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prosperity

The future ain’t what it used to be.–Yogi Berra

It almost makes one want to go Green just to contemplate the trees that have been sacrificed for the writings of economists.  They, like weathermen, claim to be custodians of a predictive science.  Both get paid to be wrong much of the time, but at least the weathermen (television version) don’t pretend that the maps that appear behind them are real, or that they are even looking at them.  Economists, on the other hand, are full of earnesty, to use a word Joe Sobran coined to describe Phil Donahue.

The economy is too important to be left to economists.  They tell us that the smoke and mirrors that surrounds Wall Street is actually an economy.  I remember once sitting on a bench just outside the Trinity Church graveyard where Alexander Hamilton is buried and watching thousands of earnest young men and women being disgorged from the subway beneath the twin towers that are no more and running, or at least walking briskly, to their positions of financial power.  I hadn’t known until then that women in business suits wore Nikes to get to their positions faster. Makes sense, though.  That church, which still owns a big chunk of the financial kingdom, is about all that keeps the Episcopal Church (once known as the “Republican Party at prayer”) afloat.  The street and the church deserve each other.

A stable and attractive economy might be too important to be left to the discretion of any class or group that expresses great interest in its health.  It has been said so often and so approvingly that (here I paraphrase) men are seldom more innocently occupied than in the pursuit of wealth, that we have forgotten how utterly untrue, how preposterous that thought is.  Although the hearts of men are deep and thick with darkness, and although religion and nationalism and ideology and all sorts of other things inspire us to terrible deeds, it is also true that the love of money is at least one good taproot of evil.

It doesn’t take much reading in our history, however (and here it is not necessary to go beyond American History, the history of the most prosperous of all countries), to find manufacturers crushing workers, unions destroying work and opportunity, politicians stealing from businesses and other constituents, dark men and women being brought from Africa in chains to be enslaved for profit, bankers corrupting their own institutions, drug dealers stealing the minds of generations of children–all for the love of money.  Even in the one manufacturing area in which the US  still indisputably leads the world, the production of “legal” drugs for prescription by licensed medical professionals, the record of corruption, political and moral, staggers the imagination.  When we smell a rat, and someone suggests, “follow the money,” the rat just might turn up.

And yet we brag on our prosperity, still give at least lip service to the myth of opportunity, and speak in the tongues of Progress.  One party of Americans, let us call them the Stupid Party, would have us believe that something called “individual freedom” leads to universal prosperity through markets, technology, and priming the pump of the engine that generates wealth, and calling all this the “American Way of Life.”  The other party of Americans, let us call them the Evil Party, tries to convince us that real Progress in toward equality, diversity, the freedom to do what they want us to do; all this without sacrificing the American Way of Life and to be conducted through social engineering.  Lately is has been more bipartisan; as Stan Evans says, the two parties get together and do something stupid and evil.

“Remember [the summer of seventy-three] and cherish the memory,” Forrest McDonald wrote, “for things will never be that good again.”  That was the summer of OPEC and gas lines, of wage and price controls and the beginnings of stagflation.  Although McDonald wrote those lines in 1974, he turned out to be a prophet.  For American working men and women and for the “middle class,” things have never again been that good, despite a kind of statistical thinset of prosperity the economic chattering classes love to point out.  In the 70s and early 80s, for example, Ben Wattenberg made a lot of money telling us how much money we were making, and how generally happy we were.  When, a generation later, Gregg Easterbrook (The Progress Paradox, 2003) tried the same thing, he couldn’t get anything going even with George Will’s endorsement and even though he admitted that despite all the progress and prosperity, Americans weren’t very happy.

Russell Kirk often called men of a statistical turn of mind “sophisters and calculators,” echoing Burke.  But no matter how many “factoids” one can produce showing putative progress (spectacular increase in lifespan, the explosion of technology for pleasure and entertainment, a measurably cleaner environment, affordable food that very few have to work to produce, and, we used to say, the eradication of many diseases), by the early years of this century it is becoming clearer and clearer that the truly important features of the last century were not quite so pretty.

I was asked by a conductor friend a few years ago to describe to him the mega-themes of the 20th century, which he would then put into a series of concerts celebrating them–or not.  He allowed that his audiences would probably like to hear “Democracy” or “Equality” included, but settled with me on three: material Prosperity, the growth of the State, and War.  He’s a great conductor and picked wonderful music and the concerts were a huge success, without, I fear, the audiences fully appreciating how dark the themes are.  They could lodge in the concert-going mind as Plenty, Democratic/Egalitarian Freedom, and Triumph.

By the Bush II era the USA was eerily like Rome just after Augustus or the British Empire in the last quarter of the 18th century: prosperous but hedonistic, a state that still seemed free but increasingly burdened by unfulfilled and unfulfillable programs and promises, and an empire whose triumphs covered over both hubris and the fact that it was ultimately unaffordable.  The Romans and the Brits both came back from the brink of disaster from time to time, but overall the slide was not an incline.

The brilliant (but cynical) A.J.P. Taylor wrote as early as 1961, musing on not only the effects of the two world wars but on Frederick the Great and Napoleon, “Though the object of being a Great Power is to be able to fight a great war, the only way of remaining a Great Power is not to fight one, or to fight it on a limited scale.”  These big things feed on each other: war creates (false) prosperity, the state grows to fight war and thus legitimizes its authority for social engineering, triumph feeds off prosperity and requires more of it to hold its gains.  Sooner or later, to pay for all this, either an outright imperial system or what we have taken to call “globalism” becomes inevitable.  And all true republicans since Cicero–maybe since Aristotle–have known that incorporating foreign fashions and thirsting for empire doom the very virtues that made one great and/or good in the first place.

That economists rarely understand such grand things is not surprising.  They tend to think that poverty breeds nasty things like communism and that prosperity brings progress and happiness.  Americans, by and large, are not stupid.  They know that their work, which is what really gives our material lives meaning, is being taken away.  They know that increasing amounts of what they make will be taken from them to produce an increasingly insecure future.  They know, if they have reasonably stable families (and they know that larger and larger numbers of Americans do not) that their grandchildren are already mortgaged beyond anybody’s ability to pay.

“What good is happiness,” Henny Youngman said, “It can’t buy money.”  Both Gregg Easterbrook and George Will use this line, sad but true.

Next:  Post Prosperity II:  Why Everybody Watched Bishop Sheen

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6 replies to this post
  1. I very much agree with the over-arching idea of Mr Willson's editorial: The estimation of America's prosperity has become far too focused on the semi-real economy of the stock market (which at one time fairly well reflected the nation's prosperity) and ignores American productivity, the true measure of our prosperity, noting that productivity is not only measured in computers produced, but in creating the ideas behind them.

    However, what do the vague references to "social engineering" refer to? Most of our govt's money is spent on the military and medicare/social security. Greed is where money is. Money in this country formerly resided (and to some extent still does) in such things as coal and oil production, fishing, etc. The party of social engineering understands that, unfettered, these industries are just as prone to abuse as monetary markets. So, rules on pollution, fishing limits, etc need to exist. The "other" party would like to see greed in all industries (from stock market/banking to car manufacturing/farming) unregulated. Regulations may need to be simplified and updated more than they are, but… that does not mean that regulation is unworthy.

    Best Wishes
    Steven Mlodinow

  2. That's a perceptive comment, and if you review my paragraphs #3 and #4 above I think its apparent that, if I were to take the essay in that direction I would agree with much of it. "Social engineering" I take to mean not regulation but using the power of the state to control the civil order by redistributing wealth and limiting the intermediate institutions that compete with the state for authority. One example, on the theme of why Americans, with all the statistical evidence of affluence, should still be unhappy: My children have no expectation of "social security," and since the state has so successfully strangled the ability of the family to take care of its own (pre-born, infant, adolescent, married, or late life) why should they be optimistic even though they might be making what we used to call a "good living" now?

  3. Excellent article, but the country isn't even prosperous, save in the sense that a spendthrift is prosperous just before his bankruptcy. Buying a lot of Chinese junk on credit may give the appearance of prosperity, but it puts the reality out of reach.

  4. It's a fine article, John.
    Thanks.
    (Also thank you for including phrases of Joe Sobran and Russell Kirk. I can't seem to ever get enough of them.)

  5. Economics: The science of explaining tomorrow why the predictions you made yesterday didn't come true today.

  6. A very good piece of work. I like the analogy of "stupid and evil." Some years ago I considered myself a member of the stupid party, but have long since left it behind and find myself with no party I can support.

    On the nature of economists; I generally feel they are a creation of the "money powers," as Abraham Lincoln and Woodrow Wilson called them, taught the virtues of Keynes, and sent out to lend a patina of academia to the Ponzi scheme known as the Federal Reserve System which was created by, of, and for Wall Street. This is why the stock market is represented as the economy by so many dullards in the economic field, including Ben Bernanke. Almost any newscast will tell you the day's closing Dow Jones Industrials average, but not how much purchasing power the dollar lost today.

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