Politics & Policy

A Theory of Relativity

Beware whenever a politician uses the phrase “for generations to come.”

Houston — Some 74 years have passed between the issuing of the first Social Security check — to Ida May Fuller in 1940 — and today. That is a longer period than the time that elapsed between the first telephone call, in 1876, and the first mobile-phone call, in 1946. It is exactly twice as long as the period of time that elapsed between the making of that first primitive mobile-phone call and the first call made on a modern cellular telephone, in 1983. Alexander Graham Bell would not recognize a modern mobile phone, but today’s Social Security would be entirely familiar to Franklin D. Roosevelt — or, for that matter to Otto von Bismarck, its true spiritual father. There is a lesson in there, for those with eyes to see.

The world of telecommunications is full of aptronyms: We ring each other up on a device invented by a man named Bell, and the early pioneer of cellular technology was a Bell Labs employee named D. H. Ring. That is the case with Social Security, too, or so it seems to those of us with a mind to reform it: The first executive director of the Social Security Board was a fellow named Frank Bane, who had previously served at the (ho, ho!) Rational Institute of Public Administration before graduating to the Brookings Institution in 1931. For those who are working to make our public finances a bit more rational, Mr. Bane’s project is our project’s bane.

Albert Einstein once joked that relativity is not that difficult to understand: “Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute, and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pretty girl for an hour, and it seems like a minute. That’s relativity.” That isn’t relativity, in fact, but try explaining why U.S. astronaut Michael Fincke is 0.0093 seconds younger than he “should” be, as a result of his 382 days in orbit.

But the idea that reality can contain multiple effective timelines of the sort that Einstein joked about should not be entirely alien to us, especially this time of year. The final two minutes of an NFL game go on for — what? An hour? For many children, the days between now and Christmas will seem longer than any other three weeks of their lives. On the other hand, those of us with too many year-end loose ends to tie up will experience the days flying by rather than crawling.

Sometimes, things in politics move with blazing speed: Barack Obama’s so-called evolution on the question of gay marriage fell upon him like lightning, going from verboten to constitutionally mandatory in approximately the time it takes sprinter Usain Bolt (another aptronym!) to check his mailbox in the morning. The time that lapsed between the counting of the last vote in the midterms and President Obama’s announcement of his executive amnesty could be conveniently expressed in milliseconds.

But ordinarily, things in politics move with all the urgent speed that one might expect from a herd of turtles — a herd of very sleepy turtles — or a not especially ambitious glacier. Politicians, strangely, believe this to be a virtue: They announce that they have done something, or that they intend to do something, and that that will be that for — the inevitable phrase! — “generations to come.” Senator Bernie Sanders, who clings courageously to the cutting-edge ideas of October 1917, boasts that such-and-such a reform will protect Social Security “for generations to come.” President Obama promises that his net-neutrality scheme will protect the Internet for “generations to come,” that his actions have set a precedent for U.S.–China relations “for generations to come,” etc. Meanwhile, the president’s sycophants in California have passed a law requiring that history textbooks proceed with due awe when considering President Obama’s legacy for — surprise — “generations to come.”

All the most dysfunctional aspects of American life are organized on the “generations to come” timeline. All the best aspects — our technology, our best businesses, our scientific research — are organized on a very different timeline: We all assume that our shiny new Apple toys will be surpassed within a matter of months if not weeks; that no matter how well our businesses are doing today, our competitors are one quarter away, if that, from kicking our butts; that on the most interesting and lively issues, the science is never really “settled.”

Living things change — they mature and they evolve. That which remains the same for generations to come is dead.

I am in Houston at the moment, where the fantastical horizon — skyscrapers here, oil refineries there — encircles an urban sprawl that is almost biotic in its vitality: One gets the feeling that any given storefront or office park is no more than 72 hours away from being reconstituted as something else. The difference between lively, sprawling Houston — a city dedicated to the production of real resources for the rest of the world’s economy — and monumental, lapidary Washington — a city dedicated to the consumption of real resources produced by the rest of the world — could not be more striking. The proposition that ConocoPhillips or Sysco is going to be doing the same things a year from now — much less “for generations to come” — would be absurd.

What we need, what we want, and what we can do changes not from year to year but from minute to minute, and our market-based institutions by necessity move at the same pace. But for some inexplicable reason, we believe it not only tolerable but desirable to have schools stuck in the 19th century, retirement pensions that are as up-to-date as a Studebaker, and regulatory practices that would be familiar to Thomas Edison, who would be otherwise perplexed by the commonplace miracles of our time — innovations that, to a man who died a few years before the creation of Social Security, would be indistinguishable from magic.

I suspect that those of us who will be working well into the 21st century are not going to very much enjoy retiring in the 1930s or seeing our children and grandchildren educated in 1852. Strangely, it is our youth-oriented, purportedly forward-looking friends on the left — who proclaim themselves to have been liberated from received dogma — who are the most committed to ensuring that we remain mired in dead thinking and outmoded methods. “Progressive,” as it turns out, is an inaptronym. Their temporal relativity is not that of Albert Einstein but that of F. Scott Fitzgerald, one that would see the current of genuine progress overwhelmed by the banality of politics as we are “borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

— Kevin D. Williamson is National Review’s roving correspondent and the author of The End Is Near and It’s Going to Be Awesome.

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