A framed timetable from St. Paul Union Depot hangs on my office wall. I discovered it at an antique show many years ago; saved it, and look on it every day as a reminder of the passage of time and how it changes our lives.
Six railroads served St. Paul Union Depot on Aug. 4, 1929, the day it was posted on a wall in the ticket lobby. Together, they scheduled 290 passenger trains each day; collectively transporting a half million passengers and 90 million pieces of mail annually. Forty-two years later the trains were gone, followed, soon, thereafter by the names and identities of the railroad companies, themselves.
This isn’t about St. Paul Union Depot, or the passenger train. What happened to them is a metaphor for economic change, what economists call “creative destruction,” a term coined by the economist Joseph Schumpeter. “Creative destruction” is about the “old” making way for the “new.” The process can be complex and take decades, even hundreds of years.
In 1800, Julius Caesar would have returned and recognized the world much as it was in his day. A century later, after the Industrial Revolution, he wouldn’t know it. Technology leads creative destruction, but there are other forces — social and political change and epidemic disease. Consider the printing press, the Reformation and the Black Death, then reflect on 2020 and the consequences that might follow in 2021. Change and creative destruction are always with us, but 2020 is different. As has been said, “the lines are coming together on the graph.”
Historians will look upon, and write about, 2020 much as they did about the epochal changing events of 1776 — a year of “creative destruction” that witnessed the ideas and ideals of the Enlightenment coming together in the Declaration of Independence followed by our Constitution and the first working, democratic republic since the Roman Republic some 2,000 years before.
They will also write about the cracks in our republic and democracy and the emergence of authoritarianism and an authoritarian figure who used ignorance, economic inequality and racism to promote violence against the Constitution and democracy with a “big lie,” much like another, political leader in 1932 Germany. We know the eventual fate of that leader and the destruction and the loss of life required to bring him to heel. What we don’t know is the fate of Donald Trump.
A majority of senators, including seven Republicans, voted Trump guilty of having the blood of five police officers on his hands, but his grasp and influence on the base of the Republican Party is undiminished and the deep economic and social issues that brought him to office and to power, remain — leaving the fate of the Constitution and our government in doubt, and “creative destruction” still at work.
Last February, the COVID virus was a mere rumor, not the pandemic that took a half-million lives, closed schools and completely disrupted the economy and the social order. Some chose denial, believing it would go away. Others, led by ignorance and selfishness chose to ignore the science and refused to accommodate lifestyle changes that would slow its spread. One of them was Donald Trump, but there were dozens of other public officials: governors, legislators, local governments and individuals who turned their backs on the virus and their responsibilities to their fellow citizen. For too many it was about personal gain, politics, power and making money. People lost their lives. Families lost loved ones.
A vaccine arrived a few weeks ago, but it’s effects are muted by disarray in the distribution system, and now, other more virulent strains of the virus are emerging that could make its eradication much more difficult. There is hope that things will return to “normal,” but that normal is ill-defined and elusive.
All of us have learned new habits and, as a result, our daily commerce has changed. Professional and technical people can work at home and avoid a daily commute. As a result, Metro Transit lost half its riders. Will they come back? Will the new Southwest light rail line have sufficient riders to justify its multibillion expense?
My wife has a 99% rule. “Marcia’s Law” says that whatever we are doing, 99% of the rest of the people are doing as well. We’ve stopped going to restaurants and do take out instead. Most of what we need can be ordered from Amazon. We don’t do retail shopping anymore — same for groceries. I can do most of my research online and order books from Amazon — never mind that libraries are closed or offer limited services. “Creative destruction” is at work.
I found this quote the other day. I’m not sure of the source, but it seems apropos: “There is no expiration date on a Faustian bargain.” I like it.