Archive for February, 2017

Where to in a new technical age?

Reading about Orville and Wilbur Wright working through the development of an airplane led me to think about the many individuals and groups working to produce working automobiles. Where the Wrights were working in uncharted territory, car makers simply continued developing buggies. GM was the combination of five separate auto manufacturers, Pontiac, Buick, Oldsmobile, Cadillac and Chevrolet plus GMC trucks. Together with Chrysler and Ford these three companies came to dominate automobile in this country and made lots of money for their investors.

European and Japanese manufacturers came to fit their automobiles to the American market. They added all sorts of new devices to their cars and forced the American companies to do the same. These additional costs plus high labor costs put the American companies in a bind. By the early 2000’s all three companies were in serious financial trouble with GM and Chrysler going bankrupt. Ford managed to avoid this, but barely.

Three of our largest manufacturers, having restructured themselves to match outside competition are now faced, as is the competition, with all sorts of electronic invention to make driving “easier”. Manufacturers are moving toward installing so many so many electronic devices to help the driver that the driver is required to devote less attention to controlling the automobile.

Certainly, manufacturing and selling automobiles is a major part of several nation’s economies. What happens when the demand for new cars declines?

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I look at the changes that are occurring around me and I think of the time when I didn’t see change going on. It’s difficult to see your life in terms of change. Growing up in the Depression in North Carolina, I saw little change. Though my mother was bedridden for several years and my father was principal in three different schools, my life as a kid continued on in a seemingly unchanging pattern with kids in the same environment. Even when my father moved us to Washington, I continued in the same environment of school. The people were different—they thought my accent was funny—but we continued doing the things done in school.

Then, in college, I was moved out of my familiar school environment by joining the Navy as a member of an officer candidate program.The responsibility of being an officer was unlike anything I had ever known, and was probably the best experience I could have had in becoming an adult. I had a job with clearly defined responsibilities which no one else could assume.

My experience was like that of the veterans of WWII. The government paid for education, which made college available to all who could qualify. This, in turn, allowed all kinds of corporations to grow and production of consumer goods (cars, houses, kitchen appliances) to be manufactured. Millions of people had similar jobs required for a manufacturing society. Salaries and wages were more than that required for basic life requirement, more than was available when I was a child.

Well, that has changed. Capitalism has evolved, is producing more goods of all kinds and prices are being kept low by moving work to foreign countries and importing the finished product. Both of those changes mean that production and other work in this country have changed. There are fewer available jobs that pay well, particularly in states across the midwest where so many of the well paying (union) jobs were. In the Washington area well paying jobs are declining as government grants are becoming fewer. The Republican congress promises that they will continue the process of reducing federal expenditures. The Washington area has provided, since the Roosevelt era, many entry level jobs that offer the prospect of moving up the salary and responsibility ladder.

In the Washington D.C. area, for example, the ratio of single men to women is 1:4.1, in the close in Virginia and Maryland suburbs it is 1:6.1 in an area population above six million. What this often shows up in Arlington is 2 or 3 single men and 2 or 3 single women living in newly built apartments. While the Washington area has been growing in population and jobs until now, this is not true of much of the rest of the country.

For example, the Detroit area population declined from 1.8 million in the 1950 census to 717,000 in 2010, largely related to the decline of the auto industry. In 1950, the population of Chicago was 3,620,962 and in 2010 was 2,695,598. The figures in both of these cities show the results from a decline in a manufacturing economy. On both coasts, cities that are not dependent on manufacturing, New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, show some growth. But, we do not see the overall growth of the mid century.

I certainly have no remedies for this problem, but neither do Donald Trump and his crowd!

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How We Got To Where We Are

I’m currently reading The Wright Brothers, by David McCullough which is not only written in his usual readable style, but gets to the brothers, Wilbur and Orville, that shows them to be brilliant and hardworking. I was unaware of the amount of knowledge that they generated in figuring out how to build a machine that would fly. The testing, using relatively simple machines to build a machine that would fly got more dangerous the longer and higher they could fly. This got me to thinking about having lived through the invention of so much in today’s daily lives.

Reading about two young men with no technical education who learned all they needed to know to build the first machine that would go up and could be kept up led me to think about the technical times I have lived through. The brothers began with bicycles, moved on to motor cars and then spent all of their time on flight.

Railroads have been around a lot longer and were still the major passenger service through the 1950s. However, as more automobiles were sold, more paved roads were built, the need for short line passenger service by railroads declined. In 1919, General Eisenhower drove across country coast to coast to assess the ability of the military to move on the existing road system. It was a dreadful trip on both vehicles and passengers. This stayed in his mind and when he became president he supported a national highway system (which is badly in need of repair).

A major outgrowth of WWII was our system of air travel. With barely 30 years elapsed since the Wright brothers got a plane up in the air to stay, several companies were trying to build passenger planes and a market for them. With the advent of the war, several large plane manufacturing companies were built up on designing and building massive numbers of bombers and fighters. Air fields were built all over the country, thousands of men (and some women) learned to fly and do the work that kept planes in the air. In the process, railroads transported millions of men and massive amounts of equipment all over the country. By the end of the war, hundreds of thousands of young people had had some contact with airplanes and were an easy sell for air travel.

So Wilbur and Orville were leaders in moving the western world into its transformative mode. There are more Wilbur and Orvilles today, but they are working on ideas in environments that are truly inaccessible to the rest of us.

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