er­ful that Europe wants to block them or break them up. By mar­ket cap, as of late Oc­to­ber, the U.S. is home to the top ten com­pa­nies in the world (Ap­ple, Google, Mi­crosoft, Exxon, Berk­shire Hath­away, Gen­eral Elec­tric, Face­book, Ama­zon, Wells Fargo and John­son & John­son). Five of th­ese are tech com­pa­nies with strong mo­men­tum.

The evo­lu­tion­ary pace of core tech­nol­ogy is slow­ing a bit. The half-cen­tury run of Moore’s Law is now be­ing chal­lenged by the cost of cir­cuits man­u­fac­tured on the atomic scale. We have no fy­ing cars, su­per­sonic air­planes or hy­per­loops—yet. Lack of sci­en­tifc progress is blunt­ing tech­nol­ogy at the lead­ing edge. Still, there’s so much catch-up work to be done, re­sult­ing in tril­lion-dol­lar op­por­tu­ni­ties, that we should mer­rily dive in. En­ergy, trans­porta­tion, agri­cul­ture and health care are be­ing trans­formed by dig­i­tal tech­nol­ogy. Amer­i­can en­trepreneurs and frms are in a great po­si­tion to proft from this.

Also in as­cent are the world’s “su­perci­ties,” a trend that rufes na­tivists in ev­ery coun­try. New York, Los An­ge­les and San Fran­cis­coSil­i­con Val­ley in­creas­ingly see them­selves as is­lands in a global econ­omy, less tied to the U.S. Are we liv­ing in a pe­riod of “peak na­tion”?

But for ev­ery rise there’s a back­lash. In Malaysia na­tive Malays, many of whom haven’t kept pace with im­mi­grants from China, In­dia and Europe, are called the bu­mi­put­era— sons of the soil. Pon­der this: Much of Malaysia’s ma­jor­ity pop­u­la­tion holds vic­tim sta­tus and en­joys afr­ma­tive-ac­tion benefts—and not for be­ing the mi­nor­ity but for not keep­ing up.

Ev­ery coun­try to­day has its bu­mi­put­era. In the U.S. they look to Bernie San­ders and Don­ald Trump, re­spond to comic book val­ues and de­mand more in­su­lar­ity. Their prob­lems and pain are real. But Trump and San­ders ofer so­lu­tions that will has­ten our de­cline.

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