Papering over the problems

Many if not most key American industries, we have recently discovered to widespread discomfort, have been bobbing precariously in choppy, dangerous waters for years, and yet somehow no one realized it, until they, all of a sudden,  did.  Why did such an historic collapse come as such a surprise?  Probably, because it came too soon for the business plans of those who were supposed to warn us, but just wanted to wait a bit longer before they got around to it, because, dang, the money was good.  For years, Americans thought no car was too large, no suburb too distant, no mortgage too unmanageable, no stock too overvalued, and no debt too risky to jump in with both feet because, it said so, right in the newspaper.  The “power of yes,” as one now-defunct bank put it back in the good old days of 2005.  Our greatness lay in our superlatives; the most energy consumed, the biggest military, the most automobiles, and the sheer mass of square footage, both in our houses and our behinds.  Through terrorist attacks and war, deficits and business scandals, we looked in the mirror of our media, and were told we were still the fairest of them all.  Why, even amid the recent unpleasantness, no guffaws initially greeted McCain’s reverent assurance that, despite a few potentially botox-able worry lines, our “fundamental” loveliness was undimmed.  That was just a few months ago.  What the hell happened?

Is this indeed something that, as the talented Ms. Rice said, “no one could have predicted?”  The short answer is no.  A few of our largest industries, fearing for their long-term sustainability because of outdated business models, chose to simply buy government policy, and as many of the media outlets the law would allow, and sell to Americans a super-sized version of 1958, one last time, for the road.  

The postwar American economy, marked as never before by widespread prosperity and rising expectations, is now universally recognized as a singular event in world history.  Unfortunately the experience forced generations of politicians to, basically, falsely attempt to perpetuate it ad infinitum, which simply was not possible without massive spending and debt, both public and private.  The Interstate Highway System was born out of Eisenhower’s fears that cutting back military spending would create widespread unemployment, and the GI Bill, which produced a new generation of educated Americans, was pushed through out of fear that returning GI’s would flood the labor market.  Generous loans were made available to returning veterans to purchase new homes in the burgeoning suburbs just down the interstates.  The New Dealers had indeed been replaced by the Car Dealers, and America got in, sat down, and hit the gas.

Newspapers breathlessly promoted the new suburbs, fattened with advertising from developers and the sellers of new (and used) cars.  Advertising revenues soared, as the still-strong department stores opened satellites in the new suburban malls, while color televisions replaced black and white, and the car in the driveway was joined by a second, and perhaps a boat or travel trailer. Cracks began to develop of course; as auto-commuting slowly killed the afternoon newspapers and “white flight” began to drain the central cities, expensive new infrastructure had to be built in one place, while expensive-to-maintain existing infrastructure became obsolete in another, leaving local governments strapped for revenue, and citizens beginning to gripe about the costs.

Amid these changes and the systemic disasters they foretold, those closest to the problems and with the resources, ability, and obligation to inform the public about them, that is, the local newspapers, took a look at where there bread was buttered and decided to take a pass.  Addressing the issue of sprawl and overconsumption, and their implications for the future health of society, both financially and socially, would piss off too many advertisers.  Let’s talk about crime, instead, and send more people fleeing to Whitebread Acres.  Smoke ‘em if you’ve got ‘em, I suppose.  The results certainly are similar.

The broadcast media, those which weren’t owned outright by the oil/military industrial complex, went on a similar bender with the popularization of “Business News,” which hourly extolled the virtues of The Market; alone in the cosmos, America was blessed.  Not only did we have the richest rich, we had the most charming rich, the most glamorous rich, the smartest rich, and best of all, we would all join them one day, in a world where no one would fly commercial, ever again.  Suck. On. This.  Interest-only mortgages would make every man a king.  Watching a tired, puffy version of the once-iconic “Money Honey” Maria Bartiromo sharply question the now-disgraced Merrill CEO John  Thain ought to have been a catharsis; lo, how the mighty have fallen.  Instead, it was just depressing; look what we used to call mighty.

Now, two large American cities just lost daily newspapers, with more to follow, and the networks have long since abandoned those tired old wars they once breathlessly championed.  Those who could have warned us before can no longer warn us now, and few have thought to try.  This may be just desserts for them, but, as usual, the rest of us will be paying the price.

In the valley of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.  Our kings chose to cover their good eye.


  1. sysprog says:

    The STRAND MagazineApril 1904 </The Country of the Blindby H. G. Wells

    “His brain is affected,” said the blind doctor.

    The elders murmured assent.

    “Now, what affects it?”

    “Ah!” said old Yacob.

    This,” said the doctor, answering his own question. “Those queer things that are called the eyes, and which exist to make an agreeable depression in the face, are diseased, in the case of Nuñez, in such a way as to affect his brain. They are greatly distended, he has eyelashes, and his eyelids move, and consequently his brain is in a state of constant irritation and distraction.”

    “Yes?” said old Yacob. “Yes?”

    “And I think I may say with reasonable certainty that, in order to cure him complete, all that we need to do is a simple and easy surgical operation–namely, to remove these irritant bodies.”

    “And then he will be sane?”

    “Then he will be perfectly sane, and a quite admirable citizen.”

  2. sysprog says:

    Ben McGrath, American Chronicles, “The Dystopians,”
    The New Yorker, January 26, 2009, p. 41
    [...] the American economy since Second World War has essentially been one of continuous sprawl-building, and, given what we’ve built, it amounts to “the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world.” [...]

    • cocktailhag says:

      Exactly.. I won’t bother pointing you to Kuntsler, with whom I’m sure you’re familiar. But there is a tremendous amount of scholarship about the enormous social costs of auto-mobility, and, having gotten rid of my truck in 2001, I might get a little liberal smarty-pants…. But I do feel, intuitively, that part of the polarization and dehumanization that both distort our politics arises from the fact that people no longer share public space, but rather fear it.

    • cocktailhag says:

      Wasn’t it Lewis Mumford who said, upon the passage of the interstate highway act, that “The most charitable assumption is that Americans had no idea what they were doing.”? I can’t remember exactly.

  3. sysprog says:

    Federal Highway Administration :

    [The April 1958 edition of the magazine] Architectural Record contains Lewis Mumford’s “The Highway and the City,” an early indictment of the Interstate Highway Program, particularly in urban areas.
    The article begins,
    “When the American people, through their Congress, voted a little while ago . . . for a twenty-six-billion dollar highway program, the most charitable thing to assume about this action is that they hadn’t the faintest notion of what they were doing.”

    • cocktailhag says:

      Wow. That’s the quote, alright. I did a pretty good job semi-remembering it (not a disremember, this time) without walking across the room and digging for it in the library. The blight of the highway system did a pretty good job of destroying most American cities, obliterating neighborhoods, waterfronts, and historic districts. Except for the removal of the Embarcadero Freeway in SF, the damage has never been undone. Mumford probabyl didn’t even realize fully what a mess it would be.

  4. rmp says:

    The rise of suburbia after WWII had an immense impact on everything American. In developments where each house and incomes were similar, began the “I am better than the Smiths competition. That competition created the material wealth contest and a false way of proving worth.

    It created the importance of gas powered cars and decreased public transportation. It brought shopping centers and big box stores. It caused big cities considerable stress. I don’t need to explain it to you guys.

    One thing that I find interesting is that in all the economic crisis experts that I have heard and read, I don’t see them explaining that the big boxes and car dealers and any business that needs customers all over expanded due to greed and competition and that it was inevitable that just as in banks, there had to be downsizing and job losses because the bubble had to eventually burst. We also had purchasing through the Internet that will continue to increase to the point that stores may be more of a place to go touch and feel not buy.

    We can’t blame everything on Wall Street. If I am right, why hasn’t this been pointed out? My theory is the M$M has stopped relying on their own intelligence and research and just want to be stenographers. However, I don’t remember seeing a blogger make that point either. They probably did and I just haven’t seen it.

    • cocktailhag says:

      Well, while not directly blaming Wall Street; I do think that the obsession with stock price, particularly linked to executive pay has caused a lot of the problems. Unrealistic expectations of profit and growth, which gradually led to fictitious profit, made normal industries with smaller margins and slower growth, say, banks and newspapers, either get on board or be swallowed up.
      The complete lack of antitrust enforcement for the last 20 years hasn’t helped either… all the dirty dozen, oil, military, energy, banking, media, and on and on have swallowed up all of their competitors to the point where damn near everything is “too big to fail,” as well as the smug buffoons who ran their companies into the ground.
      “Welfare for the rich” used to be a joke……

  5. Holly McLachlan says:

    despite a few potentially botox-able worry lines, our “fundamental” loveliness was undimmed. That was just a few months ago. What the hell happened? — the hag
    Damned if I know. But they’ll need Restylane now, and another 40 units of the Botox, stat.

    • cocktailhag says:

      That’s a great resource. I was aware of several, but certainly not all, of the freeway revolts. All this time, I thought Portland was special. Two new buildings just went up in my view, and utterly block the Marquam Bridge, a dreadful 1967 doubledecker that schleps I-5 over the Willamette, that while despised, stands as a monument (like Bush.). When you look at the amount of land taken, and the much larger amount destroyed, by these hideous behemoths, you start to realize what a mistake we’ve made. As of now, I don’t have to look at it anymore.
      I’m delighted to find that you share my interest in this travesty, and its inextricable link to so many other problems. I plan to write a great deal more, over time, about these subjects, and I appreciate your input, a lot.

  6. rmp says:

    An update on Prop 8
    Why California’s Discriminatory Proposition 8 Might Not Stand

  7. Karen M says:

    One of ondelette’s posts about Christmas inspired me to look for something I wrote a few years ago about our entire economy being dependent upon the Christmas expectations of small children (including the ones in adult bodies)… but I haven’t been able to find it yet. I’ll keep looking.

  8. cocktailhag says:

    Great article, rmp. I’ve been following the post-8 climate with interest; the possibility of backfire seems great, which I like. I’d love to see that article, Karen. The absurd hype about “black Friday” seems to get worse every year.

  9. Meremark says:

    History’s years has so much detail in them it takes a long time to re-read.

    “… people no longer share public space, but rather fear it.
    Ba-da-bing, ba-da-boom, exactly! In the (1946) beginning was the A-bomb, and The Bomb was fear, and fear was The Bomb.

    Then they got to drilling oil offshore, in the water. The world’s only two off-coast shallows (first feasible), with petroleum bonanza, were off Louisiana and off Vietnam. So Vietnam War was for oil. See SCORPION.

    After that, then IKE said: Build the Interstate System so a Commander could move a tank armada from S.F. to N.Y. like I had to do slowly; but after this do it quicker, like they did on that Autobahn thingie I saw in Germany — make US one of them.
    And IKE said: Be afraid of TWO enemies — the Military Industrial Complex, AND the Scientific Technical Elite.
    And IKE said: Fear gonna getcha.

    The media’s only part of Influence across it all, (1946-2009), and the Power of the media, is what the CIA tells them. to say. THE CIA AND THE MEDIA, BY CARL BERNSTEIN, Rolling Stone 1977.

    The ‘dollar-bill money’ part (of Influence, Power), started earlier, in 1910 (inception) – 1914 (instatement). Secrets of the Federal Reserve, by Eustace Mullins, 1983The history, organization and controlling interests behind the Federal Reserve. A privately owned operation with a monopoly on the money supply, which works like this: When they print $100-bill and loan it to the US Govt to put in circulation, the US Govt has to return (pay back) the $100-bill PLUS $7 (+/-) interest. per year. To get that $7 interest to pay back, the Fed prints seven $1-bills and loans it to the US Govt, to pay off the interest to the Fed on the $100-bill, and then the US Govt has to pay back the seven $1-bills loan … plus 7% interest. per year. You can see where this is going, and yes, that’s where it went, and here we are, there.

    So it turns out that the guy — the One and Only — whose father owned 1 share (for son to inherit) of the private Fed.Reserve; is the same guy — One and Only — who ‘innovated’ the SCORPION and went around the world slurping up petroleum; is the same guy — One and Only — who directs massmind Intelligence by fear, (think: everything you know) by being King of the CIA, with his 1947-2009 membership, and with his name festooned on the front of Headquarters bldg. ever since “The cornerstone was laid … [by the One and Only], on 1 November 1985.”

    Is the same One-and-Only guy who propped his ventriloquist-dummy son in The Fright House to animatedly distract from his behind-the-scene stagecraft to puff up a column of smoke, (that’s right, Ol’ Man Bush masterminded (1983-2000) and made (2001) Nine-Eleven Op), grab all the oil behind the smokescreen, crash the global economy, and instigate ‘die-off’ (AIDS, anthrax, what-have-you, starvation) of about 3/4 of all humankind on the planet … mostly the Other Ones not white anglo-saxon protestant like his genes.

    The One-and-Only guy fairly much premeditatedly, deliberately, psycho-pathologically did ALL the societal fearmongering monkeywrenching described, and did it quietly — which answers the question: “Why did such an historic collapse come as such a surprise?

    The only two mistakes that One-and-Only guy’s MASTERacistPLAN forgot to figure on are: the Internet, and Global Climate Crisis.

    He also likely figured there was going to be more oil left, but all the oil on Earth depletes near to Empty.

    Our only ‘economic recovery’ is by identifying how/who crashed the present economy (1910-2009) deliberately, on purpose, and then design a global Reformation and build a new Economy.

    Otherwise — if we squabble and bicker and fight amongst ourselves — then our future looks like ‘nations’ break down into survivalist tribes inhabiting geographical watersheds.

    It’s really possible to see it all if you look with the eyes of some One-and-Only person who was both Prex of USA and King of CIA. And mix well with studied scoops of history’s details.

    … such as how people behave when we fear.

  10. William Timberman says:

    What with the current retrocar craze — Camaros, Chargers, Mustangs, Käfer, Cinquecenti — showing no sign of diminishing and all, I was kinda hoping last year that GM would produce a limited edition 50th anniversary reissue of the 1958 Buick Roadmaster, just for old times’ sake.

    For those of you whose haggery doesn’t extend back that far, here’s why:

    • cocktailhag says:

      That is a big, beautiful boat…. My parents had a Pontiac equivalent of the same year, and my car-crazy older brother loved it. Hag though I may be, it was gone before I was born. I think it might be more fitting if GM brought back, say, the Vega, Ford, the Pinto, and Chrysler, the Valiant.

  11. William Timberman says:

    Don’t forget the Gremlin. Of course we’d have to bring back American Motors to produce it. (Chrysler rigorously expunged that particular bit of DNA from its system long ago.)

    Although not a hag, I do go back to the day when not only Nash and Hudson, but Packard and Crosley and Kaiser/Fraser were still around, and when I got to LA, the Valhalla of car culture, the cement had scarcely set on the last stretch of the Santa Monica Freeway. Evil it may have been, but there was nothing like blasting along with the top down and 93 KHJ on the radio, headed West with the russet air of downtown LA receding behind you. Ask Randy Newman if you don’t believe me.

    • cocktailhag says:

      Ah, yes. I lived in LA, briefly. My best and worst memories thereof seem to have taken place in cars, but driving West into a pollution-pink sunset, stereo blasting, was one of my favorites; the smog always seemed to lift west of LaBrea….

    • rmp says:

      I’m real late making a comment, but we owned a Nash Rambler. For those who have never seen one, it is the opposite of the huge boats that WT loves. It didn’t have room for a large Hag, but it was ahead of the game with a reclining seat. Not that I did any rambling around in that car.

  12. Meremark says:

    Congress killed the brobdingnagian boats — which some described driving as “like trying to herd a piece of liver down the road” — when Washington enacted m.p.g. regulations, during its social-consciousness activist spasm to throw the mil.industry complex off of humping America, after the mid-’70s purges of the CIA for violating its charter and crimes against humanity. D.C. killed Detroit designs for 2-tons of steel on wheels … except for the ‘light truck’ loophole.

    Which Iaccoca’s Dodge/Chrysler drove the Caravan thru, pulling behind it the long train of every No-M.P.G.-Limit, low-knuckles, high-rages, abuse-driving SUV you ever saw come down the pike. … and roar at you out of the TVscreen dream.

    Many venerable and virtuous old-time good-ride designs in nostalgia, have been ‘mergered’ away to the oblivion of mass-production mediocrity monopoly.

    Many creative thrills await drivers of designs toward the future.

    There’s only so much oil in the ground, in the ground.
    When it’s gone there’ll be no more around, no more around.
    … Can’t get loose
    Without that juice.
    … then.
    Evolution is onward in electric juice, now.

    • cocktailhag says:

      I’m guessing you maybe read Keith Bradsher’s “High and Mighty.” Talk about a tale of corporate stupidity and shoddiness, and look where it’s left them, and us. Quarterly thinking, in action.