Improvisation

In keeping with my earlier global history theme, one of the other books I’ve just finished is Timothy Brook’s Vermeer’s Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World. I won’t go into a description of the book – you can read the reviews in the Washington Post. Suffice it to say that the author uses Vermeer’s paintings as device to discussion the newly emerged global interconnections, especially between Holland and China. There is one quote, however, that deserves special attention. Brook is seeking to place the 17th Century in context. He argues that it was one of “second contacts” — where both sides were negotiating the relationship. As he puts it,

The age of discovery was largely over, the age of imperialism yet to come. The seventeenth century was the age of improvisation.

That description — the age of improvisation — might well describe our current situation. The industrial age is gone, the information age has not yet fully arrived. Our economy is in flux; our economic policy deficient. We are searching for an effective macroeconomic policy: at a time of record government budget deficits and historically low interest rates, we are falling into recession. Our policies to cope with globalization are inadequate at best (a miserly level of funding for an overly narrow trade adjustment assistance program) and – more to the point – mostly completely missing. Our technology policy has sunk to a level where we promise to throw a few more dollars at the physical sciences, and can’t even deliver on that meager promise. Our education policy is teach-to-the-test, rather than promote creativity.
We are clearly in an age of improvisation. And that improv is not going all that well.

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