Post World War II saw an explosion in the American economy with some 2 million vets coming back with new ideas about the pecking order in the USA. The result, a booming economy that led to vast growth in the American middle class. Perhaps the most emblematic development was the famous Levittown in New Jersey, a “mansion” for everyman.
This go, go economy fed on such ingrained concepts as “bigger, better, richer, fancier” and such. Perhaps the American auto embodied all of these in one sometimes garish tribute to pop art. And the economy rolled on a break neck pace until the 1970’s when it met an implacable foe.
We all remember, or should remember, “Limits to Growth,” the seminal study issued by the pompous sounding “Club of Rome,” which today would probably engender images of a private party led by Silvio Berlesconi. The report was a warning shot over the bow of the economic juggernaut. We were consuming resources at a clip that would soon deplete all of our natural resources. Enter the new dominating concept, “Small is Beautiful.” Gone was “bigger, better, richer, fancier,” replaced by “small, simple, efficient.”
The economy tanked and we suffered through Nixon’s “stagflation” followed by the inept but likeable Jiimmy Carter. Not hard to understand, make less and smaller and you will employ fewer resources including labor. We plodded along for over a decade until enter the Reagan administration that once more unleashed the economic tigers of “bigger, better, richer, fancier” and we saw the economy boom once more.
I recall that at an election party we held in our embassy in Madrid in 1984 I approached a group of college age invitees and asked them why they supported Reagan? They all replied, “money” and specifically good jobs with good pay. If I recall correctly Reagan that time won the largest landslide in US presidential history taking 49 of the 50 states. Big, conspicuous consumption again ruled and the economy prospered.
The rich ride continued through Bill Clinton’s administration and for most of “W’s” time. But once more it hit a wall. This time a more formidable force faces free base consumption. This time conspicuous consumption is opposed by environmentalists, anti-consumerism, anti-globalization, anti-corporate America, and so-called “defenders” of the middle class. They all cry out against profligate consumption with real effect. Surprise, surprise the economy tanks again.
I have nothing against any of these concerns but I would warn that the price for caring about the environment, anit-consumerism, anti-globalzation, and other “goods” seems to be a lower performing economy. “Small is beautiful” also describes the resulting economy.