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What we can learn from the first Gilded Age, and other news from Aspen

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This has been an unusual period: five days of 24/7 travel and reporting in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, for reasons to be described shortly, and leaving little margin beyond the hours of interviewing and transcribing; followed by five days of 26/7 events, interviewing, and emceeing at the Aspen Ideas Festival, as my colleagues have so skillfully explained. During some previous years' Aspen sessions, I have piled on with the real-time blogging. This time it would have been hard to do that, and survive.

This is a back-to-the-online world note touching a few issues.

1) Gilded Age. The scene above is how our room looked after I did an NPR session yesterday (with Jacki Lyden, on Weekend All Things Considered). Two computers of mine; one of my wife's; digital recorder plus headset and microphone for "tape-sync" recording with NPR; beer [Odell IPA]; water; pills for the high-altitude headache; and so on. I suppose I could add this to the Glamorous Life chronicles.

In this segment I mentioned my first involvement in this year's Ideas Festival: a two-minute proposal of a "Big Idea" for the opening session. The conference usually begins with eight or ten people giving their Twitterized, speed-reading versions of a "big idea" while a big clock in the background counts down the seconds from 120 to 0.

The real version of what I said is immediately below; the version that would have taken four and a half minutes to read is below that.

Here is the longer version, which I was cutting desperately as I went to the stage:
My name is James Fallows. I am a long-time writer for the Atlantic, and my big idea is that we must do as well as the Gilded Age. Let me explain.

In high school, students are told that they must study history's lessons. In college they learn, or should, to be very wary of this exercise. In theory, historical parallels light our way forward. In reality, they're usually picked and tailored to fit the position we've already chosen in the here and now. For a whole book on this theme, you can do no better than Thinking in Time by two professors I most liked and admired, Richard Neustadt and Ernest May.

But objectively, some eras share more traits than others. And I submit that the best match for our current American prospect is the last 20 years of the 19th century and the first 20 years of the 20th - a span that include the Gilded Age, later the Populist and Progressive era, a time of labor strife and demographic changes and economic and technological revolution and countless other parallels to what we have been through.  Consider just a few:
a newly globalized market made some people much richer, and many others less secure, and for both better and worse tied everyone's fate to shocks and surprises in far-off parts of the world;
a nonstop flow of inventions - first the telegraph, then the electric grid, then the telephone and the radio and the internal combustion engine and the assembly line and oil refinery and the combine, and the airplane, and refrigerated train cars and mass publishing could make children's  lives unrecognizably different from their parents. Our past 40 years, Google and all, have been nothing by comparison;
from kindergarten through professional school, every part of the educational establishment faced new economic pressures and cultural expectations;
immigration transformed the nature of the American population more rapidly than it has done in our time ;
many of those immigrants worked in stockyards or factories where they organized and fought for their rights;
in the aftermath of Reconstruction, a Jim Crow system emerged;
the Senate was corrupt; the Supreme Court was partisan; and in the end of this era, during World War I, an intellectual president constrained press freedom in the name of national security.

I won't go on, because time is short and you're already thinking, as you should, of the ways in which our second Gilded Age differs from the first one. But here is why I use my "Big Idea" slot to make this parallel. The first Gilded Age led to something better.

From the extremities of farm and factory life, the Populists arose. From the excesses of unregulated new global capitalism came the Progressives. After centuries of flat-out pillage of the American landscape, the conservation movement got its start, as did the national parks. After a post-Lincoln era of disdain for and exhaustion with the art of politics, we had an extraordinary range of people devoted to the public process. People as different, and flawed, as Eugene Debs, Tom Watson, William Jennings Bryan, Susan B. Anthony, WEB DuBois, Norman Thomas, John Muir and Gifford Pinchot, Lincoln Steffens and Upton Sinclair, LaFollette, various Roosevelts, the young Brandeis, the Carnegies and Rockfellers in the charitable phases of their lifespan, and many more.

That is what the first Gilded Age led to. It would be a big idea, and a big achievement, to match those names, commitments, and deeds. 

2) Jerry Brown, Good and Bad. Following my long profile of California's once-and-future governor last month, three updates:
  • Andrew Cohen last week on Brown's ongoing problems with California's (overcrowded, overblown, and very expensive) prison system;
  • Several reports (eg this and this) on Brown's reversing what seemed a benighted position (essentially: trying to cut spending by undoing the state's open-records law); and
  • A positive report on Brown's new school-spending agenda.

3) We are doomed by our stupidity. The Congress cuts spending for the GPS program. Read and weep.

4) Maybe we are not doomed. Mark Kelly and Gabrielle Giffords appeared yesterday at Aspen. Watch and weep, in a different way -- and, be inspired.

I have no idea whether Mark Kelly was an effective public speaker before his wife was shot. In the aftermath of that tragedy, he has become a formidably eloquent speaker, with great, calmly understated power.

5) Yesterday I got to interview Henry Paulson, former Treasury secretary under GW Bush and long-time China buff, on prospects in China and for China-US relations -- and the world's environment. (He is a big advocate of US leadership in climate-change legislation.) Full session here; snapshot below.


6) Plus tomorrow, a speech by Jeff Smisek of United! Much to chronicle.