There’s a school of thought that says big government wasn’t possible in America until air conditioning was invented. Before air conditioning came along it was just too hot to get anything done in D.C. during the summer, so America had a part-time government that deserted the city for much of the year. Of course, we know some things got done here even in the dead of summer, if they were important enough. For instance, the Army’s Air War Plans Division put together its first campaign plan for World War Two during July of 1941 in the fetid War Department Annex, which stood near the present-day Vietnam War Memorial. But much of official Washington was somewhere else while the Japanese Imperial Navy was practicing to attack Pearl Harbor.
Once air conditioning became widely available everything changed, and not just in Washington. The entire South was transformed. The South had been like a Third World country since the Civil War ended, poorer and far less productive than the rest of the nation. When John D. Rockefeller turned to philanthropy at the beginning of the 20th Century, his biggest project was combating parasitic diseases in the South — diseases similar to those still found in the Niger Delta. And when FDR decided to get the federal government into rural development in a big way during the New Deal, much of the money was spent on wiring up the thinly-electrified South (most of the phone lines there were still party lines well into the 1950s).
Some people think that the South changed because it developed a two-party system after generations of Democratic dominance, but that was really a sideshow in the rush to develop. The realignment of partisan affiliations in the South during the 1960s and 1970s simply mirrored pre-existing racial divisions. It was air conditioning and a few other innovations (like penicillin) that provided the foundation for economic growth. And therein lies an important lesson for Washington’s policymakers, especially now that they can stay in town for the entire year dreaming up ways to spend money. The only thing that fundamentally changes the human condition from generation to generation is new technology. There isn’t much that industry or ideology can do to improve society unless the tools at our disposal become better.
That lesson was well understood in Washington after World War Two, because people saw how inventions like the atomic bomb had affected the outcome of the war, and they remembered what it was like before air conditioning, television, and antibiotics. But sometime around Earth Day in 1970, America’s elites began losing their love for technology. They became more ambivalent about technology-driven progress, and their electoral behavior reflected that shift. It is no coincidence that during the intervening years, the nation has lost its way in so many technological endeavors, from the human spaceflight program to stem cell research to the superconducting supercollider. If there is one thing our political system and popular culture needs to relearn, it’s how investing in the right technologies can fundamentally improve America’s prospects for the future — and how failing to invest can doom our nation to decline.
Just a passing thought from my comfortably cool office on a hot summer day in Washington.
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