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Originally published Saturday, April 23, 2011 at 10:00 PM

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Jon Talton

Jon Talton: from Space Age to debt age, a hard fall

A half-century ago, ground was broken for the Space Needle for the 1962 Seattle World's Fair. It was a soaring, futuristic symbol of America at the peak of its prosperity and promise. Things did change dramatically over the next 50 years, but not in the way foreseen back then.

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The 1960s left a shambles of ghastly architecture across the land, but Seattle, as its wont, lucked out. With the Space Needle, which started coming out of the ground 50 years ago, the city gained a monument that has proved to be a graceful classic.

Yet it also stands there judging us: America in the 21st century, which was a theme of the 1962 Seattle World's Fair, couldn't achieve this today. Not even close.

A few celebrity architects ply their craft but leave nothing for the ages. President Obama's plan to build a few modest higher-speed rail segments is dying, even as true high-speed rail is being expanded in western Europe and China. America's once-towering lead in science is rapidly eroding. The nation that landed men on the moon in 1969 has essentially given up on manned spaceflight, sending the shuttles to museums.

Who could have imagined such a future when listening to President Kennedy 49 years ago in his famous speech at Rice University?

"Those who came before us made certain that this country rode the first waves of the industrial revolution, the first waves of modern invention, and the first wave of nuclear power, and this generation does not intend to founder in the backwash of the coming age of space," he said. "We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things not because they are easy but because they are hard."

Project Apollo was only the most majestic of the decade's accomplishments. They ranged from the enactment of landmark civil-rights legislation and Medicare to a wave in funding for science and public universities. Amid a surge in public works, construction of the Interstate Highway System shifted into high. In 1965, Eero Saarinen's gleaming Gateway Arch soared over St. Louis.

Whatever blunders accompanied the Great Society, it cut poverty in half by the end of the 1970s. Despite the Vietnam War, the nuclear standoff with the Soviet Union and urban riots, 1960s America was the world's leading creditor and top manufacturer. The economy rode its longest uninterrupted expansion in history, corporate profits and the Dow reached record highs and the middle class enjoyed ever-rising living standards. Federal debt ended the decade at 37 percent of gross domestic product, compared with 102 percent now.

Ironically, economics didn't permeate our national life then.

Business certainly did. Yet it was more highly regulated than today, especially banks and Wall Street. Pluralism was the norm, with big business, unions and government offsetting any dangerous accumulation of power. Higher tax rates kept greed and income inequality in check.

It was also more decentralized, with a substantial cohort of major corporations (paying Americans good wages), but also large local concerns. Every American city of any size had headquarters and bosses that saw their company's health tied to that of the community.

At its worst, it was an ol'-boy system; but at its best it accomplished amazing things. It was at work, along with the politicians, boosters and dreamers, in creating the Seattle World's Fair — itself originally intended to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition.

With seed money of $15 million (about $113 million in today's money), the fair beat out New York for the 1962 time slot, drew 10 million visitors and exhibits from 35 foreign countries and numerous big businesses.

Aside from the nebulous goal of showcasing Seattle to the world, the fair had no economic goal as we would define it today. Although it made a profit, the numbers wouldn't work to provide a return on investment that the gamblers now expect from a hedge fund.

And yet this city — which now can't build a tunnel or get light-rail to the Eastside in a timely manner — just did it.

Fifty years later, Seattle is a fortunate outlier in an America facing fiscal crisis, run by an unchecked financial elite, sharply divided not only politically but between winners and losers. And a nation unwilling to attempt great things. Even the easy has become hard.

Managing contraction in a changed world might be easier if our leaders would speak honestly about our challenges. They won't.

Instead, American exceptionalism has become denial and debt.

Economics has become a church for the right and a battleground for the left. But it's almost beside the point, and can't really provide the answers.

Precious things have been squandered, things that can't be tallied in a counting house. A "we" society has become a "me" society. A civilization has been turned into a mere market.

And all the electronic distractions and cheap stuff from China can't make up for what we've lost.

You may reach Jon Talton at

We've come a long way
A lot has changed in the last 50 years. The United States has more than 300 million residents and the price of a gallon of milk has been surpassed by the price of a gallon of gas.
1960 Now
Washington population 2,853,214 6,690,746
U.S. population 179,323,168 308,183,362
U.S. median household Income $5,620 $51,510
Avg. household size 3.3 2.6
Price of milk $1.04 per gallon $3.50 per gallon
Gas price 31 cents per gallon $3.59 per gallon

Sources: Seattle Times news researcher Gene Balk, U.S. Census Bureau, U.S. Dept. of Labor/Bureau of Labor Statistics, DemographicsNow

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About Jon Talton

Jon Talton comments on economic trends and turning points, putting them into context with people, place and the environment in the Pacific Northwest



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