by Rod D. Martin
January 1, 2001
As we finally enter the new millennium (yes, those parties last year were premature), it’s worth looking ahead a bit: maybe not 1,000 years, but at least the next century. And what a century it’s going to be.
Now many things could surely go awry. A British writer in my position a hundred years ago would not have imagined just how awry things could go. The sun then never set on the Empire, which ruled a quarter of the world’s land area and a fifth of its people. The Royal Navy was beyond compare. Peace had reigned little broken since Napoleon’s defeat at Albion’s hand.
I note this as caution, to the reader as well as to the writer. Germany was ascendant then too; and lain waste 20 years later; dominant in 20 more; lain waste five after; and dominates the EU today. A lot can happen in a century.
But I believe America is different, at least today. And I believe there is reason for much hope.
First, geopolitics. America occupies the most essential parts of North America, the seacoasts and the Mississipi-Missouri-Ohio valley. This, combined with the intercoastal waterway, constitutes a globally unique internal transportation system which is perhaps the single greatest reason for America’s rise: the world’s cheapest cost of capital formation. In 1808, at the outset of the steam era, it cost the same amount to move one ton 32 miles overland as it did to move that same load across the Atlantic. While technology has changed the differential significantly, our absolutely unique integrated waterways remain a powerful advantage that keeps America united and rich. That won’t be changing any time soon.
Likewise, regardless of the powers which may arise, America’s mastery of the seas keeps most danger at bay. Eurasia’s disunity and endless conflict keeps away most of the rest, and tends to reduce the level of capital formation that would translate into an opposing fleet. As trade increases and capitalism spreads that may change; but so will the likelihood that a rising power might be hostile.
Rising aerospace technologies will bring new challenges, as have ICBMs in the past. But these fundamentals render America uniquely rich and safe. It would take something radical to alter that foundation, unequaled anywhere on Earth.
Second, electoral politics. American politics is subject to periodic realignments, but they’re usually fast. The discrediting of the Federalists after Adams’ Alien and Sedition Acts was so complete that their party ceased to be. The Civil War wiped out the Democrats (except in the South) for 70 years; the Depression did the same to Republicans for 50.
But unlike the previous sharp realignments, the Carter-Reagan-Gingrich realignment has been slow motion. As the Democrat Party has moved left, its conservatives and moderates have moved out, “mugged by reality” as Irving Kristol famously put it. This has produced a defensive alliance: stop the abortions, uphold traditional values, don’t surrender to the Soviets, quit taxing people into welfare.
That’s good enough for a start, but it leaves a lot of room for retrenchment. The longer Republicans take to advance a thoroughgoing reform agenda – truly tackling the size and scope of government, the fundamental unfairness and unworkability of Social Security and Medicare, fixing an education establishment that’s rotting away before our eyes – the more certainly a competing and potentially compelling leftist response will arise; and likewise, the more upset conservatives will become with their own party.
Will we rise to this occasion? I have every hope that George W. Bush and a Republican Congress will do so. But if they do not, danger looms. The lack of a clear resolution of the realignment-in-progress will continue in bitter, seemingly inconclusive struggle, eventually bringing a very sharp resolution indeed: either hard to the left or hard to the right. One of those futures represents vastly greater liberty and prosperity. One of them…doesn’t.
Ultimately, I believe the break will be to the right, toward smaller, less intrusive government and a renaissance of entrepreneurship not seen since the years of the Homestead Act. The internet revolution now underway will pour gasoline on this prairie fire. The online world is a necessarily individualist world, where anyone can be a publisher, anyone can be a business owner, huge numbers can become wealthy or at least improve their lot in the process, and anyone can be part of the conversation. This will feed into politics: the internet will increasingly show up the foolishness and obsolescence of mid-20th Century thinking on how to run a society. And freedom will win.
Third, faith. While seemingly counterintuitive, Christianity is the world’s fastest growing religion. South Korea is now 40% Christian, up from 1% at the end of the war. Latin America and Africa are on fire, and it is said credibly that 10,000 people a day come to faith in Jesus in China alone. A tidal wave is sweeping the world. It’s gathering strength as it goes.
This will change all in its path, and it will feed back into the “post-Christian” parts of the world in due course. It will root out corruption, it will demand human rights as it asserts human dignity rooted in the Imago Dei, and it will establish a strong work ethic, private property and the rule of law. It will also make the whole world marvel, as the new Christians demonstrate their love for one another and the world. This more than anything will confound the secularists.
The Christians will not be alone. The rise of post-modernism is, at least in part, a rejection of the modernist dismissal of the supernatural. Islam is also rising, and militantly so: it will come after the West in jihad, and the post-Christian West will not understand why. Mormons will have their day too; and the rise of India could well produce a resurgent Hinduism.
Christianity will come out first in this race. But it will not lack competitors. And atheism, after an early-century boomlet, will not be one of its important ones.
Fourth, economics. As I have written extensively elsewhere, private Social Security accounts by themselves could usher in a new golden age, with a better-funded safety net for the truly needy, and the abolition of poverty among nearly the entirety of the elderly, not to mention the formation of vast new pools of investment capital. A similar reform of health care, with my better approach to Medical Savings Accounts (MSAs), to wit, that every dollar you save or spend on health care would be exempt from tax, would do even more. It would also collapse the price of health care just as revolutionary technologies start coming available.
These reforms look likely, soon. But even if they aren’t, they’re always just one reformer President away. Just look at the revolution of prosperity unleashed by Reagan’s cutting of marginal tax rates, slaying of inflation, but even more critically, promotion of retirement vehicles like IRAs and 401(k)s. Look also at Chile, which through such reform has brought itself nearly into the First World in a single generation. Someone will do this again, and multiply America’s wealth. But…
Fifth, energy. The structural reforms just named pale in comparison to the energy revolution coming. Oil and gas are great, and the incessant harping about “peak oil” is at best a grave misunderstanding of supply and demand. But while you’ll have plenty of both commodities for the near future, neither of them is the century’s main event.
If you think the 20th Century was the century of electricity, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. Reliable energy storage will completely remake our economy. Already under way in your laptop computer, this starts small, literally: in phones, in mp3 players, in Palms and BlackBerries and so forth. But it won’t end small, as the introduction of the Toyota Prius demonstrates; and as all these devices spread, costs will drop, capabilities will mushroom, renewable energy will become real, and the copper-wired world will disappear.
Similarly, fuel cells, heretofore the province of the Apollo Program and the Space Shuttle, will decentralize power generation and radically reduce its cost. From office buildings and hospitals to private homes and hydrogen-powered cars, they will change the face of America, and end the vast wealth transfer from the West to the Arabs.
A resurgence in nuclear power – particularly of the much safer third and fourth generation varieties now becoming available, combined with fuel reprocessing that eliminates nearly all nuclear waste and makes fuel supply nearly infinite – would help. But even if that never comes to pass, safe non-radioactive nuclear fusion will toward mid-century, greatly aided by increased access to space and the recovery from there of priceless Helium-3. Combined with unlimited solar energy beamed down from collection stations in space, energy scarcity will be to the late 21st Century what salt scarcity is to us.
Sixth, space. Energy is not the only thing that will cease to be scarce. Scramjets (or supersonic combustion ramjets) will make flying to orbit from your local airport as easy as flying across oceans today. That will begin this decade, and probably achieve some level of maturity by the 2040s, driven at first by the Pentagon as it seeks to reduce foreign deployments without compromising security. The ability to reach any point on Earth in two hours will change the strategic equation drastically, but it will transform how we live even more.
Why? Because cheap, easy access to space will almost immediately lead to asteroid mining, meaning almost unlimited access to metals and especially the Rare Earth minerals on which a modern economy depends and whose costs are sky-high today. Think what happened when the cost of aluminum plummeted, and now apply that to every metal and mineral in the world (plus some we have not yet discovered). And woe be unto the country that adopts the gold standard just before this starts.
It won’t stop with mining: Zero-G manufacturing holds tremendous promise, including for materials impossible to produce on Earth, and the combination of these two trends will greatly reduce pollution and the despoiling of Earth’s environment. At some critical mass, a significant exodus from Earth will begin, at first of people supporting these industries, but before the end of the century, of people who just want a new beginning on a new frontier, far from the restrictions back home. This too will unleash an age of plenty, opportunity and liberty.
Seventh, a new geopolitics. Adding a real third dimension requires controlling near-Earth space, the Lagrange points, the Moon, and other territories off the Pentagon’s current map. A “Starfleet” will become a necessity.
Earth will change too. The decline in petroleum’s importance will render the Middle East a backwater, short of a capitalist reformation reaching far beyond just Israel and Dubai. China’s rise will push low-wage jobs to new parts of Asia, Latin America and even Africa; in time, this could take the “Asian Miracle” global. Mexico will lead that, and will become a First World power by mid-century. By contrast, China’s barbaric one-child policy will catch up with it: contra the conventional wisdom, by 2050 it may well face an old and diminishing population, plus an economic disaster to make Japan’s lost decade look like the Roaring Twenties. Russia will rise briefly, and then wither away.
India will go capitalist and build a real navy. An English-speaking former British colony like us, it should become our close ally. Japan will build a navy too, and without significant effort on our part, will go its own potentially dangerous way.
The EU will continue to expand, and other nations will similarly group themselves together. America, if it’s resurgent conservatism results in significant devolution of power to its states, may find many of those nations seeking statehood: we are, after all, the original EU, originally minus the bureaucracy and restraints. The trend toward smaller autonomous regions begun with decolonization and the falls of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia will continue, necessitating bigger customs unions and defense arrangements (like the EU). America could benefit tremendously from this, but either way, the map will be very different in 2100.
Yet space will focus everything. Turning space into the new ocean will reorder things more than Columbus discovering the New World. The accretion of nations to one another will accelerate because of the need to be part of this, and to defend against those who already are; but also because the world will just seem smaller. This process will predictably create unpredictable rivalries: Britain was unconcerned about a German Navy in, say, 1850. And indeed, as the century progresses, navies – today the guarantor of American global dominance – may cease to matter, replaced by a beefed up Aerospace Force, a new “Starfleet”, and a much-enhanced Coast Guard dedicated to law enforcement and disaster relief. Whether the new order produces new world wars remains to be seen.
I could go on. Medical technology – and human life expectancy – will explode, in part driven by our new knowledge of nanotechnology and of life in space, but also from our growing knowledge of (adult) stem cells and cloning technologies. Seemingly intelligent self-driving cars and digital assistants will increase safety, productivity and wealth. Capitalism unleashed through better laws and exponentially expanding technology will lift billions of people out of poverty. By 2101, we will not speak of “the world,” but of “the worlds.”
Why do I think this a new American Century? Because all of this derives from innovation – nearly all of which happens in America, and will continue to for the foreseeable future – and all of it depends on large-scale capital formation and its smart deployment. There are no Sand Hill Roads in the rest of the world. There’s a reason why. And all of this translates to an almost insuperable American lead, giving America the chance to define the entire century ahead.
Unless we screw it up. Because that’s certainly within our power. But I have great hope. The trends are with us. And by century’s end, most of humanity should be free, poverty as we know it today should be largely abolished, and the United States will likely be more powerful than we today can possibly imagine.
So let’s get to work.