The Pollyanna Prophecies


A Vision for the Coming Age of Prosperity

By Peter Schwartz, Peter Leyden, and Joel Hyatt

Perseus Books 336pp $26

Any period of sustained growth brings forth the utopian visionaries. The boom of the 1960s, for example, saw the U.S. ready to declare a war on poverty.

This time around, utopia looks a lot like a global version of Silicon Valley--at least to the authors of The Long Boom. Elaborating on a widely quoted 1997 Wired magazine article, Peter Schwartz, Peter Leyden, and Joel Hyatt--a consultant, a journalist, and an entrepreneur, all based in the San Francisco Bay area--have produced a book that describes a modern-day paradise on earth. The Long Boom, write the authors, "is a vision of...a better, more prosperous and peaceful world." The key is rapid global growth that continues for decades: "High economic growth solves the core issues facing the world today."

The book, according to the authors, is "not a prediction." Rather, it is an exhortatory tract. Their hope is that by laying out a positive vision of the future, they will increase the chance that it will happen.

From this perspective, The Long Boom is a welcome relief from the pessimism of conventional economics. Indeed, the volume's target of 4% to 6% global growth for at least the next 20 years is well within the realm of possibility. Annual global growth during the second half of the 20th century averaged about 3%, and the Internet and related technologies could add a percentage point, as BUSINESS WEEK wrote in a recent cover story, "The Internet Age" (BW--Oct. 4). Breakthrough innovations such as nanotechnology--the engineering of individual atoms--could boost world growth even more.

But even a shining vision needs analysis and some hint that the authors have thought about what might go wrong. That is what is missing from this book. The Long Boom simply assumes that everything will go well for the next 20 years. Massive technological, economic, and political problems are written off with a sentence, if that. As a result, The Long Boom comes across as an overly cheerful sermon rather than a compelling blueprint.

Take the economy. The word "recession" is not mentioned in the index. Instead, economic downturns are viewed as resulting mainly from a lack of sufficient business and consumer confidence, to be best solved by more upbeat thinking. Solvable problems turn into a crisis because of "the anxiety that has mushroomed around them," write the authors. If the global community is "edging toward a state of depression"--in both the emotional and economic senses--it's "largely because of the lack of a positive vision."

But Schwartz, Leyden, and Hyatt fail to acknowledge that periods of great technological change are often highly volatile, as workers and corporations lose their old nichesign has gotten funkier over the past few years as engineers try to achieve that elusive golden posture. One of the most popular ergonomic keyboards--Microsoft's Keyboard Elite-- helps somewhat, Johnson says, by giving you about four more inches of workspace. But the design pushes the mouse farther away than it should be, so she doesn't recommend the gadget, which costs about $50 per keyboard.

Instead, Johnson suggests looking at either the contoured keyboard, which is made by Kinesis Corp., or one from obvious to them, but it's not clear how networks can stop an overhyped stock market from collapsing.

Problems that have bedeviled smart and dedicated people for decades are summarily dismissed. Take the matter of economically underdeveloped countries. "The old model was to let every country slowly make its way up the technology food chain." Their solution? "We need to transfer know-how and technology"--as if the importation of advanced technologies into developing countries had never been tried before.

For the most part, the book lacks historical perspective--unless you count the authors' use of "future history." For much of the book, they write as if they were looking back from the 21st century, giving their arguments an undeserved aura of certainty. This conceit may confound serious readers, for it produces a bizarre blend of real and imaginary companies in the index. For example, New York Times is followed there by a listing for Nippon Nano, a fictitious Japanese nanotechnology giant supposedly operating in the middle of the next century.

The authors' faith in the inevitable progress of technology is touching. Their vision of worldwide rapid growth requires a new source of nonpolluting energy to substitute for fossil fuels. Not to worry, they say: Most of the environmentally sound technologies needed "are already here, already fully developed, and getting competitively priced."

Well, maybe. Their choice for the energy technology of the Long Boom is the fuel cell, which turns hydrogen and oxygen into water and power. That's certainly a clean technology, and it's potentially quite efficient. There's a catch, though. As the authors admit, another source of power is needed to generate the hydrogen in the first place--and for the foreseeable future, that means the current power plants will keep running.

Similarly, the authors argue that the average lifespan can be extended to age 120, but they decline to deal with any of the negative implications. What if scientists cannot cure Alzheimer's, so that we have a nation of barely functional centenarians? Or conversely, what if people keep working well into their second century, so that older generations end up much wealthier than younger ones? It would have been nice to hear a bit about how the authors would solve these problems. Instead, they devote a whole chapter to what they call "wild science"--things like warp drives that can drive spacecraft faster than light.

Their self-congratulatory naivete shows up most clearly in their vision of future politics--which follows the apolitical Silicon Valley model. "A different political mentality seems to be emerging on the West Coast," they write. "It's not about left or right; it's about what works."

But this model is based on the assumption that everyone across the globe shares the same values. In a world populated by nationalist Serbs, religious fundamentalists, and radical environmentalists, one cannot assume a future with globally shared values.

Indeed, though the authors stress how, in their research, they crisscrossed the world, their parochialism is breathtaking. "The Americans have figured out an economic model that works marvelously," they write. "The world needs to open up just enough to see that taking some new ideas and developing them further is in its best interests."

The book also includes some jarring examples of national stereotyping. The French and the southern European cultures are "romantics." Asians are "fantastic at absorbing new methods and mastering set courses." The Japanese "resist change at all costs for as long as possible, and then adopt new ideas wholesale." And the poor Russians have "a remarkable capacity for suffering."

Ultimately, The Long Boom is based on a pervasive sense that Silicon Valley today is the most important place in history. As the authors have one of their imaginary future characters say: "The future is being born right around me, and for that I am ecstatic." That sentiment may sound appropriate in a religious text--but it's not a good road map for the future.

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