The Retreat from Riches: Affluence and Its Enemies
To read this decent and often reasonable book is to be struck by how tenaciously the world resists uplifting advice; to be reminded that philosophers will continue to interpret the world in various ways even though the real task, as Marx said, is to change it. Passell and Ross are liberal economists. They favor economic growth and oppose as their joint adversary both environmental and fiscal conservatives. Such men they consider timid aristocrats whose Tory enthusiasm for clean air and sound money masks a selfish attachment to privileges which sprawling factories and the inflation that comes with full employment might destroy.
The real problem, according to these authors, is not abundance but stultification, and the victims, as usual, are the poor. While they acknowledge what is obvious—that industrial growth fouls the air and depletes scarce resources while full employment tends to inflate wages and therefore prices—these troubles, they say, flow not from economic dynamism but from stagnation, underdevelopment, and irresponsible public policy. What the world needs is not less production, as the apocalyptic environmentalists associated with the Club of Rome urge, but more equitable distribution, which, in turn, requires fewer restraints of the sort associated with balanced budgets, sound money, and favorable trade balances.
What we really need, they think, are more stimuli such as a successful New Deal might have provided—public investment in useful production, full employment, expanded credit, and so forth. Simple-minded protectionism, whether in the name of wetlands and ospreys or degenerate domestic industries, only denies opportunity and perpetuates poverty while the old plutocracy goes on lazily enriching itself. Passell and Ross are twentieth-century greenbackers, expansionists, unromantic sheepherders in simple costumes who know that the day of the longhorn is over. They want to put the range to more profitable, eventually more egalitarian, uses.
Their ideological tradition is progressivism. They presuppose a transparent distinction between “the interests” and “the people,” and have no doubt whose side they are on. Nor do they see a necessary contradiction between economic expansion and an amenable habitat: indeed, they would argue that the greatest good of the greatest number absolutely requires continued industrial growth and that such growth will more than provide the extra capital required to clean the air and water. What most alarms them is the idea, endemic among certain American politicians, that administered recessions are preferable to the inflation that accompanies continued growth.
Though they wrote their book before Nixon’s recent economic message, one can imagine their disapproval of a policy that would take work and money from the poor in order to stabilize old fortunes made in Key Biscayne real estate, long-established hamburger franchises, and prudently invested union pension funds.
At the center of their argument is the suggestion that we should take inflation for granted and let the government guarantee the purchasing power of pensioners and other small creditors by means of publicly administered escalators. Powerful trade unions, interlocked with oligarchic industries, would, in their scheme, no longer monopolize the proceeds of inflation in…
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