6.18.2009

The Hands That Built America

photo taken by Lewis Hine

"Rising above tension below Learn from the in-between; Blinded by trust, asleep to the truth, Awakened by disbelief; Somewhere I found strength in my soul, Still you refuse to see; Are you sure I'm not all right? 'Cause lately I've been feeling fine! Every lifeline leads its own way to the heavens, But I have seen you run in circles, unforgiven; Is there anything in this world that can make you stop? Oh, you're a machine!"


-Josh Groban, "Machine"

The farm-to-factory movement of the early 20th century paved the way for American economic hegemony of the world. Let's face it, the Protestant work ethic and the 'money doesn't grow on trees' mentality, established the economic boom of the 1920s, 50s, and 80s. But just how did we manage to pull it off after all those years? And better yet, how can we get it back in the years to come? Perhaps we cannot.
With industrialization comes great responsibility, and America took the reigns in the late 19th century to rapidly undergo an economic transformation that made Europe look like a disabled crone. In the 1860s, railroad construction, wheat production, land speculation and sales skyrocketed, allowing more people to buy land and establish businesses than ever before. But these high times had little foundation, and big banking firms as Jay Cooke and Company would declare bankruptcy just three years after the Civil War.
Although this depression lasted six years, the country would rehabilitate itself through massive production into the turn of the 20th century. McCormick, Rockefeller, and Carnegie were just some of the men able to create jobs in the country and inject the world's veins with American exports. The New York Times stated, "The total value of manufactures exported in May 1904 was $38,894,561, against $37, 891,838, the value of agricultural products exported".
The industrial and urban revolution would not have happened had it not been for the millions of children and immigrants employed in the early 20th century. According to the U.S. Census Bureau of 1910, Eastern and Southern Europeans constituted over four million people of the immigrant pool compared to Western Europe's three million. Furthermore, child labor laws were not implemented in all states and in a uniform way until 1941. As a result, children as young as eight years old were sent to work in factories, in coal mines, or on the streets as newsboys and blackboots.
So America had made its way to the top economically through hard tedious work and determination. But all at a price. The question is, how long can it last? And at whose expense?
Newsweek International's Fareed Zakaria has commented on the current state of American economics by saying that this transition is defined less by American decline than by “the rise of the rest.” (March 2009 The Atlantic) Let's face it, with today's globalization and China's rise in exports, 'made in the U.S.A.' just doesn't meet enough demand. Furthermore, some cities in this country lose out in the long run during a depression than other cities. More and more people are leaving behind the static cities of unemployment burgeoning throughout the U.S. to more economically savvy areas like Seattle, San Francisco, Austin, and Raleigh. The Rust Belt area of Cleveland and Detroit have been hard hit since the decline of manufacturing back in the 1980s. Now the Sunbelt, a once flourishing region beginning in the 1950s, is suffering from real-estate speculation and overdevelopment.
If we want to see the prosperity of earlier days, one thing is clear. We are going to have to change. Change our minds, our patterns, our comforts. No longer can we afford to be a nation of 'good enoughs'. The technological and dot.com revolution of the mid-1990s is catching up with us and we as a nation are going to have to shed our old habits and find new innovative ways of pooling our talents. In other words, relying on America's old patterns of success won't do well for us today. We are going to have to reinvent ourselves with an intellectual stimulus package, investing in education, technology, and enterprise. Capitalism with a mind, if you will.
Sources:
U.S. Census Bureau
The New York Times