Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Politics of Abundance

I was kicking around some ideas about optimism and pessimism when these questions occurred to me: how can we be, in every way that matters, richer than ever, and yet be going broke (both individually and as a nation)? How is it that our demands for more keep exceeding the rapid increase in standard of living we've seen in the last century? And why is it so hard to make political agreements about what we should be spending on when we have so much more than we used to, and so many things (food, energy, technology) are much cheaper than they ever were, historically speaking? 

My short answer: our minds are very poorly equipped for a world of abundance. People have been theorizing about this in the realm of food and diet for some time: if we evolved as a species in an environment when food is scarce, the theory goes, we may have genes that would help us survive in that world, but that might prove harmful if our environment changes and lots of calories are readily available. What if the same thing is true in the way we think about 'goods' more generally? Our minds evolved to help us survive when most of us would only have access to a small amount of clothing, shelter, health care, and luxury items. We would therefore  jealously guard any of those things we could get. But we also would know that (with the possible exception of the odd king or queen) that no one else had much more. 

Fast forward to the late 1800's. It was only then that shopping as we know it was really invented. In the decades that followed, modern medicine was made possible by the development of penicillin, the first malls were developed, the now "conservative" 30 year mortgage was introduced to make home buying much more practical, and the first real suburbs sprang up, enabled by the new Interstate Highway System, which also jumpstarted the tradition of the family vacation

So the features of modern life that all seem so entrenched and traditional really only emerged in the decades after World War II. Before that time, very few people would grow up with the expectation of comfortable, modern homes, clothing that expressed their personal style, medicine that could actually cure diseases and extend life in meaningful ways, and myriad leisure activities.

Experiencing all this from a young age, and seeing everyone around you experiencing it, is now the norm for most Americans. (Even in the poorest households in the country, two-thirds have cable TV, and 80% have air conditioning.) So when we struggle to get all these things, for example when our prescriptions become overwhelmingly expensive or when we can't buy a house where we want to live, we don't view it as normal, we think of it as the world screwing us over. And we want someone to DO SOMETHING about it, damn it, which is when we turn to the government for nationalized healthcare or loan programs that help us get our dream house.

David Brooks, in his recent appreciation of James Q. Wilson, stated his belief that Americans have lost the moral sense that helped us make good political decisions. He writes: 

During the 1960s and ’70s, [Wilson] noticed that the nation’s problems could not be understood by looking at incentives. Schools were expanding, but James Coleman found that the key to education success was the relationships at home and in the neighborhood. Income transfers to the poor increased, but poor neighborhoods did not improve; instead families disintegrated. 
The economy boomed and factory jobs opened up, but crime rates skyrocketed. Every generation has an incentive to spend on itself, but none ran up huge deficits until the current one. Some sort of moral norms prevented them.
I would suggest that the moral norms were largely the residue of living in an age of scarcity. In the time before modern pharmacology, consumer finance and government-supported home ownership, the only chance of eventually acquiring the trappings of the good life was decades of frugality. That is no longer the case: even if the consequences of debt destroy many lives, it is hard to think about that when someone will give you the money to get what you really want or need right now. Despite what Republicans like to think about Americans' desire for balanced budgets, our government debt is a true reflection of how most of us, as individuals, choose to live.

When I Googled "The Politics of Abundance", the few results I got talked about how government could encourage more abundance in our society. That'd be nice, but I think the real political challenge is to balance the desire of nearly everyone to take part in the abundant health, wealth and comfort of our modern society with the need for people to work hard and earn these goods for themselves over a lifetime.

Maybe our politics are so screwed up because this is basically impossible.

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