Seeing a bit of stained glass on a slow and meandering walk led to an equally meandering train of thought.
We don’t build cathedrals anymore: massive public projects that span generations.
Our current economic system doesn’t allow it. Future historians are going to pick some time in the late 20th Century as the start of the new economic model. It’s not exactly capitalism.
Market economies have been around for ages. Many of the cathedrals of yore hosted fairs, markets and commerce. Market economies happily coexisted with multi-generational, beyond-profit thinking.
Some of the characteristics of the new system:
- Short-Term Profitability. Businesses run on quarterly profit and growth cycles. VC funding works on longer cycles, but still demands exponential growth in years rather than generations. This thinking has spread to government, education, recreation: people talk about the ROI of infrastructure, learning or hobbies. Profitability isn’t new. Its presence in every nook and cranny of life is.
- Financialization. The economy is increasingly tied to financial products rather than anything tangible. This leads to unelected technocrats in power, parents voting against the interests of their children for the sake of their retirement accounts.
- Economic Oligarchy. Massive companies become monopolies that use crony capitalism and regulatory capture to smother free markets. Once in power, monopolies turn to rent-seeking
It’s a worldview that stifles a market economy. Curiously, any criticism of this system makes you a card carrying communist. Adam Smith would never recognize this as capitalism.
Today’s tech behemoths are built on the back of systems that couldn’t be created today: the world wide web and email. Both systems depended on government funding, are interoperable and hard to directly monetize.
The old system’s ability to think beyond short-term profit allowed for the construction of lasting infrastructure. Email didn’t die with AOL, the web didn’t disappear with Netscape.
I hope email and the open web aren’t the last cathedrals we build.