A few weeks ago I gave a talk on the state of the economy to a group of college students -- almost all Barack Obama enthusiasts -- who were griping about how downright awful things are in America today. As they sipped their Starbucks lattes and adjusted their designer sunglasses, they recited their grievances: The country is awash in debt "that we will have to pay off"; the middle class in shrinking; the polar ice caps are melting; and college is too expensive. (Don't you just love the ironic juxtaposition? Give up a latte a day and add the money to your savings account. Simple?)
I've been speaking to groups like this one for more than 20 years, but I have never confronted such universal pessimism from a young audience. Its members acted as if the hardships of modern life are making it nearly impossible for them to get out of bed in the morning. (My father would here pantomime playing the world's smallest violin, about 4".) So I conducted a survey of these grim youngsters. How many of you, I asked, own a laptop? A cellphone? An iPod, a DVD player, a flat-screen digital TV? To every question somewhere between two-thirds and all of the hands in the room rose. But they didn't even get my point. "Well, duh," one of them scoffed, "who doesn't have an iPod these days?" (Um, red herring fallacy? Bandwagon? What ARE they teaching them in the schools?) I was way too embarrassed to tell them that I, for one, don't. They thought that living without these products would be like going back to prehistoric times. (Another violin solo.)
They seemed clueless that as recently as the early 1980s only the richest people in the world had cellphones....
So why the long faces? Sen. Obama reminds them every day of how dreary things are....
...As late as 1970, air conditioning, color TVs, washing machines, dryers and microwaves were considered luxuries. Today the vast majority of even poor families have these things in their homes. Almost one in three "poor" families has not one but at least two cars.
Consumption in real per-capita terms has nearly doubled since 1970. The single largest increase in expenditures for low-income households over the past 20 years was for audio and visual entertainment systems -- up 119%. (We sure could use a few of those $40 coupons, couldn't we.) In 2007 Americans spent an estimated $1 billion to change the tune of the ringer on their cellphones. Eating in restaurants used to be something the rich did regularly and the middle class did on special occasions. The average family now spends $2,700 a year dining out. (Assuming the average family has approximately 3.2 members, that comes out to about $2.30 per person PER DAY. Even with just McDonald's, that's almost a full meal.)
When I was young my parents used to drill in me the moral imperative of eating everything on my plate, and they recited the (tall?) tale of how they even ate what would now be considered dog food during the darkest days of the Great Depression. The American Pet Products Manufacturers Association reports that Americans now spend $36 billion a year on their dogs, cats, turtles and so on, and one of the hottest-selling consumer items is "diet pet food." We have become a nation of fat cats -- literally. I have a friend whose daughter insisted that he spend $200 on eye surgery for their hamster. (I want to see that hamster read the eye chart!) (Yet another violin solo.)
After my lecture, one young woman walked up to me on her way out and huffed: "What I favor is a radical redistribution of wealth in America." (Are there Young Communista clubs in four-year schools these days? Guess I'll find out.) I tried to tell her that America's greatness is a result of our focus on creating wealth, not redistributing it. But it was too late -- she was already tuning in to her iPod.
Friday, March 14, 2008
Thanks to a stern (some would say authoritarian) father, I was mostly spared from the generation described in this article (De Gustibus, author Stephen Moore). I know several of my readers that wouldn't be able to keep from laughing at least a little either. Read on and see why. Bold parenthetical material is, as usual, mine.