Tuesday, July 10, 2007

The American Prosperity Façade

Charles Hugh Smith over at Of Two Minds blog today has written a great piece on the fake American prosperity built on debt. (You might say: like a house built on sand.) He contrasts it with a crumbling building of moral decay brought on by an over-medicated and drugged populace.

He adds useful charts such as this one:

And this one:

And this one:

Charles says:

So who are these people flying to Europe, driving brand-new $30,000+ trucks and blowing $200 for dinner? Yes, they're middle-class Americans--the ones with negative savings, tapped-out equity and medicine cabinets full of medications.

As we ponder the meaning of that enormous spike in re-financings--sure, people re-financed to get lower interest rates, but how many took out some cash at the same time?--let's consider another trend which we can see with our own eyes: a culture of individual identity based solely on the external markers of fame, prestige and wealth.

Combine this with an America where people medicate themselves trying to cope:

Hmm, if times are so darn good, why are personal savings plummeting and debt skyrocketing? Does everyone borrow more when their wealth is supposedly rising like a balloon? (Some charts are a bit outdated but the trend remains unchanged.)

And speaking of heady stuff, let's consider why so many Americans are on drugs. On the face of it, shouldn't such prosperous people be happy and secure? If you step back, you have to wonder: why are tens of millions of Americans taking anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medications, and tens of millions more addicted to cocaine, heroin, marijuana, alcohol and nicotine?

Like everything else in our Potemkin Village society, it's all just beneath the surface. People don't like to admit that they're not Superman or Superwoman, so it's only your close friends who will tell you. But check out who's a pothead, who's on anti-depressants, and whose underage kids are drunk--ho-hum, just another normal day in sedated, medicated, drugged America.

You think I'm exaggerating? Then ask your friend who's gone through an addiction or drug rehab program (yes, it may surprise you who you know who has), and ask them about the nurses who are coke-heads, or the software engineers on smack, or the folks who have to have OxyContin, that favorite "relaxer" of right-wing radio demogogues. If you're in law enforcement--well, I'm not telling you anything new. You've seen even worse, the guys doped up on ice (crystal meth), and boy, are they a piece of work.


What does this say about their culture and society? That it's "normal" and "healthy"? No objective observer could possibly conclude that unless they were in massive denial (and smashed to boot).

No, you have to conclude that this is a society under extreme duress, a culture in which individuals are feeling tremendous stress as a result of the double-bind they live in: you are only worthy if you go to a prestigious university, make tons of money, drive a luxury vehicle, are famous /recognized as wonderful somewhere, are slim, athletic, good-looking, talented, and a perfect parent with perfect kids--and yet most of us are average-looking, with average intelligence and drive (I raise my hand here) and average everything else, too (my hand is still up).


Bottom line: in an era of supposedly unparalleled, widespread prosperity and wealth creation, the financial and inner reserves of many Americans appears vulnerably thin. Somebody profited from originating all this debt, but nobody forced anyone at gunpoint to borrow it, either.

The disease lies deeper than predatory lenders; they are the pushers, but who's the customer? And why?

Good questions, Charles.

No comments: