Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The Paradox of American Prosperity

Recently I participated in a blog discussion about the phenomenon of people marrying and beginning their families later and later. There was some support among the posters for the notion that this wasn't ideal, and that we would be wiser to encourage our children not to delay beginning a marriage vocation in order to meet educational, career and economic goals (presuming the child has already met and become engaged to the person he/she feels called to marry; otherwise all such discussions are moot). But others pointed out the reality for many young people in America today, that in order to get a decent job it may be necessary to go to college for at least a while, that paying for college often requires incurring a significant amount of debt, and that the repayment of this debt will necessitate a good job with a good salary, all of which may make it difficult or impossible for a young man and woman to begin a marriage and a family at a young age.

One person, posting from somewhere in Europe, commented a bit sarcastically at this point that America is the richest country in the world, so it's pretty surprising that our children would have to delay marriage until they could "afford" it. From her perspective, I suppose the whole conversation seemed ridiculous. After all, everyone knows that all Americans are rich, with luxuries beyond the imagining of most of the world's people. So if our kids can't afford to marry young, it must be because we're too selfish to pay their way or too insistent that they achieve a certain standard of living before tying the knot, right?

Of course, those of us who actually live here could point out why that's not really accurate. Texas, for instance, has a lot of millionaires, but that doesn't mean that all Texans are extremely rich people. The fact that America is known as the land of the super rich and super famous doesn't mean that all Americans have access to that kind of wealth or power, and to say, as some people do, that there aren't really any poor people in America is to overlook surprising large pockets of the poor.

But there's something else that could be said, here. The fact of the matter is that within a couple of generations, the adoption of new technology proceeded at a rapid and sometimes disruptive pace. Items that used to be considered mere luxuries, toys for the wealthy, are now found in most homes; they cost a lot not only initially but for as long as we own them, and when they no longer function as they ought, we replace them. Whether we actually want new iterations of these items doesn't matter; we have to have them, to carry on our lives in any kind of meaningful or coherent way; but it wasn't that long ago in our country that most of these items simply couldn't be found in the average home.

I speak, of course, of such technological innovations as electricity, the telephone, the car, and the electric washing machine.

No, I'm not being facetious. It was only 99 years ago this month that Henry Ford started selling the Model T, the car that changed our way of life forever in this country. Ford himself saw the changes and didn't like all of them; he built a model rural village called Greenfield Village before he died. Electricity became part of our lives about twenty years before that, the telephone had over a hundred thousand owners and customers by the late 1880s (with more people jumping on the telephone bandwagon each year). And the electric washing machine began to be mass produced and sold in the early 1900s.

Why did I single out these four things as examples of how American technology has been the paradox of American prosperity, enriching the lives of countless people while at the same time creating burdens and challenges our ancestors never dreamed of handling?

The car is pretty obvious. Our society wouldn't continue to function without it, because America has never had the network of alternative transportation available in places like Europe. Some argue that it's simply the size of our country that makes such transportation solutions as rail, bus, trolley and the like inefficient; others point to the decline of the rural way of life as evidence that however well our country might once have done without the automobile we're inextricably committed to it now. But accepting the reality of the model of personal transportation means accepting that most families will have to own at least one car, which requires expensive, mainly foreign fuel, constant maintenance, insurance, and so on. As newer automotive technologies that increase fuel efficiency and decrease emissions are put into place, there is a rise in pressure for people to avoid driving older vehicles, but to continue to make new vehicle purchase every one to five years; many cars don't last much longer than five years before they begin manifesting expensive and potentially dangerous problems. We have to have cars.

Electricity is woven so thoroughly into our lives that we can't imagine the damage that would be caused by removing it. Yet here, too, we are consuming a natural resource, mainly coal, and creating a situation where power will become more and more expensive as economic and social pressure to reduce usage increases. Alternate sources of electric power are being investigated, but people tend to fear nuclear power as a source of electricity, while solutions like wind farms and solar energy have problems of their own. As our use of electronics, our tendencies to heat and cool our homes year-round, and our demand for the constant availability of electric power continues to grow, we will have to confront these problems one of these days. We have to have electricity.

Telephones have become so important to us since their invention that we now carry our phones around with us, making and answering calls wherever our busy lives take us. No matter how much they cost, we are sure they are worth it, as we try to stay plugged in regardless of our need for peace. We have adopted cell phone technology so completely that our children will consider it a rite of passage to begin paying for their own phone plan, so they can call us from their dorm rooms and beg us for money to help with these and other bills. The early telephone may have cost Americans some peace and quiet, but our new phones may have a higher price tag. That link is to a picture of discarded cell phones: Americans throw away about one hundred million phones a year, and some five hundred million await disposal at the present time. Recycling efforts aren't keeping up with the problem, which is only going to get worse when you add other communication devices like pagers, text-message devices, and the like. We'll have to come up with a way to deal with all of this; we need our phones.

I used the washing machine as an example of household technology, the kind of innovation that made life so much more pleasant for the American woman than for so many of her counterparts around the globe. But really, you could look at any number of similar devices: dryers, dishwashers, vacuum cleaners, refrigerators, etc. Our foremothers adopted the use of these household aids gladly, as tools to ease the burden and drudgery of their days. All of them are not considered luxuries anymore, but necessities, something every well-equipped household has to have. But they can be expensive, despite the fact that many of them are made in hot dirty factories halfway around the world by people who are paid a dollar a day or so for their work; they don't last as long as they used to, either, and must be replaced far more frequently than our foremothers would have found acceptable. Our children may get to the point where they are purchasing at least one of these items on an annual basis, which is a problem, but what else should they do? We need our electric servants.

None of what I've written above should be construed as a call to abandon all of these technologies. When the pages of history have been written it can be impossible to turn them backward, and however honestly we may strive to simplify our lives it isn't really within the power of most of us to refuse to live in the twenty-first century or to accept and use its technological benefits. But we need to start being a little more honest with ourselves and each other about the cost of these things, especially now when a new wave of technological marvels is about to crest. We need to be careful before we adopt all manner of new gadgetry and begin to see it as something essential to our daily lives; because our children are watching, and learning, and may soon come to believe that these things are their birthright, something they must have and own from the beginning of their adult lives, instead of seeing them as things which, though nice to have, may be lived without, and purchased when they have actually been earned. Otherwise the paradox of American prosperity will continue, and in the richest country in the world our children will be paralyzed by the sheer amount of things they absolutely need to have.


Sarahndipity said...

This is such a great post. You're talking about the conversation over at "crunchy cons," right? I commented there too. I got married at 23 and had a child at 24, which is very young for this day and age. I don’t regret it, but it’s been really, really hard. Right now my husband and I both work full-time and my husband is in grad school. I would love to be a stay-at-home mom but we can’t afford it. We may never be able to, although we think I’ll be able to work part-time in a couple years. The reason is simple – housing. Housing costs are astronomical. My husband and I are lucky that we have no student loans, but many young people are deeply in debt from college, since tuition is also astronomical, and a college degree is becoming a necessity.

It really annoys me when people say there’s no way we can’t live on one income since we live in “the richest country in the world.” That’s very misleading – as if everyone were equally rich! You’re absolutely right about the paradox of prosperity – the more technologically advanced a society becomes, the more certain things (that cost money) become absolutely necessary. If everyone has a car, it becomes nearly impossible not to have one. The more people get a college education, the more necessary a Bachelor’s degree (or more) becomes to support a family. Back when there were no cars and almost no one went to college, people had fewer expenses. Yes, the overall quality of life was much lower, but the price we pay for a higher quality of life is that we have more expenses.

I can’t believe some people say with a straight face that there are no poor people in this country.

Red Cardigan said...

Yes, I was talking about the conversation at "Crunchy Cons." It bothered me that comments essentially saying that everyone has unlimited wealth in America seemed to go largely unchallenged, as if we're all begging our children not to marry till they're thirty so they can meet some arbitrary standard of societal success first.

For you, marrying early means sacrifice, in terms of not getting to stay home with your little one. For others, marrying late may allow them to live on one income, but they won't be rolling in dough as they do so, either. We're all doing the best we can, which makes these false mirror images of the "perfect life" hard to take, sometimes.

God bless!