Monday, April 23, 2012

The long cycle

The New York Times carried two articles recently, whose subjects I believe are quite connected. The first reports on the automobile industry’s struggle to interest young people in cars, (, the second, on the eclipse of the “prime time” as a way of watching television. ( GM is asking MTV to solve what the first article calls a most vexing problem, namely; “Many young consumers today just do not care that much about cars.” This, in contrast to a time when men in particular loved cars, and young boys (at least in my cohort) knew the names of all the automobile models for all of the car companies. At the same time, NBC “has lost an average of 59,000 prime time viewers (about 3%) in that 18-49 age category compared with the same period last year. CBS lost 239,000 (8%), and Fox lost 709,000 (20%).” Viewers, who now have extensive private viewing libraries, can at long last “time-shift,” watching what they want, when they want.  

Two disconnected reports? Perhaps. But one hypothesis is that these developments are in fact intrinsically connected. Consider the conception of the economic “long cycle,” a powerful if controversial idea. It is based on the notion, that over a number of interconnected decades, the society, economy and culture become a coherent whole. Industries, infrastructure, and patterns of consumption are matched, resulting in high rates of profit and high wages. After World War Two as the story goes, automobile sales, the love of cars, the building of the interstate highway system, the expansion of suburban tract housing, the availability of low cost housing loans, the baby boom, the nuclear family, the unionized workforce, the ascendance of mass media, the superiority of American manufacturing, all came together to create a sustained period of economic growth.

As the graph shows, the high point of the post-war period, was the mid-sixties, and of course that was just when the economy and society began losing coherence. As the graph also suggests the long cycle is long. The profit rate began rising again in 1994 almost 50 years since the long cycle’s inception.

Hegel said that the “Owl of Minerva flies at dusk.” We don’t understand an era, its essential coherence, until it is passing, and by the same token, it is hard to glean the contours of a new era in its early stages. The sixties counterculture signaled the beginning of the end. Perhaps today, almost 50 years later, the car’s declining status as a cultural object and the collapse of prime time, are the “whimpers” -not the “bang”- signaling the end of the great post-war long cycle. They are the last nails in the coffin.

But what comes next? We know that it has something to do with social media, ubiquitous computing, single parent families, children born outside of marriage, niche markets, narrow audience segments and life-long learning. But as the recent financial crisis suggests, we are far from achieving coherence. At this early stage of the next long cycle can we tell what is “missing,” and what will restore coherence?  One hypothesis is that material and psychological culture comprise our “distance early warning system," our ‘DEW' line, for marking out historical transitions. Economists, business leaders and political elites, like the executives of GM, need to read the tea leaves of culture, the ways in which meaning is created and sustained, if they are to make good and fruitful decisions.  

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