When I was in school we had the occasional class discussion in history or social studies about the role of the frontier in U.S. economic development. Back then (this was the 1960s) if the teacher was sharp this would sometimes segue into a discussion about the implications for America of being without an obvious frontier — a condition that was widely known even then. Those conversations have stilled for some reason with the rise of what seems to me to be societal stupidity, but it is my growing sense that this is at the heart of our current economic malaise. We need a new frontier.

America has had several important frontiers in its 235 years. First there was the wilderness, then industrialization, then consumerization. These are my classifications and you may well disagree, especially with the last one, but I’m painting here in broad strokes. The wilderness frontier was conquered through the simple act of occupation — growing a population to fill the space. Industrialization turned that occupied land to fruitful endeavor, giving us jobs and industries and leveraging the value of that space we had occupied with such great effort. And consumerization (again this might be controversial) took that economic value and spread it to where there weren’t mines or factories or wheat fields by bringing the goods to us in our towns and cities whether it was Post cereals, Ivory soap, Howdy Doodie, or McDonalds.

Each frontier was conquered at great expense but little cost. The cost of taming the wilderness was free land with the expense being racial intolerance (my grandmother was a Cherokee — don’t get me started on this). The cost of industrialization was more free land (railway rights-of-way) with the expense being pollution and eventual urban blight. The cost of consumerization has been separating us from our traditional means of production, that is the previous industrial phase. Add to this an aging population and inefficient government dominated by the very folks who used to run for student council and you have where we are today — drifting.

Looking more closely at this latter phase, In the 1980′s and 1990′s we wiped out R&D in companies and that led to the loss of tens of thousands of engineering jobs, but this went often unnoticed because it took a decade or more to be strongly felt.

In the 1990′s we started shipping manufacturing jobs and equipment offshore.  One statistic tells it all — the United Auto Workers’ membership is down by 500,000 in the last 15 years. There are a lot of fervent opinions thrown out about whether unions are good or bad (to be fair, I like unions — my father ran one) but we’d be hard put to argue that the existence of the UAW hurt Detroit in most of the 20th century. Our manufacturing job losses have to be in the millions. In the last decade we started shipping IT jobs offshore, too.  Those numbers probably match the auto workers.

Economies embody an evolutionary process.  As old businesses and industries phase out, others emerge.  One of the big problems today is we have no real emerging industries, certainly nothing that can employ millions.  Jobs are being lost and nothing is there to replace them. Government can’t fund enough jobs to cover this magnitude of loss.  Here’s where we make a mistake by spending too much time these days talking about how we can best get back to where we used to be, but that isn’t going to happen. You can’t go home again.

We need a new frontier to get us truly back to work. But what’s that going to be?  As much as I love the picture with this column the next frontier is unlikely to be space flight. Fun as it is that’s a rich man’s lark and will remain so for decades to come until teenagers start building space hotrods.

Alternative energy offers some possibilities but it is too fraught with conflicting interest groups to get enough traction. Remember new frontiers beget new fortunes and in energy the old fortunes aren’t yet ready to let go. Energy independence would be wonderful but I don’t think it will be allowed to happen unless it is a side effect of some even greater economic force.

So what should be our next frontier and what makes your idea better than another?  I have my own thoughts, but I’d like to hear yours first.