The Idea that Built the Modern World

When the Cold War ended, the US was left as most powerful nation on earth.

It was all due to one simple idea.

This idea united the US as a people during our long struggle with Communism. This idea produced our economic success and technological superiority. This idea connected us to a growing roster of allies. Winning their hearts and minds to our cause, even if they didn’t agree with policies or actions.

Yet perversely, nobody ever truly acknowledged this idea as the deciding factor in this existential struggle, even though it was the same idea that had taken the United States from agrarian backwater to the most powerful nation on earth at the end of 20th Century.

That idea was the American Dream.

Of course, the American Dream isn’t a home in the suburbs or high paying job. As you already know, it’s the simple idea that hard, honest work will provide you economic independence. The prosperous independence that makes everything possible; from raising a family to owning a home to growing old without fear. While the exact wording of the Dream has changed a bit in the last several hundred years since Ben Franklin first wrote it down, the essence remains the same.

What’s surprising to me is how few people understand the power of a simple idea. Particularly an idea powerful enough to change the world, as this idea did.

The truth is that the only way to change the world is through a simple idea. Specifically, a formula that alters how billions of people think and act. That feat can’t be done through legal pressure, government fiat, corporate marketing, speculative finance, big science projects, or anything that involves haranguing people with complex ideologies (anything that ends with ism) and creating elaborate arrays of incentives and punishments (carrots and sticks).

It’s only possible with something that is simple.

A clue to how the process works can be seen in how the global Internet was built so quickly. The reason is due to the following factors.

  • Simplicity. It’s based on simple, open protocols for sending and receiving information (similar to the simplicity of the Web’s markup language).
  • Openness. Nobody owned it. It was also very easy to join. Further it could be used to solve problems specific to the individual and not the many.
  • Results. It could quickly and easily be used to get things done. Things that people needed/wanted to see happen.

Of course, the way an idea can change the world works different with people than machines. For people, the idea must connect to a deeper layer. To emotions and urges that govern motivation and belief. It must answer WHY and do it in a way that is simple, open, and delivers results.

Join the movement to restore America's prosperity

Discussion — 13 Responses

  • John Minehan February 21, 2014 on 9:37 am

    Is this really true?

    Does this actually describe a US where most people in the South were share croppers or a North where most people were factory hands, subject to lay-off from minute to minute?

    Or does this describe a brief period when we were the only economy left standing after WW II?

  • John Robb February 21, 2014 on 10:35 am

    It is. Even in Mississippi, the epicenter of sharecropping, the number of sharecropping farmers only reached 36%. Most factory work is different, although the percentages are fairly low until after WW2. Most did it to follow the American Dream.

    But the AD wasn’t just a motivation for labor. More importantly, it drives innovation and entrepreneurship. The application of science to solve everyday problems (tech) in the hope of achieving the dream by making the dream possible for others.

    • DaShui John Robb February 22, 2014 on 11:20 am

      I’m from Mississippi, thanks for thinking about us!

  • Troutbum February 22, 2014 on 6:47 am

    I would like to recommend a book which is focused on your premise – see Morris Berman’s “Why America Failed”. It’s the last of a trilogy, the first is “The Twilight of American Culture” and the second was “Dark Ages America”. Of course, I doubt if you’d like his approach.
    His premise is that America has failed because of the very American Dream you endorse. At the core of the American dream is : Hustling—the surrender of everything to market forces and the sacrifice of life to consumer culture—is an energizing and often enriching enterprise, but it is ultimately empty, depressing, and destructive. And such a degree of hustling that has created an American Empire which is also crumbling. And there’s really nothing that can fix any of this. I’m not doing Berman’s ideas justice in this short note but do take a look at his work.

    • Vernondo Troutbum February 22, 2014 on 12:04 pm

      One thing you might consider Troutbum is that it is the “hustlers” that are truly living. Hustlers make their living off the consumer culture. Is that wrong?

      Hustlers exist in every culture, every society, in every nation, communist, socialist, democratic. Hustling is naturally Darwinistic. “The big fish eat the little fish”

      But, to be a moral hustler, ah, there’s the rub. Without a moral basis to your hustle, you are nothing but a shark in the water.

    • Lacy Thompson Jr Troutbum February 27, 2014 on 6:45 pm

      I heartily concur with your Berman recommendation. I cite it in the first sentence introducing my site :
      For all the moral conflicts the south’s “plantation” society had, they WERE largely self sufficient. Had to be… roads were often impassible.
      Seems to me the primary problem is that we have bought into a paradigm of “helplessness”… helpless to feed yourself, provide your own gainful employment, etc. We “cure” our helplessness with “money”. Funny how that system works for the bankers who ultimately have come to own ALL the major corporations.
      John’s right though… the operating system is in desperate need of a reboot …. a Major Paradigm Shift. A Major but Simple Shift in the Underlying Mythology. My belief… and Berman would concur is a return to Interdependent Socio Economic Systems. As a fellow pilot, I am sure John knows the safest maneuver in aviation is a 180 degree turn…. In our case that’s a return from a failed “Independent” paradigm to the original Human Operating System of Interdependence … and I am talking about a much more integrated and self sufficient form of interdependence than community.

  • Vernondo February 22, 2014 on 11:55 am

    “The Unwinding”, by George Packer is an excellent book on this subject, but don’t look for answers there. Packer doesn’t offer any.

    His characters do, through their redemption. But that redemption does not look or feel like what we thought we had before 2005.

    Stop being coy with us John. You got ideas, crowdsource them!

    One more thing, where else in the world can a guy living in veterans transitional housing, eating off an EBT card, no job, no income, consider a multi-millionaire, fighter-jock, writer a friend and confidant?

    Only in America, baby!

  • C. Black February 27, 2014 on 11:50 am

    The invasion and rape of foreign societies is inherently related to this “American Dream”, which actually is nothing else than a reformulation of the Victorian bourgeois liberalism.

    South American peasants were deprived of their traditional, yet prosperous lifestyle when the United Fruit Company came with its putsches and mercenaries to exploit their lands, and this was serving the consumerist Dream spread massively in the US at the same time during the ’50s. It is all related.

  • C.Steven May 13, 2014 on 9:08 am

    America hasn’t failed, expectations are in the hearts (and minds) of the believers. The world has simply advanced in speed, complexity of forces, numbers of elements, and in the advancing material capabilities of individuals, groups, and larger organizations and states.

    The multi-lateral system that the US supported with itsinfluence, power, pocket-book has done much to advance the material capabilities of all actors globally, while the ingenuity of humans has advanced the standards of people, even those living in mud huts, as it has created new challenges, rapidly aging populations, where expectations change more slowly (retiring at 55, 62, 65, etc; family values bound up within children; divergence between leading nation and other nations; dilution due to population growth coupled to innovations that extend human life; Fritz Haber, Peniciliin, Green Ag revolutions).

    The problem ismore peopleneed to be as self-less, if not Ghandian self-less, as the US has been, where the world is infused with fictional accounts of reality; Ron Paul and the Fed, the Buildergburghers, the Rothchild story descendant of 1783, etc)

    The US designed a system that led to networks of ties and links, which has spread influence, where the lessening of US GDP as a percentage of the Global total has been occuring since the early 1950’s; by design. The US allows, not benefits, allows it currency to be used for trade and Forex; the US does not require, as Bernanke just showed, foreign financing, it can print its own currency as each sovereign can; Many say the US just prints money, a point of the lying Financial narrative that has dominated cable news tv, but China has printed its currency, just over the last 15 years at multiples of the US, it printed more than the US commercial banking system between 2008 and 2012, out of thin air, bloated assets valuations, and similar as the US has printed at or just around growth of economy, more people, economic growth, asset value increases. Liberty for personal freedom, Libertarian economic policy is suicide.

    Now that inequality has reached late 19th century proportions, the pendelum will have to swing back on the assets of the top percentage will be precariously hanging out there with nothing to support it below; it is income, wealth all the way down, a firm foundation is required to support the hefty assets of the few, Buffett and Gates realize that if the Koch brothers, and crazy Gold-bugs are left scattered in their half thunk thoughts.

    the real issue is the need for greater maturity and cooperation globally or there will be retrenchment, after the global economy further stabilizes after much excess. the growth in the 2000’s were an anomaly not to be repeated for a very long time. With advancing material capabilities, and desire for modernization spread widely, with participation in system institutions, the spread of more balanced economic development models is required and upon us. Without such, poorer and poorer countries, will become post-industrial before having the ability to industrialize. None can follow China’s path, because it is just to big, they missed their opportunity to gain escape veolcity out of the model, a decade ago, when china wasn’t even on most peoples minds, and have further exacerbated their own economic problems while preferencing elite party control. Their financial repression can not be copied, and their model has led other countries into resource curses, and dutch disease, while skewing investment patterns globally, while China is still hyoed byu the finncial community who like making small percentages of big deals. China will not be able to alter its economic model in less than 20 or 25 years, and that point it will be confronted with the problems of old-age dependency, and perhaps not having thee ability to generate the taxes necessary to provide central solutions do to its near recent and future kleptocractic policies.

    The fact is and globally, there will need to be more balanced economies that include all the trimmings of modern societies, from industrial to service sectors, and in places from Kenya to the US, Indonesia to Ghana, Argentina to Greenland. This will require greater maturity and cooperation, and advanced wealthy countries are placed well to continue to work with many countries in need of modernization well into the future.

    But, importantly, Resiliency, Redundancy, Glocalized models, Makers, DIY, Lifelong LEarning, Self-Direction, the Self-Empowered Human, all have necessary places, and Schumpeterian Creative Destruction continues to work its magic under the Invisible Hand of the Complex Adaptive System that the world is, which has historically import, that works far beyond, mere economic inter-relations, only thus because Smith grafted the concept to economics, or,I should say the followers of Smith, did so.

    • 1432FPCHERO C.Steven February 25, 2015 on 8:07 pm


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