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The Economy is Doing Fine, It's Just the People That Aren't
Towards a social-democratic alternative to the indexes of leading economic and cultural indicators
On the eve of the millennial elections, set to occur in the persistent glow of a record-setting economic expansion, Americans are being told that they've “never had it so good.” The key evidence for this common elite judgment is a plethora of stunning data on America's rising tide of affluence. As the Chicago Tribune recently reported, “the average size of a new home has expanded from 1,500 square feet to 2,190 square feet, and the number of cars has risen from one car for every two Americans age 16 or older to one car for each driving-age individual. The number of Americans taking cruises each year has risen from 500,000 to 6,5 million; the production of recreational vehicles has soared from 3,000 to 239,000; and the number of amusement parks has leaped from 363 to 1,164. We are attending more symphonies, plays, concerts, and sporting events, buying more boats and loading up on electronics, from cell phones and computers to video recorders and microwave ovens. The list goes on and on.” Citing these and other statistics of euphoric consumerism, the Dallas Federal Reserve Bank's chief economist Michael Cox told the Tribune, “every aspect of life [in America] is better.”
Seeking to draw election-year meaning from this “better life,” some journalists and pundits see it as the main reason that Americans seem uninterested in the presidential campaign. In an age of deep material satisfaction and relative peace, the argument goes, there are few significant issues dividing the American people. According to the Pew Center, voter turnout will be low in November because prosperity has made Americans content with the status quo. Political indifference and superficial elections are the price we pay for being so happy.
Economic Boom and Social Recession
The problem is that American's aren't really all that joyful, historically speaking. According to surveys conducted by the University of Michigan and the National Opinion Research Center, levels of happiness and unhappiness in the United States have remained essentially constant for the last 40 years. Retired Yale political scientist Michael Lane, author of The Loss of Happiness in Market Democracies (2000), finds that Americans today are no happier than in 1948, when average per capita income in the United States was one-third of its present level. He reports an advancing wave of American sadness, pointing to increasing clinical depression, widespread distrust, and declining ties between individuals and families, friends, and community. His concerns are echoed by social-psychology professor David Myers in his The American Paradox: Spiritual Hunger in a Land of Plenty (2000). “Despite increasing affluence,” writes Myers, “Americans are becoming more miserable.” Myers concludes that Americans are mired in a “social recession” in the middle of an economic boom. These findings call to mind the purported and notorious comment of a Brazilian general in 1970. Reflecting on Brazil's “economic miracle,” the general, by Noam Chomsky's recent recollection, said that “the economy's doing fine, it's just the people that aren't.”
How to explain mass melancholy in the midst of America's supposed prosperity? Cox is incapable of grasping the possibility that there might be more to life than the quest for material goods. He can only wonder, “Is it just human nature to complain even when things are good?”
A different answer is proposed by cultural conservative Edward Bennett, Reagan's former education secretary and father of the moralistic “Index of Leading Cultural Indicators.” Bennett thinks that Americans are sad because they are experiencing affluence within the context of a culture dominated by the excessive materialism and radical individualism of the horrid 1960s. For Bennett, “it's the culture, stupid,” and that culture is very, very bad, producing an epidemic of divorce, illegitimacy, drug usage, crime, hyper-sexualized media, single-parent families, violence, disrespect for elites, and general narcissism. An expression of this bad culture, Bennett argued in The Death of Outrage: Bill Clinton and the Assault on American Ideals (1999), was Americans' “failure” to back the Republican campaign to impeach the president. According to Bennett, this scandalous dereliction was based partly on the dangerous idea that a booming economy excuses the president's moral shortcomings. Bennett bitterly described Americans' thinking in the following terms: “If the people are prosperous, the president must be doing a good job.”
But of course Bennett was too quick in his judgment, which he shares with both Cox and Clinton, that American capitalism was making “the people” prosperous. Beneath the booming Dow and rising GDP, the U.S. economy in the year Bennett's book came out generated the second highest poverty rate and the worst mal-distributions of wealth and income in the industrialized world. Twenty percent of America's children lived under the poverty level while the top 1 percent of the population owned nearly 40 percent of the country's net worth. Meanwhile, Americans grumbled with reason about chronic overwork and about the domination of their political system by the nation's increasingly wealthy economic elite. This list, too, goes on and on.
The Anti-Modernist Explanation
In Zola's Germinal, the wealthy but miserable company manager Hennenbeau finds his mansion besieged by angry workers screaming, “Bread, bread, we want bread!” “Idiots!,” mutters Hennenbeau, “do you think I'm happy? Do you think that's enough?” Hennebau's line provides a useful introduction to a better interpretation of Myers's “American paradox.”
A standard sociological explanation repeats the established truisms that money can't buy you happiness and that modern society is alienating. As any social psychology 201 student should know on final exam day, money offers diminished happiness returns once people attain enough to escape poverty. Money boosts the morale of the impoverished but people's sense of well-being levels off once they exit the realm of hardship.
At the same time, the quest for money and related accouterments is alienating. As has been documented in a long tradition of sociological literature that dates at least from David Reisman's The Lonely Crowd, Americans drive themselves to despair and loneliness with their pursuit of material goods and social status in the corporate state. Working long and speeded-up hours for distant corporate overlords in electronic offices that are two traffic jams removed from solitary pseudo-communities, Americans feel overextended and alone. Cut off from family and other basic support networks, their lives seem drained of existential meaning. They seek human connectedness through the virtual electronic community. The unsatisfying result—an increase, not a reduction, of anxiety—is predictable. Prozac and other mood-altering substances arrive to adjust alienated masses to the shocking disjuncture between human need and modern (or it is post-modern?) reality. The modern (bureaucratic and capitalist) society has bred the “disenchantment of the world” prophesied by that precocious post-modernist Max Weber.
This is the basic thesis of Adbuster gurus Kalle Lasn and Bruce Grierson in a recent Utne Reader article titled “America the Blue.” “What's the point,” they ask, “of living in the most dynamic and affluent nation on earth if you're feeling sad and anxious a lot of the time?” For Lasn and Grierson, “the modern world” may have brought “unprecedented levels of prosperity” but it “is responsible for the current epidemic of sadness” in America. Things are better, they suggest, in less prosperous and less modern regions of the planet. With no apparent discomfort over national and cultural differences in mental health definition and monitoring, they report that “depression in China is three times less common than in the West. Worldwide,” they claim, “depression is increasing most quickly among the young and well off.”
But like Bennett's reactionary cultural thesis, this explanation tends to leave out the significant number of people living on the razor's edge, materially speaking, in “the most affluent nation on earth.” The anti-modernist interpretation too often shares the cultural conservatives' false assumption that America is a “land of plenty” for all of its inhabitants. At its worst, their thesis rationalizes existing class and global inequalities by seeming to uphold the virtue of poverty against the spiritual hollowness of comfort. Of course, few alienated, affluent anti-modernists would trade places with the poor and the risk of suffering from post-materialist melancholy is one that most poor people would be willing to take if given the chance.
A Social-Democratic Alternative
All of which creates an interesting opening for Fordham University sociologist Marc Miringoff's take on American life and politics at millennium's turn. For the last 13 years, Miringoff and his fellow researchers at Fordham's Institute for Innovation in Social Policy have been tracking what they call the social health of the United States. “If we closely monitor economic events by means of such measures as the GDP and the Dow Jones Average, if we even track the weather and the results of professional sports on a daily basis,” asks Miringoff, “should we not be monitoring just as carefully the combined impact of such problems as infant mortality, teen suicide, poverty, and the availability of affordable housing?”
Driven by the democratic spirit of that well-formulated question, Miringoff et al. have been monitoring 16 “leading social health indicators.” Their list includes child abuse, child poverty, high school dropout rates, average weekly earnings, unemployment, health insurance coverage, senior citizen poverty, health insurance for the elderly, food stamp coverage, access to affordable housing, and the gap between rich and poor. Exploring these all-too forgotten indicators, the researchers integrate the available data to produce a combined index of the “social well-being of American society.” In doing so, they are less concerned with the post-modern plight of the affluent than they are with how modern society distributes basic social and economic resources to all of its citizens.
It's an interesting approach. While standard elite measures like the Index of Leading Economic Indicators have long synthesized standard economic statistics to report big economic changes, basic social data is rarely integrated to signal big transformations in American social experience.
The results of the Fordham Institute's last report prior to the elections are anything but sanguine about the American experience. In 1997, the last year for which comprehensive data are available, the Institute's Index of Social Health for the United States declined 1.3 percent to 46 out of a possible 100. More broadly, Miringoff reports that the social health of America in the 1990s is far below past levels. Since 1970, the annual U.S. social health index has stayed the same twice, improved ten times, and declined fifteen times. Especially disturbing are Miringoff's findings that three indicators reached their lowest level since 1970: health insurance, food stamp coverage, and the gap between rich and poor (the difference between the percent distribution of aggregate income received by the top fifth and the bottom fifth of families). Economic growth and social health, Miringoff argues, have moved in opposite directions since the mid-1970s. “It used to be that a rising tide lifted all boats,” he says, “but at a certain point during the 1970s, per capita income and social health split apart.” Between 1970 and 1997, while the GDP grew by 113 percent, the Fordham index fell by 35 percent.
If there's a master trend in Miringoff's report it is the worsening distribution of wealth since the 1970s, something which Miringoff sees as a reflection partly of “the loss of steady, well-paid jobs with benefits for less skilled, blue-collars workers.” That finding is consistent with radical claims that the Reagan and Clinton booms have been predicated on reduced living and working standards for millions of working people. But Miringoff is no chronicler or theoretician of top-down class warfare. Foreswearing any particular ideological or partisan perspective, he limits his judgment to the fairly incontestable conclusion—one that both a Bennett and a Chomsky could share—that “economic growth alone does not improve the quality of life of American society.” Since the early-to-mid 1970s, writes Miringoff, “what has occurred in the realm of economic growth has not been the same as what has happened in the social arena. In fact the two measures are reflecting two different aspects of American life.”
Miringoff leaves it to radicals to argue (and I do) that recent capitalist expansion is built on a deepening social recession for the non-wealthy. Tired of America's woefully inadequate social statistics being “kicked around like political footballs” in the U.S., Miringoff is content to advance the cause of improved information on the nation's social well-being.
Still, by looking at child poverty, wage rates, affordable housing, food stamps, and distribution issues, Miringoff suggests a class-sensitive narrative, one that is more consistent with a Marxian approach than with the Weberian tale of post-modern disenchantment with generalized uber-prosperity. “It's a story,” Miringoff recently told the Tribune, “of a lot of Americans not quite making ends meet as readily as one might think in a time of prosperity.” The picture that emerges from Miringoff's more social and economic approach to American malaise is one of two very different Americas: the rich and the poor.
While Miringoff's data helps explain the under-reported phenomenon of sadness among the non-affluent, it may also explain some of privileged people's more widely advertised disenchantment. Inequality and poverty can be alienating even for the relatively well-off, many of whom wish to live under conditions of community health and stability that are undermined by class polarization. “Survivor” entertained millions of TV viewers this summer, but it doesn't offer a particularly attractive model of daily social experience even for people who have survived quite well in material terms. If voter turnout is low in November, Miringoff doesn't think it will be because Americans are satisfied. It will be because many Americans feel that neither party is really addressing the symptoms of declining social health.
Toward a New Measure of Success
The Fordham index needs to be broadened to include environmental measures, racism (rigorous residential segregation indices developed by Douglass S. Massey and Nancy A. Denton are suited for some sort of inclusion after 2000 census data arrives), gender discrimination, incarceration rates, civic participation, working hours (Americans are currently the most overworked people in the industrialized world), and the disproportionate political influence exercised by concentrated wealth (the main reason that Miringoff's and others' social health concerns are so largely unaddressed by policymakers). It is disappointing that Miringoff can't muster any data from the last two to three years—a gap that limits his study's political and policy impact. Still, Miringoff and the Fordham Institute deserve major credit for making a serious effort to produce and publicize what is in essence (declarations of ideological nonpartisanship notwithstanding) a left alternative to the hegemonic Index of Leading Economic Indicators and to Bennett's reactionary cultural measures. American policymakers and propagandists are too quick to boast about the success and prosperity of a nation that leads the industrialized world in child poverty and inequality.
For some time now, every other industrialized state has published an annual social report that takes such “non-economic” factors of basic social experience into national account. The absence of such a report in the U.S. reflects the relative weakness of unions and left parties and the related exaggerated influence of Big Money in the U.S. Someday, perhaps, that will change, permitting an expanded and otherwise updated version of the Fordham index to enter the corridors of substantive policy discussion. In the meantime, progressives should propose a cure for disenchanted and authenticity-challenged members of the upper-quintile. America's affluent victims of post-materialist despair should become part of a local social or environmental justice organization. By joining, say, a living-wage campaign, they will achieve new community connectedness, challenging the alienating Weberian tendencies of “modern” society. At the same time they will be attacking the more Marxist indignities foisted on the entire population by a political-economic system whose leaders refuse to acknowledge the connection between an economic boom that disproportionately benefits the wealthy few and a social recession that deepens the pain of so many other Americans. Z
Paul Street is research director at the Chicago Urban League in Chicago, IL. His articles have appeared in the Journal of Social History, Dissent, In These Times, Monthly Review, and Z Magazine.