Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Last Call

A friend of mine (who posts her own blog at www.intellectualinsurgent.blogspot.com) sent me a link to this article:


The article echoes a great deal of what I have been tossing around in my head lately. Here is my reaction to the article:


The essay is very in-line with some of the ideas put forth in that Thomas Friedman book "The World is Flat". I have been giving a lot of thought as of lately about the average aspirations of members of our culture, especially Generation X and Generation Y. We are watching "Cribs", "Pimp My Ride", "Wild On..." and a whole slew of other television shows that glorify not only a life of privilege and access, but a life of easily obtained and maintained wealth. The biggest celebrities are rappers like Snoop, heiresses like Paris, sports stars like Anna, and moguls like the Donald. There is a funny passage in the Friedman book that I will paraphrase here...

[Bill Gates is an unmatched celebrity in China. When he speaks at public events there, his engagements immediately sell out, and one has to pay ridiculous scalper prices (or risk hanging from the rafters) in order to get in to see him. This man who leveraged technology and made a fortune is an icon to the Chinese people...he is the Britney Spears of China. The problem with the United States is that Britney Spears is the Britney Spears of the America.]

It seems the American dream is to have access to wealth but not work very hard for it...or maybe to get rich for doing something we appear to do effortlessly and naturally such as Jay-Z's heralded gift for lyrics or Paris' gift for knowing what's hot. Our media is chiefly obsessed with wild consumerism and we all compete to appear affluent yet non-plussed by the demands of creating that affluent lifestyle. Almost everyone I know of is trying to figure out how to "flip" some real estate and make a quick $100,000. I say live it up if you catch a windfall because $100,000 U.S. isn't going to be much in ten years. American currency has been so stable for so long that most people just don't understand how quickly the dollar is crumbling. I don't think very many Americans have an idea of how much the currency is being devalued (although current gas prices and the higher cost of goods driven by Hurricane Katrina hurting so much of the nation's shipping infrastructure will probably make some people sit up and take notice.) Maybe that haven't noticed that a night out at the movies is getting more expensive even though the movies aren't getting any better, unless you find The Dukes of Hazzard to be truly groundbreaking cinema. Most people that I interact with these days cannot fathom why America cannot support a significant segment of its population retiring and living off the passive income from investments...that investing in America is only a good idea as long as America's economy continues to grow. If ain't nobody working, ain't nobody eating. I am not anti-investment. Even without much sound economic know-how, it is probably a good idea for most of us to invest some money as a hedge against whatever the future holds, but I really think most folks just don't see how we cannot have a country full of poor people doing service jobs, and a large upper class that does little else but check there net worth from time to time. The "get-rich-quick" types are everywhere and what amazes me is that some of them can barely do long division much less make sense of the reams of financial information out there.

Don't get me wrong, the rich have gotten rich because they understand how to make money work for them, but becoming rich and staying rich still takes a great deal of hard work and skill. My friend (let's call him Alex) who left a moderately well paid engineering position at a defense company last year to manage his real estate investments full-time is still just as busy as ever. He has to hustle even more because he doesn't have the benefit of a steady income provided by labor laws that protecting him from being abruptly fired for making a mistake. If he makes a mistake it can be costly. But I am not talking about people like Alex when I speak of "get rich quick types". Alex still has enough economic and analytical sense to spot good financial deals regardless of what "experts" who stand to make money off of him have to say. Alex is adaptable enough and perceptive enough to see the winds of change start to blow and make the adequate adjustment, but he will tell anyone that it is a full time job monitoring so much. The "get rich quick type" feels like there is a simple formula (that they are usually getting out of some book or program that made made some other guy rich, or even worse just following the advice of someone who makes money off of investing their money) to success, and they never ever question why they are so blessed as to have stumbled upon the secret to wealth.

Underneath all of this is a growing crisis of a large population that is for lack of better words, not very bright. They watch the news which is dumbed down for their consumption. (Remember how turned off most of us were by Shakespeare because of how hard it was to understand? People surf the channels until they find a palatable news source that doesn't make them feel stupid. Fox News gets the great ratings they get because they "do all the thinkin' fer ya".) And you don't have to be a genius, but you do have to be self aware enough to just use your own good common sense and experience no matter how much it flies in the face of the "conventional wisdom" being pushed by all the pundits. A country in which more people know Brad Pitt is dating Angelina Jolie than know how to calculate compound interest is a country full of people just waiting to be duped. A fool and his money, indeed.

Of course America isn't totally screwed. America's main advantage still is the stable and highly regulated capital markets and the fact that it still leads the world in technical innovation. This is great for the truly wealthy or connected people who have access to valuable trust-worthy investment expertise (i.e. not the free crap you get on CNBC) or those who are developing their scientific and rational faculties in the sciences, technical institues, med schools, law schools, B-schools and other upper echelons of academia that don't include 90% of the diploma mill universities and colleges in this country. In spite of their credentials, most average Americans simply cannot get very far thinking independently for themselves. They cannot think in the rational terms needed to deal with economics, accounting, the sciences and technology, and they are living off the froth of fifty years of American dominace in the global market place. But that dominace is fading as the very globalization we pushed in order to gain access to cheap goods and labor, means that all the world's most industrious people no longer necessarily want to live here and let our economy benefit from their brilliance. With outsourcing sending simple (and not so simple) jobs overseas, how many people know how to update their skills and their abilities and be adaptable? How many are talented or creative enough to develop a highly specialized service or product that will keep them financially viable?

I hate to be a doomsdayer, but I really see dark days ahead for a large portion of the American public. Maybe it will be good thing as America will be forced into acting more like the meritocracy it has always claimed to be, finally searching out the most talented people for positions instead of nepotism, the good old boy network, and other bad business practices that have repeatedly put unqualified people in positions of power...like the head of FEMA for instance. Maybe this is why our military is so out of control...maybe the only way for America to keep the party going for much longer is to continue looting and robbing the rest of the world and acting like some kind of global mafia forcing the world to pay "protection" money so that we can keep the cess pool swirling a little longer...

I hate to say it, but it looks like 1:45 a.m and the bar is closing, and everyone is starting to look a whole lot worse as the lights are coming up...

-mr. wilson


chad said...

Mr. Wilson,
I missed your insight into all things you examine, and this erudite piece of prose is exactly what I needed today. Since we both read Friedman's book recently, we have both been contemplating what effects globalization will have on an America that is becoming increasingly unskilled and unintelligent.
To expand on your thoughts I'd like to say that this "quiet crisis" in American education, technical dominance, and economic stability was predictable. Capitalism, while in itself not an evil thing, begets economic prosperity, and economic prosperity begets competitive manufacturing of consumer goods, and competitive manufacturing of consumer goods begets a mainstream media to market those goods, and finally the mainstream media begets an uninformed, ignorant consumer who is ravenous for the fruits of capitalism. We have been dumbed down by a consumerist culture that attempts to control each person’s dollar. Like the scene from the movie Supersize Me when the little kids don’t recognize George Washington or Abraham Lincoln, but recognize Ronald MacDonald instantly. Our culture has taught these kids how to be consumers of things they don’t need, and devalue the things that they do need like education. The most deplorable example of this is when Jay Leno does his “Jay-Walking” bit and goes onto the streets and asks people simple questions. There seems to be an endless supply of people who are amazingly ignorant regarding history, science, geography, and politics, but those same people could tell you half a dozen different permutations of a soft drink that is available at the grocery store (let’s see...you have coke, diet coke, C2, vanilla coke, coke with lime…). When I talk to high school kids today, initially they remind me of my high school days. Many of the young people want to be pro athletes, singers, and actors, but most are realistic about these endeavors when they are not particular talented. What is alarming is all the other kids want to go to college and major in sports management, television production, or some other facet of the entertainment industry. The thing that rings most consistent is that they want a job that is fun…regardless of whether or not they produce anything of real value. I’m not anti-fun, but somebody in America had better be making widgets or we are not going to have any consumers to pay all those people working in the service industry for their services.
I think you are right Mr. Wilson…dark days are ahead, and economic calamity is around the corner. What augments the peril is that our ignorant over-entitled population is likely going to riot when they can’t afford to live the life they have become accustomed to. Even now, people who drive gas guzzling SUVs to commute to work sound like anarchists as they blame Bush for the price of gas. Does the consumer who bought the fuel inefficient car in the first place ever look at himself as having any responsibility…of course not, because he was brainwashed by the media/marketing machine into thinking he needed a 3 ton armored assault vehicle to get to and from the mall safely.
It’s not that I think it’s too late to prevent the “second Great Depression”, but some significant cultural changes are needed. Some re-education is needed. Some delayed gratification is needed. Some reprioritization of values is needed if we are going to avert economic collapse. I just don’t see how our ignorant lazy nation can do those things, because we seem to be accelerating our deification of consumerism. We are still too rich and affluent to think about anything but accumulating stuff, and until we feel some real pain, we will remain a foolish reveler in a world of determined hard-working nations. In your borrowed words Mr. Wilson, a fool and his money are soon parted.

Waiting for the economic levee to break,

A prudent man sees danger and takes refuge, but the simple keep going and suffer for it.
Proverbs 22:3

Intellectual Insurgent said...

I could swear I had something intelligent to offer on this post, but Chad's comment is a tough act to follow. :-)

chase said...

I notice a lot of my friends/associates, and my daughters friends have this attitude of things being "simple" or an even worse attitude of apathy, where they think they can do something very simple and everything will fall into place for them. I recently blogged about a friend of mine who said all she needed was someone to pay her bills for a few moths and she would write the next million dollar best seller. Apathy, thats what I think is killing this country.....