Belmont Club

The Big 21

There are some weeks when you know it’s the 21st century not because the last seven days are markedly different from its immediate predecessor, but because a confluence of  news stories emphasizes how different the problems — and the opportunities — of the current age have become.

Think about it.

A major league baseball game played to an empty stadium, but most of the audience could still watch it.  An American billionaire space entrepreneur has launched a tourist spacecraft from a Texas spaceport to compete with the one in development from a California spaceport.  A probe is nearing Pluto, the last of the “classic nine” planets to be visited.  Then it will be on its way to the Kuiper Belt objects beyond Pluto.

Another American space billionaire has announced a consumer energy storage device that promises a limited amount of independence from the grid.  Microsoft has launched an augmented reality product  that will superimpose holographic images on the “real world.”  Robots are now commonplace. Perhaps most fascinating of all, a research group at NASA claims it has asserted that propellantless drive works  — although very serious questions remain over whether the results are a false positive or even fraudulent.  However, if it’s real then the articles point out that we will be able to travel to other planets in weeks, rather than years.

But here to remind us there’s another side to the 21st century are demands by Muslims for a “right of return” to Spain, because their medieval ancestors were unlawfully dispossessed.  The Atlantic says studies show that the millenial generation will be relatively childless, saying that “today’s twentysomethings have a lower birthrate than any previous generation. … For Hispanic and black women, the majority of the fertility decline was explained by falling birth rates among unmarried women. … For white women, though, the story was very different: ’81 percent of the decrease in fertility is attributable to declining marriage rates.'”  In Baltimore, employment is as low as the murder rate is high.  Not a single Fortune 500 company is headquartered there.  If the 21st century is here, they haven’t gotten the word.

It seems, as Dickens would put it, “the worst of times and the best of times.”  A time of divergence.  A moment when people are going backward while some are looking forward. The reason that both aspects often appear together is suggestive.  Creation is destructive.  The American health care system,  which Europeans rightfully revile as the world’s highest-cost system, is also history’s most inventive.  “America is a global leader in medical innovation. The US solely developed or contributed significantly to 9 of the top 10 most important medical innovations since 1975 as ranked by a 2001 poll of physicians, while the EU and Switzerland together contributed to five. Since 1966, Americans have received more Nobel Prizes in Medicine than the rest of the world combined. From 1989 to 2002, four times more money was invested in private biotechnology companies in America than in Europe.”

The weak and vulnerable have a hard time of it in times of radical upheaval.  On the other hand there’s a price for stability. Bernard Tyson of Kaiser Permanente ironically worries that his hard-won efforts to control costs will be blown out by some miracle medicine that comes along  that might cure cancer but cost $100,000 a pill.  Better perhaps that there be no cure, than to know one exists but you can’t afford it.  Fortune writes:

While technological innovation is leading to better patient outcomes in a number of medical conditions, there’s one area where Tyson says “progress” is part of the problem. That’s the new crop of “specialty drugs” that can run as much as $100,000 or more for a course of treatment. In some cases, these drugs are veritable godsends for patients with intractable ailments. (Take, for instance, Sovaldi, an $84,000 drug that can cure Hepatitis C—Tyson himself couldn’t bring himself to believe the claims until he’d seen the data.) Even so, when such wonder drugs are priced in the stratosphere, they can make the entire healthcare delivery system unsustainable. The prices aren’t just high, he says, they’re irrational. “Irrational pricing,” he explains, “is one in which a given price point has no rational explanation other than ‘Because we can.’”

“Because we can” is the story of innovation. The good news is the future will be more wonderful than we can imagine.  The bad news is that much of what people — including the Democrats — know and love will be destroyed along the way to get there. Aside from being wonderful, the future may simultaneously be more dreadful than we can stand.  Maybe Harry Lime was right to advise Holly Martins not to be “so gloomy” about the then new postwar world.

After all it’s not that awful. Like the fella says, in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love – they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock. So long Holly.

Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose.  But at all events, not everything is barren.

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Recently purchased by readers:
Bloodlands, Europe Between Hitler and Stalin
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Possibly worth buying:
Destroyer Captain, Lessons of a First Command
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Did you know that you can purchase some of these books and pamphlets by Richard Fernandez and share them with you friends? They will receive a link in their email and it will automatically give them access to a Kindle reader on their smartphone, computer or even as a web-readable document.
The War of the Words for $3.99, Understanding the crisis of the early 21st century in terms of information corruption in the financial, security and political spheres
Rebranding Christianity for $3.99, or why the truth shall make you free
The Three Conjectures at Amazon Kindle for $1.99, reflections on terrorism and the nuclear age
Storming the Castle at Amazon Kindle for $3.99, why government should get small
No Way In at Amazon Kindle $8.95, print $9.99. Fiction. A flight into peril, flashbacks to underground action.
Storm Over the South China Sea $0.99, how China is restarting history in the Pacific
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