Ladies Home Journal FTW (on predictions)

In yesterday’s BBC News Magazine, Tom Geoghegan has a rundown of several predictions made by John Elfreth Watkins in the early 20th century.  Watkins wrote an article titled “What May Happen in the Next Hundred Years” for the Ladies Home Journal.  Geoghegan builds from an earlier overview of the article by Jeff Nilsson in The Saturday Evening Post, but also queries Patrick Turner from the World Future Society on how well these predictions were made.  Overall, he was quite prescient.  Moreover, he was very upbeat.  In Nilsson’s words, “Every one of his predictions involved an improvement in the lives of Americans. He saw only positive change in the new century. Today’s predictors don’t see the future so optimistically, but will they see it as clearly as Watkins?”  Some of those positive changes, predicted correctly:

  • Digital color photography
  • Rising height (correctly predicted at 2″) and increased life expectancy (lowballed: he says 50; it was 77) of Americans
  • Slower population growth
  • Mobile phones, networked computing, television, or something like them
  • Pre-prepared meals (some Hungry Man eaters may dispute this as necessarily “positive;” also he was wrong in that they unfortunately are not delivered to every household by pneumatic tube.)
  • Central heating and A/C
  • Hothouse vegetables, bigger fruit, household refrigerators, and refrigerated transport of produce across the country and the hemisphere
  • cheaper cars
  • airplanes, armored tanks, and high speed trains

What is more interesting to me, however, are the things he got wrong (and, perhaps, why).  In some cases, he might just be ahead of the curve – such as his prediction that all wild animals will be extinct (no mention of electric sheep).  In others, it is clearly a lot of political pressure that kept what was a reasonable expectation from taking hold.  Two stand out especially clearly.

The first is his prediction that, in Geoghagen’s paraphrase, there will be no cars in large cities. In Watkins’ words, “All hurry traffic will be below or above ground when brought within city limits.”  What this meant to Watkins was that people would walk, take moving walkways or trains around the city rather than driving.  This was a reasonable prediction – and would have been a reasonable way to build sustainable cities, were we at all interested in that.  At the end of the 19th and for much of the early 20th century, this was largely the trajectory, with cars being only a small component in the transportation ecosystem of major cities.  Electric streetcars, for instance, were a common utility run by municipalities across the country.  Among the changes necessary for the transformation to take hold: car companies like General Motors bought up street car systems (bought them up, that is, and eliminated them), and they were aided in their efforts by various laws, subsidies and eventually nationwide projects of investment.  As Guy Span summarizes this 20th century transformation:

While GM was engaged in what can only be described as an all out attack on transit, our government made no effort to assist traction whatsoever and streetcars began to fade in earnest after the Second World War. In 1946, the government began its Interstate Highway program, with lots of lobbying from GM, arguably the largest public works project in recorded history. In 1956, this was expanded with the National Interstate Highway and Defense Act. Gas tax funds could only be spent on more roads. More cars in service meant more gas taxes to fund more roads. And we got lots of roads.

More and better roads doomed the interurban electric railways and they fell like flies. Outstanding systems like the Chicago North Shore Line (which operated from the northern suburbs into Chicago on the elevated loop until 1962) were allowed to go bankrupt and be scrapped. The Bamburger between Salt Lake City and Ogden failed with its high-speed Brill Cars in 1952. Today, arguably only two of the vast empire of interurban systems survived: The Philadelphia and Western Suburban Railway – aka the Red Arrow Lines (now a part of SEPTA) and the Chicago South Shore and South Bend Railway (now state owned). And highways had everything to do with this extinction.

The United States government, state agencies, and local communities allowed these systems to fail. In the District of Columbia, Congress ordered the elimination of streetcars over the strong objections of the local owners and managers. The government was doing its part.

So let’s not forget the words of Charlie Wilson when asked if there were a conflict with his former employer (GM) on his possible appointment to Secretary of Defense in 1953. He replied, “I cannot conceive of one because for years, I thought what was good for our country was good for General Motors, and vice versa.”

In other words, whatever the benefits of cars over trains or streetcars, we’ll never know who could have won in that fight because, in all cases, the only way one or the other of these highly capital-intensive systems would become dominant was through public policy and state investment – and the palm-greasing and arm-twisting known as lobbying that make those things happen.  Watkins, in other words, wasn’t wrong in terms of technology: he just incorrectly predicted who would be able to graft the system better.  Streetcars, subways and intercity trains held the lead for the last quarter of the 19th and first quarter of the 20th century: then the power shifted to a new set of titans.  Go figure.  This should be a lesson to all the people who look today at Apple or Google for predictions of what the next 100 years will look like.  We should probably look downmarket for the people who will be willing to get their hands dirty with all the sick lobbying they’ll need to do to win the future.

Second, Watkins predicts that college education would be “free to every man and woman.  Here he was an excellent predictor of the post-industrial needs (and capabilities) of US society.  In fact every man and woman probably should have higher education – though what that means has certainly shifted over the past century.  We’ve come a long way from the levels of education at that point, and until recently, many European countries were close to providing this.   As Doug Henwood points out, it wouldn’t be much of a stretch to do this:

It would not be hard at all to make higher education completely free in the USA. It accounts for not quite 2% of GDP. The personal share, about 1% of GDP, is a third of the income of the richest 10,000 households in the U.S., or three months of Pentagon spending. It’s less than four months of what we waste on administrative costs by not having a single-payer health care finance system. But introduce such a proposal into an election campaign and you would be regarded as suicidally insane.

This lack of political will has resulted not only in making not free, but has made it more difficult to even pay for the loans necessary to get through college at the current rates (as he points out above, the increase in sticker price tuition is almost directly proportional to the decrease in state funding of higher ed.)  The result is that the US population is losing its lead among OECD countries (even among High School diploma attainment) and current generation of US citizens will be the first to have less (formal) education than their parents.

Like the prediction about cars (and likely, most of Watkins predictions) his prediction about higher education is not hobbled by technology (at least not only) or demand (at least not directly).  Much of this is, instead, the result of particular policies and funding priorities.  Still, it is impressive that, at the height of Robber Baron supremacy Watkins could imagine a society so publicly minded.  Perhaps we should take a cue from his positive outlook – and try to make it more likely (politically and socially) in the next century.


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