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How the Virtual Empire Corrupted America: My January 2000 Warning

AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

My essays under the “Spengler” byline debuted in January 2000 with a meditation on tech stocks. I forecast that—contrary to the then-prevailing wisdom—Internet equities would blossom by feeding on the moral rot of the society underneath them. Not in my darkest rumination could I have envisioned the corruption of a whole generation of American youth through smartphones and social media, as documented by Prof. Jean Twenge of the University of California San Diego. I repost below my maiden essay, “What if Internet Stocks Aren’t a Bubble?”

This has direct bearing upon Prof. Justin Yifu Lin’s thesis that China today stands with respect to the United States as the United States and Germany stood with respect to Great Britain at the end of the 19t century. An excerpt from Prof. Lin’s new book was published by Asia Times on Oct. 11. China, he maintains, will lead the Fourth Industrial Revolution just as America and Germany led the Second Industrial Revolution.

Britain had the technology in the late 19th century, not America (Germany invented the modern chemical industry and some key features of modern metallurgy). Thomas Edison did not invent the light bulb, contrary to the fable told to American schoolchildren. British scientist Joseph Swan invented the light bulb; Edison’s industrial laboratory tried thousands of materials until it discovered that a bamboo filament would last ten times longer than previous materials, and made it commercially viable. Edison engaged in flagrant intellectual property theft; Swan sued him successfully for patent infringement and won a huge settlement.

Why didn’t Britain commercialize the light bulb? The answer lies in the corruption of empire. Britain’s best and brightest left Eton and Harrow and went into colonial service, and made fortunes on the sale of British textiles to India, Indian opium to China, and Chinese tea and silks to the West. Britain’s country houses were built on the quick money to be earned from empire, and the British upper class eschewed the dirty work of manufacturing in favor of the faux-aristocracy of the nouveau riche masquerading as landed gentry. Ambitious Americans built factories, and ambitious Germans earned doctorates in chemistry while ambitious Englishmen went East of Suez.

America has no empire in the old sense of the world; when Americans occupy foreign countries they lose money rather than make money. But America’s financial and tech monopolies have the same effect. During the 2000’s, Wall Street’s derivatives desks picked off the brightest engineers, and during the 2010s, the tech companies recruited the smartest engineers and computer scientists. America graduates barely 40,000 mechanical engineers each year, not surprising considering that Americans lost interest in manufacturing two decades ago.

The tech monopolies offer rewards beyond the imagination of greed, and have concentrated American wealth in the hands of the smallest number of people in history. And they feed on a culture of insouciant hedonism that values individual self-expression as a matter of religious dogma, while enforcing a vicious conformity upon young people. Social media is the opium of the 21st century, and the young tech wizards who infest Silicon Valley are the moral successors of the young Etonians who forced India to grow the drug and forced China to buy it.

The tech elite displays an arrogance that puts to shame Rudyard Kipling’s idea of a “white man’s burden.” It believes that it can change human nature by melding man and machine through Artificial Intelligence and that its success in spellbinding young Americans through entertainment portends a new sort of humanity made by social engineering. Many of its doyens believe that human consciousness can be downloaded onto computer chips, achieving a sort of silicon-based immortality. Its arrogance and pretensions exceed that of Alexander and Caesar. It has contempt for the homely values of family and nation that knit the lives of ordinary Americans.

That is why China is likely to emerge as the dominant force in the world during the 21st century. It isn’t that the Chinese are smarter or more innovative. America’s virtual empire has become a sinkhole for the country’s enterprise and talent, and its spectacular profitability derives from activity that enervates and corrupts the American character.

Here, for reference, is my maiden “Spengler” essay from January 2000:

By now, every business publication in the known universe has printed black-and-white evidence that Internet stocks are a bubble. The evidence generally boils down to one calculation, namely that the popular dot.com names would have to achieve annual earnings growth rates several times larger than Microsoft’s in order to justify their present equity price.

What if it isn’t a bubble? What if consumers want to double or quadruple their spending on whatever it is the Internet has to offer every year for the next 20 years? What if they will pay a premium to watch their favorite episode of Pee-Wee Herman or the Lone Ranger rather than the latest sit-com? What if they will spend heavily to explore the cutting edge of anatomical possibility on the porn sites?

Recall the dying, drug-addicted Howard Hughes, a recluse in the penthouse suite of a Las Vegas hotel, hair and fingernails untrimmed for months. That was in the 1960s, and Hughes passed the time watching film after film in his private screening room, a plutocrat’s privilege. With the wonder of the Internet, cable hookups, and the Time Warner-AOL film library, every Internet user can turn into a dissipated freak like Howard Hughes. That’s American democracy at work.

Internet stocks just might offer good value in a world of Howard Hughes wannabees. Consumers of the world unite: you have nothing to lose but your brains. Ask yourself: are you sure, really sure, that this isn’t happening?

Why should it surprise anyone? There’s nothing new under the sun. The silly cant about the ”new economy” and the ”Internet Age” ultimately will go the way of other imposters. That does not reduce the likelihood that the great fortunes of our epoch will continue to be made on the Internet for some time. Yes, electronic auctions save the trouble of attending the live sort, and an electronic marketplace has advantages over the medieval fair (although it is less entertaining).

What enthralls the Internet’s true believers is the limitless download of cheap and salacious entertainment: pornography, popular music, gossip, flirting, fantasy role-playing, and, of course, shopping.

Now that the market capitalization of Internet companies enables them to gobble up traditional providers of goods and services, the Internet seems like the driving force of global markets. The world economy will depend upon the adolescent tastes of computer owners in the industrial world.

The bubble could pop, or – frightening thought – it might actually succeed. Reordering the priorities of the world economy around the vices of affluent people is nothing new. We went through all of this before in the 17th century.

Item: After the conquest of the New World, Spain’s entire capture of precious metals went to India and China to pay for luxury cloth and spices. That did for approximately 90 percent of the indigenous pre-Colombian population.

Item: The African slave trade instituted by the Portuguese and later the British first produced sugar in Brazil and the Caribbean, to be turned into cheap intoxicants for the European market. Tobacco was a second absorber of slave labor. Cotton became important much later. Production of these vices did for a third of the West African population.

Item: In order to sell cheap cotton cloth to India, the East India Company arranged for Indians to grow opium and for Chinese to buy it. All the silver mined in Latin America, which two centuries earlier had passed to China to pay for silks, found its way back to Europe to pay for opium. That did for untold millions of Indians and Chinese.

Does the Internet shrink the world? How can we compare it to an earlier technological revolution, namely ocean navigation – including breakthroughs in astronomy, shipbuilding, time measurement, map-making? At the end of the day, silks, cottons, coffee, tea, spices, sugar, rum and tobacco ruined four continents as the world’s capital flowed to Western Europe.

This time the world’s capital is flowing to the United States. America’s capital account surplus (equal to its current account deficit) presently stands at 4 percent of Gross Domestic Product, the largest proportion on record. $1 billion a day in foreign capital makes its way to the American capital markets. Three-quarters of the world’s free savings flow to the US, from emerging Asia as well as from Europe and Japan. Rather than borrow money from the rest of the world, non-Japan Asia on balance now lends money to the United States.

If the rest of the world wants to put its savings at the service of turbo-charged pop culture, no one should blame the Web promoters. Tobacco, rum, silks and slaves were a sustainable growth industry three hundred years ago. Why not the Web today?