Lord, I was born a ramblin’ man
Tryin’ to make a livin’ and doin’ the best I can
A couple economists took the same bus I did one day last week. We’ll call them “Home Boy” and “Ramblin’ Man.”. They made acquaintance when Ramblin’ Man put his money in the fare box and didn’t get a transfer coupon. He was from out of town, he said, and didn’t know how to work it. Home Boy explained that you need to wait until the driver gets back from her break. Ramblin’ Man said he guessed the money was just gone, but the driver showed up about then and checked the meter — it showed he’d put the money in, so he got his transfer. Technology’s great, ain’t it?
Ramblin’ Man took the seat in front of me. Home Boy sat across the aisle. When the conversation turned to economics, I eavesdropped shamelessly. Well not exactly — they were talking pretty loud.
Ramblin’ Man said he’d been riding the bus for two days to get to the VA. That gave them instant common ground: they were both Vietnam vets, and agreed they were lucky to get out alive.
Ramblin’ Man said when he got out he went traveling — hitchhike, railroad, bus, you name it. That was back in the 70’s, when a guy could go anywhere and get a job. Not no more. Now he lives in a small town up on northeast Montana. He likes it, but it’s a long way to get to the VA, but he knew if he could get here, there’d be a bus to take him right to it, and sure enough there was. That’s the trouble with those small towns, said Home Boy — nice and quiet, but not enough people to have any services. I’ll bet there’s no bus company up there, he chuckled. Not full of people like Minneapolis.
Minneapolis! Ramblin’ Man lit up at the mention of it. All them people, and no jobs. He was there in 2009, right after the bankers ruined the economy. Yeah, them and the politicians, Home Boy agreed. Shoulda put them all in jail. It’s those one-percenters. They got it fixed now so nobody makes any money but them. It’s like it was back when they were building the railroads and stuff. Now they’re doing it again. Nobody learns from history — they keep doing the same things over and over. They’re stuck in the past.
Except this time, it’s different, said Ramblin’ Man. It’s all that technology — takes away all the jobs. Back in 09, he’d been in Minneapolis for three months, and his phone never rang once for a job offer. Not once. Never used to happen in the 70’s.
And then my stop came up, and my economic history lesson was over. My two bus riding economists had covered the same developments I’ve been studying for the past 15 months. My key takeaway? That “The Economy” is a lazy fiction — none of us really lives there. Instead, we live in the daily challenges of figuring out how to get the goods and services we need — maybe to thrive (if you’re one of them “one-percenters”), or maybe just to get by. The Economy isn’t some transcendent structure, it’s created one human transaction at a time — like when a guy hits the road to make sense of life after a war, picking up odd jobs along the way until eventually he settles in a peaceful little town in the American Outback. When we look at The Economy that way, we get a whole new take on it. That’s precisely what a new breed of cross-disciplinary economists are doing, and we’ll examine their outlook in the coming weeks.
In the meantime, I suspect that one of the reasons we don’t learn from history is that we don’t know it. In that regard, I recently read a marvelous economic history book that taught me a whole lot I never knew: Americana: A 400-Year History of American Capitalism (2017) by tech entrepreneur Bhu Srinivasan. Here’s the promo blurb:
“From the days of the Mayflower and the Virginia Company, America has been a place for people to dream, invent, build, tinker, and bet the farm in pursuit of a better life. Americana takes us on a four-hundred-year journey of this spirit of innovation and ambition through a series of Next Big Things — the inventions, techniques, and industries that drove American history forward: from the telegraph, the railroad, guns, radio, and banking to flight, suburbia, and sneakers, culminating with the Internet and mobile technology at the turn of the twenty-first century. The result is a thrilling alternative history of modern America that reframes events, trends, and people we thought we knew through the prism of the value that, for better or for worse, this nation holds dearest: capitalism. In a winning, accessible style, Bhu Srinivasan boldly takes on four centuries of American enterprise, revealing the unexpected connections that link them.”
This is American history as we never learned it, and the book is well worth every surprising page.