The Perils of Prosperity

Here's a novel thought: The booming US economy, the roaring legacy of the 1990s, may actually be bad for us. Forget the more obvious and potentially explosive shortcomings of the record expansion: that it has only reached a minority of Americans in terms of genuine income growth; that it has spawned a new corporate order whose only moral lodestar is the almighty dollar; that it is premised on a global economic system characterized by the exploitation of labor, the weakening of autonomous nation-states, the destruction of indigenous cultures, the diminishment of the earth's resources, and the acceleration of environmental degradation. Forget these macro thoughts, true as they may be, and focus for a moment on the micro.

Life has supposedly never been better for Americans. We mostly have jobs, even if they pay comparatively little and carry few decent benefits. More of us have money to spend (or think we do), and more of us are spending it, whether we have it or not. So, what's the downside of the great boom at the level of ordinary, day-to-day existence for most people?

First, it's brought about a widespread distortion in the perception of economic reality, courtesy of the national news media. Most Americans -- some estimates say up to 80% -- are literally no better off, factoring in inflation, than they were ten or twenty years ago; average income for the majority is stalled at 1979 levels. Yet, we are bombarded daily with upbeat reports about unparalleled good times -- the best economy in 30, 50, or 100 years, depending on which television talking head or nationally syndicated columnist is holding forth. And in the narrow world the media mavens inhabit and describe, it's true; they and their peers in politics, business, and the elite professions -- the country's top 20% -- have never had it so good, with mushrooming six-figure (or more) salaries, extensive stock holdings, and all the rest.

The result of the constant drumbeat of self-congratulatory good news by and for the minority beneficiaries of the '90s boom has been to alter the national psychology by convincing the rest of America to deny the truth of individual experience. If every authority from the president on down says we're doing better than ever, and if the nightly news anchors concur, then it must be so. If I'm not participating in the good times, I must be the exception. And if I'm not presently sharing in the bounty, I probably soon will be, so I'll throw caution to the winds, become a compulsive shopper like everyone else, and put it all on credit.

The bill for the boom-inspired spending spree will eventually come due. Americans as individuals are deeper in debt than they've been in decades, and the nation itself is maintaining a $30 billion trade deficit with other countries that carries long-term seeds of disaster. For the moment, though, all seems on the surface to be well. We're buying and consuming like there's no tomorrow. This optimistic, feel-good behavior, for which there is nothing comparable in recent history, has consequences of its own beyond the question of its sustainability.

Start with the environment. Overdevelopment in the form of suburban sprawl and the big-box malling of America, a direct outgrowth of our credit-card prosperity, is producing a creeping national ugliness from coast to coast. Throw in an enormous increase in auto traffic, as well as the proliferation of ecologically stupid vehicles like the super SUV and the high-rise pickup truck (the poster conveyances of the boom), and we have highway congestion approaching gridlock, dangerous driving conditions, and growing air pollution. Add the environmentally debilitating effects of exponentially rising electrical usage resulting from the boom-driven adoption, at home and at work, of new technology, and we have a potential energy crisis of immense proportions just around the corner. And factor in overpopulation -- too many people consuming too many finite resources -- which the boom and its partly contrived labor shortage have exacerbated by encouraging (and providing the justification for) open-ended immigration, and we are left with an America bursting at the seams.

Short-term fixes for these problems of prosperity often compound the situation. More highways and more power plants and grids, for instance, don't end growth-induced blight; they only intensify it. The supernatural advisory from the movie Field of Dreams, "If you build it, they will come," applies here. Transportation studies in Great Britain have shown conclusively that road widening, straightening, and extension projects don't solve highway problems; they simply lead to more traffic, faster traffic, and more careless driving habits. The same with adding massive, new power capacity: the chewing up of more natural environment, the exhaustion of more nonrenewable resources, and the wasteful subsidization of additional energy consumption.

So-called prosperity in America has another downside, one directly related to the much-heralded "new economy" upon which that ersatz prosperity is based. From the start, the new economy has contributed to a falsely optimistic vision of the future by focusing national attention on the stock-market surge it triggered, while off to the side, out of the public's direct line of sight, it has been gradually undermining the true bedrock of national prosperity by helping to destroy the traditional domestic economy of manufacturing and industry. The deindustrialization that has accompanied the '90s boom is an unacknowledged national tragedy we will live with for decades.

Nevertheless, it is now common wisdom, perpetrated by elite opinion makers, that the America of the new millennium no longer needs a manu-facturing/industrial sector and the low-tech (but well-paid) jobs it provided. This short-sighted view, seldom stated openly by those in authority but accepted at the highest levels, has become the crux of national economic policy. Meanwhile, the hollowed-out middle class, though it doesn't yet fully perceived its condition, is beginning to pay a steep price for the bogus and ephemeral prosperity that serves as a smokescreen for the conversion to what high-tech boosters call an information economy, an economy geared to low-pay, low-benefit, low-security employment.

Despite all this, the reigning psychology of economic triumphalism continues to dominate national thinking. That buoyant state of mind has laid the groundwork for the current, widespread acceptance of risky marketplace alternatives to all sorts of heretofore governmental activities. If permanent prosperity has been achieved, the reasoning goes, there is no longer a need (for example) to provide social safety-net programs at taxpayer expense. From now on, we'll all take care of ourselves. The upshot: Formerly radical proposals to privatize Social Security and Medicare can now be seriously entertained.

The growing willingness to dismantle protective barriers erected against economic storms of the future, on the dubious premise of endless good times ahead, is one of the unanticipated outgrowths of the present boom at the social-policy level. It amounts to one more indication of the law of unintended consequences in action and a cautionary reminder of the perils of prosperity. Recession, anyone?

Wayne O'Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine.

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