Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Still ignoring reality, media spin of prosperity continues

The nation's present troubles, [Cox & Alm] argue, "will turn out to be mere footnotes in a longer-term march of progress." The US economy, "a $14 trillion behemoth," remains without equal as an engine of growth and prosperity. However impolitic it may be to say so, when you take the long view it is clear that we have never had it so good.

The material progress of recent decades has been extraordinary - at all income levels. Forty percent of poor families own their own homes. For many goods (kitchen appliances, color TVs, air conditioners) ownership rates are higher among poor Americans today than they were among the general population in 1970.


Wow - talk about media spin!

Economists that get paid to ensure consumer indices don't fall too far off the target will surely tell you things are fine & dandy. Unfortunately, most of these economists live in a vacuum and ignore reality - they studied at Harvard or MIT, so they will happily consult their books & charts instead of looking outside the box. I was an econ minor, so I'm no stranger to professors warning me of the dangers of economic indicators and how living in a vacuum can be very dangerous for an economist with lots of responsibility - like the jokers referenced in the above article.

Here's some news that you won't see in the headlines but that is very real:

- Geologists have told us we're at the end of the toothpaste tube when it comes to oil, and yet we're still struggling to maintain our refineries and not investing nearly enough in new technology - Mercedes-Benz & BMW are the current leaders of practical hydrogen vehicles, not the so-called gas-sipper companies like Toyota & Honda (who, by the way, have developed stronger & faster V6 engines at a rate that would make even a German engineer green with envy).

- China & India are demanding more resources as they steal America's thunder, and as such more of their citizens are demanding American lifestyles.

- Overpopulation is a very real issue that no one seems to want to address, even though our water sources are becoming ever more polluted. In terms of material comfort, about the only point I agree with in the article, we do have it too well in that we shut out nature to reproduce endlessly. It's absolutely laughable that Cox & Alm describe our economy as "without equal as an engine of growth & prosperity" - sure, let's continue to grow even though there's not enough food or water to support everyone, that sounds like a great idea.

- The real GDP of the country has been on the decline since WWII. Consumption financed by debt can't change that; that mentality led to banks overreaching in the housing market, which has in part helped the dollar decline to where foreign investors are buying up everything in this country (until they become too scared to even bother). Some UK companies offer tours where folks that want to invest in American property fly to a major city, drive around on a tour bus, and go to foreclosed homes to make bids. That can't be the sign of a healthy American economy. Just ask the Board of Directors at Anheuser-Busch if they could have bought InBev instead of the other way around.

- Standards of living have actually decreased in this country - it's becoming more difficult to make it than it was in our parents generation, whether we have AOL & cellphones or not. Inflation is high but pay isn't rising & our food prices are increasing - and in this area of the country at least, housing prices remain high relative to our salaries & ability to pay debt. Don't forget that the US Peso is bought at steep discounts abroad, to the point where most countries don't even trust us to pay them back anymore - it's more like empirical tribute fees than investments these days, and this empire is clearly on the decline.

In terms of material comfort - sure, we're more free than ever to sit on the couch, eat microwavable dinners, and develop diabetes at an earlier age. Won't argue with the author there. But when we actually do step outside, we step into overcrowded cities & suburbs full of strip malls, with everyone out for "me, me, me". I don't think there's an economic indicator for how people feel about that.

In terms of work, I think the figures in the article belie what's really going on in today's working world. People might spend less time in the office, but that's only because technology has allowed them to become slaves to blackberries & laptops even on vacations with family. The lines of work & home have become so blurred that leaving the office to pick up the kids from day care at 3pm so you can plop them in front of the TV while you finish the day's work from 3:30-9PM (do any families eat dinner together anymore) is commonplace. We're more plugged in at work than ever before, not less, but at least before, we could trust that if we did a good job, a company would keep us around & give us a pension. Since at-will employment and 401k plans took hold, people don't feel the need to work overtime unless it's absolutely necessary. And all that multitasking that we're so proud of and that is stressed at our business schools (I know, I was at one less than a decade ago)? New research is showing this may actually lead to brain damage.

And let's not forget another big reason the economy has continued to look steady for the past 30 or so years: the women's movement. It was great for women to take control of their own bodies & be more well-respected. It wasn't good in that traditional family roles changed & most families are now used to the idea of two incomes (and paying for day care instead of raising one's children), to the point where they now need two incomes where prior generations really only needed one income. That trend has become irreversible as our economy now relies on families with two incomes, and if food, oil, and housing prices rise, it's okay, because the hit to the wallet is half of what it used to be (so goes the modern logic). Instead of building a society around more and more people working full time, we should go back to one-income families and a four-day work week. We'd take a one-time economic hit for a year or two but in the long run this society would be a lot more healthy. No economic indicator will tell you that.

These are the good ol' days? Hope I'm not around when the proverbial shit hits the fan!

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