Is Our Economic Future Limited?

Mr. Brookes writes regularly for the Boston Herald American and contributes a column, "A Taxpayer Speaks," to the Boston Sunday Herald Advertiser. This article has been reprinted by permission from the Sunday Herald Advertiser of July 18, 1976.

An economic Armageddon has been regularly predicted as imminent for centuries. Despite an almost continuous seeming decline in our material resources, it has not come because there is no limit to the greatest wealth-producing and energy-abundant asset of mankind—know-how.

One of the more persistent arguments of our time is the doomsday prophecy that America’s economic future is limited and that, in Governor Jerry Brown’s words, "We must lower our expectations:’

The basic premise of this scenario is that America became rich in the first place because of our rich material resources, particularly oil; and, now that our oil seems to be running out, it is time for Americans to’ begin scaling down their economic growth.

More than a call for conservation, this new economic "doomsdaying" tells us that we must begin to "rethink our whole lifestyle," and to damp down the fires of our high‑ powered economy—to accept a more ascetic way of life. A fundamental part of this argument is strong pressure for more central government planning and control over our economic resources and decisions and new "bureaucratic structures" to help us "rethink our lifestyles."

These ideas were well summed up in a recent special section dealing with the Energy Crisis prepared by the editors of The Christian Science Monitor (June 28, 1976)

In their words, "The United States’ dominant position in the world today is largely due to the historical fact that the potential of oil as a cheap energy source was realized during the nation’s industrially formative years and the country has been blessed with large domestic reserves:’

With these reserves now seeming to decline, the Monitor goes on to purport that, "Americans, as a people, rethink many of their national and personal priorities. It is clear that the consumptive lifestyle which has developed in the U.S. in the last quarter century cannot continue indefinitely."

In short, we are told that Americans must begin to scale down their standard of material livelihood—and hold down our economic growth—because our material resources are "limited."

With all due respect to the editors of the Monitor, it is difficult to accept what has become "the politics of, poverty" and the "economics of limitation." Not only do such concepts grate sharply with America’s basic mental posture as the land of unlimited individual opportunity, but they do not square with historical or economic reality.

If, for example, America’s position of economic power and vast distribution of wealth were solely the result of our "vast material resources," how can we explain the extraordinary economic backwardness of Russia, sitting on even more natural resources than ours?

Why The Unused Resources?

Why is it, for example, that Russia, with greater agricultural potential even than ours, must now import our wheat? Why is it that Brazil, with some of the richest natural resources in the world, has a standard of living only one-eighth of ours? If our natural resources really were the primary source of our wealth, why is it that native American Indians lived in such abject poverty, frequently in hunger and starvation, sitting on plains that now feed the world? And, why did some early farmers in our great plains grow rich, while their neighbors with the same land fail?

The answer is, of course, wealth is only partly dependent on material resources. It is much more dependent on the knowledge and ideas that put those material resources to work. In this respect, the greatest source of our energy is not oil but ideas, not the ground, but the mind.

Certainly the oil, which we now regard as so precious, was utterly worthless to the American Indians who did not even know it was there—and only a little more valuable to the white men who first discovered it, but had few uses for it.

What gave oil its value was the creative genius and resulting technology of those who found ways to use it, to make it serve us, to increase our freedom, our mobility, our standard of living, and our economic comfort and well-being.

Similarly, uranium was utterly unknown and therefore worthless until Einstein, working alone, and removed from material considerations or economic necessity, comprehended the nature of the material universe, and thus released us from bondage to old and limited ideas of energy. We can, of course, only imagine what new, untapped resources are still waiting to be discovered and developed.

The Creative Imagination

Clearly, the primary reason for America’s great wealth today is not its physical assets, but the political, economic, and spiritual freedom which released the greatest source of wealth and energy of all—the individual mind, the creative imagination and the ability to comprehend and to master the material universe around us.

Or, as the great scientist-philosopher, R. Buckminster Fuller, says, "Wealth is the product of the progressive mastery of matter by mind." He further refines this definition by telling us that "Wealth is our organized ability to cope effectively with the environment." (Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth, Pocket Books, 1970)

In short, Fuller rejects the notion that wealth is primarily the result of material resources, and says that it is due primarily to our "metaphysical ability" to cope with these resources. He says, in effect, that the greatest source of energy is mind, not matter.

Fuller’s fundamental thesis is that both the capitalist and socialist ideologies are wrong because they continue to approach the material world from the standpoint of limitation—of "not enough to go around," of thinking that matter itself is wealth, that material energy is the only energy. The result of this, he says, is that the world has too long been dominated by the "pirate mentality," the race for control by nations and enterprises over specific and seemingly finite material resources—a constant "Malthusian-Darwin-you-or-me-to-the-death struggle," all on the assumption that some kind of "economic Armageddon" was just always around the corner.

The fact is, Fuller says, this "Armageddon" or doomsday, which has regularly been predicted as "imminent" for centuries, has not come because it does not have to. Why? Because there is no limit to the greatest wealth-producing and energy-abundant asset of mankind—"know-how," or what Fuller calls the "metaphysical component" of wealth. This, according to Fuller, explains why, in this century alone, "we have gone from less than one percent of humanity being able to survive in any important kind of health and comfort to 44 percent of humanity surviving at a standard of living unexperienced or undreamed of before."

What makes this "utterly unpredicted success" so meaningful to Professor Fuller is that it happened "without being consciously and specifically attempted by any government or business." More important, it happened despite an almost continuous seeming decline in our material resources. The reason for this, Fuller says, is that the discoveries of Einstein and subsequent physical scientists have released us from the primitive idea that our "universe is running down," or that our energy "is running out."

Indeed, Fuller says, the result of the work of Einstein and those who have followed him is to prove that "energy can neither be exhausted, nor originated. Energy is finite and infinitely conserved." To the layman, it means that even as we seem to use up one form of energy, it is turning into another. The only thing limiting our ability to find or develop the energy we need is our technological competence. In other words, while material energy is always con served, mental energy is unlimited, and as yet largely untapped!

The Metaphysical Part of Wealth Has to Grow

The significance of this is that while the physical or energy part of our wealth can never be depleted, the metaphysical or "know-how" part of our wealth can only increase. Thus, our wealth has to grow. Even when we make mistakes we learn more, and the more we learn, the more we understand, and the wealthier we get! The reason for this, Fuller says, is that we are always being taught by the metaphysical process how to do more with less.

This process, which Fuller calls "synergy," is nothing more than a restatement of the old postulate that "the whole is greater than the sum of its parts," that a whole idea is more valuable and powerful than its individual components. Man is obviously more than $2.70 worth of chemicals. A computer is clearly more than a few hundred pounds of metal, plastic and wire. A car is more than 4000 pounds of metal, rubber, and plastic.

Synergy, in sum, is the description of the process by which ideas transform otherwise useless matter into valuable products, or services. The wealth is produced, not by the matter but by the ideas that transform it. The extension of what Fuller calls this "synergistic process" is that as the idea of any product becomes better understood, the less matter is needed, and the more real wealth or value is created.

Thus, today a small desk-sized computer can do more than it took a whole room full of wire, metal and parts to accomplish 30 years ago.

A tiny, three-ounce hand calculator can do more than a 60-pound desk-machine did 30 years ago, and with much less energy.

Thirty years ago, in its infancy, television was a tiny screen in a huge box. Today it is a large screen with a much smaller box of longer lasting parts.

Forty years ago, the average radio was a big three-foot box with a separate speaker and a small sound. Today it is a three-inch rectangular cube, held in the palm of your hand with enough volume to make dogs scream in terror, and using much less energy.

Twenty-five years ago, it took 15 pounds of feed and 14 weeks to raise a three-pound frying chicken. Today it takes five pounds of feed and seven weeks to raise the same bird for market.

Examples like these are endless. The inevitable evolutionary trend of most material invention is to start out using a lot of matter to create a product—and gradually, as the idea and the technology get refined—that is, as the "metaphysical know-how grows," that we use less matter, and get a bigger, better result—we do more with less.

The promise of synergy is that as we increase our "metaphysical capital," our know-how, our understanding of the world around us, our economic wealth can only grow, it can never decline. Or, as Fuller puts it, "The physical constituent of our wealth—energy—cannot decrease, and the metaphysical constituent know-how—can only increase. This is to say that every time we use our wealth it increases:’ Every time we get a better idea of anything our economy and wealth grow. The plain fact is we have not yet begun to tap the enormous potential of the mind, and therefore have not yet probed the greatest source of energy and wealth.

Tying Material Resources in Bureaucratic Red Tape

The danger Fuller sees is that we will fall back into the trap of "pirate politics," and begin to restrict our economic progress by hoarding our material resources, tying them up in bureaucratic structure and red-tape, and by limiting our greatest wealth-producing asset—our individual mental capacities—through the "heavy hand" of bureaucracy, limitation, and human accounting. Fuller warns, "Because our wealth is continually multiplying in vast degree unbeknownst and unacknowledged formally by human society, our economic accounting systems are still unrealistically identifying wealth as matter …"

Such an approach not only leads to hoarding and to impoverishment, but it also leads to the establishment of the very bureaucratic structures, controls and regulations that will stifle the economic and technological progress of which we are truly capable.

It seems clear that a nation which can put a man on the moon can, through the same "metaphysical process," the same devotion to the mastery of material limitations, break down the presently assumed limitations on our material energy resources—either by discovering whole new reserves of current fuels, or breaking ground into entirely new sources of energy not even now understood, or both.

The only impediment to our doing this is a fearful or limited concept about the real source of our wealth, a lack of faith in our ability as free men and institutions to find what we need. Fuller reminds us that every time mankind has been threatened by a real immediate need, we have been able, through the "metaphysical process" to meet that need, usually in ways wholly unpredictable.

One of the best examples of this was in World War II, when Japan cut America completely off from raw rubber. A Massachusetts man, Bradley Dewey, Sr., formed a team of private researchers and, within two years, came up with synthetic rubber, completely obviating the need for natural rubber resources.

In more recent times, the decline in uranium prompted the development of the "breeder-reactor" which produces new fuel faster than it uses up old! Many scientists now predict that it will become one of the main sources of electric power in the future.

Recently, we have learned that vast new undiscovered oil fields exist in Mexico—potentially larger than anything yet discovered in any country except Saudi Arabia. And most experts agree that the reserves under the Continental Shelf are too large to be estimated accurately.

In Detroit, a former General Motors executive has developed an engine that can turn water into combustible fuel, and in California, work on fuel cells promises whole new areas of energy development as yet untapped. No one yet knows the full potential of solar energy, or of geothermal energy, or even of nuclear fission, since all these fields are still relatively early in their development.

Our Untapped Potential

The point is, our economic future is not tied to the physical assets we now know about—but to the vast untapped potential of creative thinking—of the "metaphysical process" which will not only show us whole new reserves and new potential fuels, but will also show us how to extend their value—to do even more, with even less—to increase our wealth without depleting our planet.

There is, however, a serious potential roadblock to the unfoldment of this creative "metaphysical" process. Throughout history, the enemy of creative ideas has always been organized bureaucratic structure—the committee that designs a camel instead of a horse, the red-tape and organizational charts that keep ideas from coming to fruition, the government agency that throttles small business, or new product development.

This explains why free nations like the U.S. have grown rich, while totalitarian nations like Russia with equally great physical resources have stayed relatively poor. The free society turns loose its metaphysical energies—the totalitarian societies throttle theirs.

Today, unfortunately, the devastating combination of big government, big labor, and big business is beginning to inhibit our own nation’s metaphysical energies and creative resources. Structure is now beginning to "swallow up" ideas. Individual potential is being throttled by collective processes.

This is why so many large corporations have discovered that to remain vital and growing, they have had to decentralize, or to merge with the small companies where creative thinking still goes on. In short, they have had to turn more and more to small groups of individuals to regenerate their entrepreneurial drive and spirit, remembering that every big corporation was once small and grew big only because of the breadth and energy of the thinking of individuals.

Growth in Massachusetts

Nowhere is this more evident than in Massachusetts, which is full of companies, big and small, that have arisen from the fertile imagination, energy, and technical skills of individuals.

In Cambridge, Polaroid now employs over 12,000 people, largely because of the creative genius of one man, Edwin Land, whose inventions have brought economic progress and jobs to our state, and satisfying products to hundreds of millions of people around the world. He has done this by transforming relatively low-cost metal, paper, chemicals and plastics into tremendously valuable and useful photographic products, through the genius of his ideas. That economic potential of Polaroid is not limited by material resources. It is limited only by the breadth of Land’s vision and the technological genius of those who run his company and develop its products.

So, too, Digital Equipment Corporation, another of Massachusetts’ largest employers, has grown to its present size because its founders learned how to turn metal, wire, plastics, and glass into complex and valuable computers, whose $100,000-plus price tags have very little to do with their raw physical content but have everything to do with their "metaphysical quotient," that is, the ideas that made them possible.

So it is with so many of this state’s and the nation’s "growth industries" which depend more and more on sophisticated technology, and less and less on raw physical resources.

Clearly, our wealth in the future, even more than in the past, will come from individuals, not from the ground; from the untapped potential of thinking, not from the obvious reservoirs of present fuels; from mental energy not physical.

In this respect, the current situation in Massachusetts is instructive. In spite of our present problems, it is well to remember that this is still one of the wealthiest per capita states in the nation. It is wealthy not because of our physical resources, but in spite of our apparent lack of them. It is wealthy because the state is, still, unusually blessed with a large "metaphysical base" of creative, inventive, technologically-advanced thinkers and vast "metaphysical assets," such as universities and research institutions.

Unfortunately, we are busy paralyzing this economic potential today because the heavy and expensive hand of government taxation and bureaucratic red-tape is driving out the very individuals who can give us real economic progress. This is particularly true of the dynamic small companies which have the potential to be great tomorrow. And, yet, like the nation, we complain that our economic picture is deteriorating because of a lack of physical resources; our future is limited "because we don’t have enough oil."

In this respect, we are a little like the small chick inside the egg, bleating because its food has run out, but afraid to break out of the shell of limited thinking into a new and seemingly dangerous world where we live by our mental resources rather than immediate physical assets.

As Professor Fuller puts it, "My own picture of humanity today finds us just about to step out from amongst the pieces of our just seconds-ago broken eggshell. Our innocent trial and error, sustaining nutriment is exhausted. We are faced with an entirely new relationship to the universe.

"We are going to have to spread our wings of intellect and fly, or perish; that is, we must dare immediately to fly by the generalized principle governing the universe, and not by the ground rules of yesterday’s superstitious and erroneously conditioned reflexes."

Massachusetts, today, is in a unique position to throw off our "superstitious and erroneously conditioned reflexes," to show the rest of the nation that our economic progress is not limited by yesterday’s lost resources, but is as large as tomorrow’s vision. We have an abundance of the most vital energy resource known to mankind—the metaphysical capital of enlightened thinkers. They are involved in the exploration of yet undiscovered technologies and resources for the nation’s future, in all fields from solar energy to the laser beam, from cybernetics to synthetics.

The nation and the world desperately need these "metaphysical resources" and will pay for them handsomely.

The problem is: will our politicians and their overweening government drive them away to friendlier regions? Or, will they "tie them up" in some impossible new bureaucratic structures under the meaningless label of "Economic Development Agencies"?

The same questions can be asked of the national government, as well. Should we, as the Monitor’s editors propose, organize new government agencies from the standpoint of limitation, and, in the process, freeze the metaphysical potential of our free society? Or, will we have faith in free individuals and free institutions to bring us the resources we need for our future? We would do well to remember that, throughout history, mankind has worried about some form of limitation, some lack of material resource. Primitive tribes and people perished not because there were no resources, but because there was not enough know-how and too much fear and superstition. Remembering this, we should refuse to be taken in by the "politics of limitation and despair" and refuse to adopt the kind of bureaucratic enterprises and governmental structures that will only limit us more.

We can not possibly now know where our energy for the next century may come from—any more than Malthusian thinkers of the 19th century knew how we could possibly feed the billions of people we now do feed. But, we do know that, so long as there is the freedom for individuals to develop the "metaphysical" know-how of mankind, our wealth can only increase, and our economy can only grow.

The only way this economic progress can ever be stopped is by destroying freedom—and by throttling the "metaphysical process" in the mire of well-meaning bureaucratic planners and politicians who are still dealing in the "pirate theories" of "not enough to go around."