Bill Bryson's "Made in America"

We know human beings are irrational creatures.  The millenium has come & gone and nothing momentous happened.  The date 2000 is totally arbitrary -- and in some sense, totally insignificant.  Some human being somewhere decided to begin counting, and since the beginning of this particular way of counting we are now at 2,000 years and some days.  This is totally arbitrary -- and in many ways, totally insignificant.
 
I was reminded of this because I am reading a wonderful book by Bill Bryson entitled Made in America.  In that book he explains that not so long ago clocks all over America were totally arbitrary -- every community kept its own time.  “Until 1883” -- a mere 120 years ago -- “there were no fixed times in America.  When it was midnight in New York it was 11:47 in Washington and 11:55 in Philadelphia.”  Predictably, it was the railroads that wanted times to be set but, as Bryson said, “Many thought it was somehow ungodly to tinker with something as elemental as time, ignoring the consideration that clocks are not a divine concept.”
 
That’s the point: clocks are not a divine concept.  Two thousand years is not a divine concept.  Man set the dates.  Men set clocks -- but men -- and women, are irrational creatures and when America got ready to create four time zones, people once again panicked.  To quote Bryson again, “For weeks people everywhere fretted & fussed as if the country were about to be struck by an outsize meteor.  Farmers worried that their hens would stop laying or that their cows would go dry…By the dawn of the appointed day the nation was in a fever of uncertainty.  Just before noon people everywhere began silently gathering by town halls and court-houses to watch the clocks change….almost everywhere the event proved anticlimactic.  Millions watched as the hands on their court house clocks were summarily advanced or moved back a few notches, then pursed their lips and returned to business as it dawned on them that that was as exciting as it was going to get.”
 
Does all this remind you of the millenium -- of the most recent New Year’s Eve?   Millions returned to business as usual as they realized this was as exciting as it was going to get.
 
Bryson goes on to say that “The fuss over introducing time zones was as nothing compared with the push for daylight savings time.”  Aren’t we human beings wonderful?  Each and every change causes us to go into panic mode.  The sky is falling, the sky is falling, Chicken little, and all the rest of us, shout.  And who was the driving force behind this push for daylight savings time?  A businessman who wanted to have more daylight so he could play golf in the evening.  That makes sense to me.  It makes sense that it was a businessman & it makes sense that he wanted more time to play golf.  And what was our panicky reaction this time? “The New York Times called it an ‘act of madness’ and others seriously suggested that they might equally change thermometers to make summers appear cooler and winters warmer.”

We human beings panic whenever we are confronted with any kind of change.  We are ready to say the world will come to an end if change Y or change X occurs.  The world did not come to an end when clocks were synchronized.  The world did not come to an end when daylight savings time was instituted -- and the world did not come to an end when the arbitrary, man-declared date of 2000 occurred a few weeks ago.  We are all here still slogging away at daily life.


We all know, or we all should know, that America is an enormously rich country.  This wealth is reflected, in part, in our consumption of resources.  We use too much of the world’s resources.  I remember reading figures about how, shortly after WWII Americans, 5% of the world’s population, used as much as one third of all the world’s resources.  One third of all the copper, one third of all the steel, one third of all the cakes, one third of everything was being consumed by this one country that only contained 5% of the people who lived on this planet.
 
This seems unfair; this is unfair, but everything must be understood in context.  Yes, we use up a great deal of the world’s resources, but we also produce a great deal.  We are -- as all of you are probably saying to yourselves -- the world’s best business people.  We have always been great producers --a nd a book I am reading makes this abundantly clear.
 
I am reading Bill Bryson’s book Made in America.  I mentioned the book in a previous talk.  The book is a great book and Bill Bryson is a great writer.  He is a travel writer.  He was born in England and grew up in America and a large number of his books are about England or America.  The titles of some of the other books he has written is The Lost Continent, Neither Here Nor There, Notes from a Small Island and A Walk in the Woods.  His books are good because he is funny & informative -- a rare combination.  Many writers are informative and boring or funny and irrelevant.  What he says is educational -- and often hilarious.
 
He made clear to me how rich -- how very, very, rich -- Americans have always been.
 
In 1850 -- one hundred and fifty years ago -- America’s 23 million people had a cumulative wealth of 7.1 billion dollars.  That works out to 300 dollars per person -- which doesn’t sound like much -- but you must remember that at that time that was an enormous, an unbelievable sum of money.  First of all, most people didn’t even have money.  In a book I read on life in England in the early 1900’s, most working class people had no money.  I repeat, no money.  They didn’t spend money.  They didn’t need money.  Even today, one out five people on this planet don’t earn a dollar a day.  For Americans to have an average wealth of 300 dollars in 1850 was unbelievable.
 
Fifty years later, in 1900, America’s population tripled to 76 million, but wealth had increased thirteen fold to 94.3 billion.  By 1914 America was the world’s leading producer of coal, natural gas, oil, copper, iron ore & silver, and its factories were producing more goods than those of Britain, Germany & France together.  About twenty years later, one fourth of all the world’s wealth was in American hands  As Bryson says, “In no other country could the common person enjoy such an intoxicating possibility  of accumulating wealth.
 
Yes, we consume a great deal, but we also produce -- have always produced -- a great deal.  The business of America is business.  We are very good producers.  We are terrifically efficient, terrifically motivated, driven.  We consume a great deal, but we produce a great deal.  About twenty years ago I found out that one out every thousand people in America is a millionaire.  I now understand how that can be true.  Our stock market is unbelievably strong.  The whole world wants to invest in America, and they are right to want to do so.  For over 150 years we have been rich -- and we are growing richer & richer.
 
I do not condone our vast consumption -- we waste too much -- but I am beginning to understand how it came about --and Bill Bryson explains it well --and explains a great deal about America well -- about fast food chains, the American car industry & much else.  You must buy this  book.  The title is easy to remember -- Made in America -- and indeed he proves that much is made in America.

 

Copyright 2004   Henry Morgenstein

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