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Herb Palmer: New inventions that improve our quality of life

Happy New Year and welcome to the promise of a busy, changing world in the year ahead. At the stroke of midnight tonight, marking the end of the year 2000 and the beginning of 2001, billions of people in 24 time zones around the world will join i...

Happy New Year and welcome to the promise of a busy, changing world in the year ahead.
At the stroke of midnight tonight, marking the end of the year 2000 and the beginning of 2001, billions of people in 24 time zones around the world will join in gala celebrations. as well as prayer meetings, hoping for the best.
In America it will mark the end of the closest presidential election in history and the reconciliation of the masses on both sides of the political fence.
Looking back, in the year 1800, Vice President Thomas Jefferson (Democrat) and Aaron Burr (Democrat/
Republican) each won 73 electoral votes for president.
The House of Representatives elected Jefferson as president and Burr as vice president. In 1888, President Grover Cleveland polled nearly 100,000 more popular votes than Benjamin Harrison, but Harrison won the electoral vote, 233 to 168, for the presidency.
In 1960, John F. Kennedy won the election over Richard Nixon in the electoral vote despite an edge of less than two-tenths of one-percentage points over Nixon in the popular vote. The election tally was 303 to 219.
Currently, when Harry S. Dent and Ravi Batra peer into their crystal ball, they see a vastly different vision of the coming years.
Their latest books, Dent's "The Roaring 2000s" and Batra's "Crash of the Millennium," are proof of how different they are. Oddly enough, both prognosticators focus on buying power and consumption of goods and services.
Dent foresees a glut of baby boomers as they enter their peak spending years. Batra predicts a dearth as wages grow more slowly to keep up with production.
But both of them favor a look at the future during which many problems will require fixing, including the high prices the elderly pay for prescription drugs and pills. Many of these high priced medications, most of them made in the United States, can be purchased for as little as half price in Canada. It is suggested that Congress pass new laws preventing price gouging in the world of newly discovered medications.
I realize that the people who discovered these amazing medications want to receive their rewards now, not sometime in the future. But spreading them out over a 50-year period or so would make them more affordable for the people who need them.
Americans as a rule have been thinking broadly that the economic boom could go on forever, and they have been spending and investing accordingly. We are now seeing the first signs of a fraying confidence in the future.
Recently, aGallup Poll reported that 48 percent of Americans believe that the economy could slip a little in the coming years. Still, the irony of the present situation remains its greatest strength. Overpowering confidence could become its greatest vulnerability.
Consider how hyper-confidence has shaped the boom. Since 1992, consumer spending on everything from cars to computers has out raced personal income. People have borrowed, cashed in stock profits (and paid the big capital gains taxes) or stopped saving.
The mood today is enjoy, enjoy, enjoy! The personal savings rate, saving as a share of after tax income, has fallen from 10 percent to roughly zero.
If the savings rate rose only 2 percent, it would lower consumer spending by about $140 billion -- meaning fewer SUV's, appliances, cars and mobile homes sold.
The slowdown could feed on itself. Last week, General Motors said it would build 1.3 million vehicles in the first quarter of 2001, down 14 percent from the level of 2000.
Incoming President George W. Bush faces two problems.
Corporate profits will appear to be flat and the stock market will be down. Car and truck sales should drop 1.2 million units and housing starts may slip as much as 4 percent. Unemployment is predicted to rise 4.5 percent by 2002.
To predict a rise in savings would mean a jolt in consumer spending that could lead to a minor recession. No one understands that better than Alan Greenspan, chairman of the Federal Reserve, who has raised interest rates several times in the past year.
However, in the coming year, the general trend may be to reduce interest rates, bring prices down so that the movers and doers will have an incentive to buy, invest and produce.
Will the advances in the next 100 years dwarf the advances made in the past 100 years?
This writer, born in Maine in 1906, has experienced the many advances made during the past century. During those early years, life expectancy at birth was 47.3 years. Most doctors lacked any scientific training and the bottles in their little satchels contained little more than alcohol and opiates.
Lack of refrigeration, poor sanitary conditions and adulteration meant that millions died from spoiled or tainted food, while epidemics of scarlet fever, yellow fever and smallpox offered constant reminders of life's fragility.
All available electric lights glowed yellow in the darkness, and without electricity there were no laundry machines, vacuum cleaners, or other mechanical means to purge the household dirt and germs.
The air stank of coal dust, manure and rotting garbage thrown from windows. The average American never traveled more than a 100 miles from home except by train or bus.
In 1938, the Century Limited, pulled by a steam engine, sped from New York to Chicago in 16 hours. Today, by plane, we can travel from New York to San Francisco in about four or five hours. In the history of technology, what distinguishes the present age is not only the creation of great new inventions but our genius for re-engineering and manufacturing previously existing machines and gadgets with ever greater efficiency so that consumer costs are declining even as their quality is greatly improved.
(Editors Note: Material in this column was obtained from news releases in Newsweek, U.S. News and World Report written by Phillip J. Longman, Robert J. Samuelson, Rich Thomas and Daniel McGinn.)
On the lighter side ...
Torrential rains soaked South Louisiana and floodwaters were 6 feet high. Mrs. Boudreaux was sitting on her roof with her neighbor Mrs. Thibodaux, waiting for help to come. Mrs. Thibodaux spied a lone baseball cap floating near the house. The cap seemed to be moving back and forth slowly but steadily. "Do you see that baseball cap?" she asked Mrs. Boudreaux.
"Oh, yes, that's my husband," Mrs. Boudreaux replied. "I told him he was going to cut the grass today come hell or high water."
-- Reader's Digest

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