As nearly everyone in the world with a dollar to his name must know by now, American currency, like so many other once trusted values, has fallen into a long and agitated decline relative to gold, Swiss francs, bottles of wine, rare books, barrels of oil, old Mickey Mouse toys—nearly anything so long as it doesn’t bear the Great Seal of the United States. Howard Ruff, the Mormon author of How to Prosper During the Coming Bad Years, thinks that “much of the American wealth is an illusion which is being secretly gnawed away and much of it will be completely wiped out in the near future.” Ruff’s book, published a year or so ago, has been one of the decade’s great best sellers—it has sold some 500,000 copies in hard cover and there are now more than a million paperbacks in print, many times more than all the books written in the same period by all the economists in America combined and nearly as many as Dr. Tarnower’s no less premonitory The Complete Scarsdale Medical Diet, last year’s number one self-help best seller, which has now been published in a huge paperback edition of 1.75 million copies.
Dr. Tarnower says that our typical American diet of refined sugars and starches, animal fats and dairy products, is killing us. It causes heart disease, cancer, diabetes, gall bladder attacks, arthritis, and high blood pressure. It makes us look and feel awful. He tells us that Navy pilots captured by the North Vietnamese left their dungeons in better shape, according to a US Navy study, than pilots who stayed home. Nathan Pritikin, a nutritionist, has written a more rigorous diet book, which also includes an exercise program. It has sold nearly as many copies as Dr. Tarnower’s and it lists among the author’s satisfied disciples Twiggy, Cesar Chavez, Peter Sellers, and Isaac Bashevis Singer. It is even grimmer than Dr. Tarnower’s book.
The typical American diet, Pritikin says, quoting the McGovern Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs, “may be as profoundly damaging to the nation’s health as the widespread contagious diseases of the early part of the century.” Pritikin wants to “declare war on processed foods, fats, sugars, proteins, salt, caffeine and non-foods.” Though he and Dr. Tarnower disagree on proteins and carbohydrates—Tarnower thinks we should eat three times as much protein but only 6 percent more carbohydrates while Pritikin wants us to skip protein and eat twice the carbohydrates—they agree that the American diet is a plague arising from our feed lots and dairy farms, from mom’s apple pie and the coke machine in the school lunchroom—a plague as deadly as the one according to Howard Ruff that rises on the stench from the United States Treasury.
That so many Americans have chosen, in the past year, to concentrate their minds on three such gloomy diagnoses while so many of them are also flinging themselves around in discos and reading in the food columns of The New York Times, presumably with approval, that for $23 a head a certain restaurant will serve them “buttery rounds of puff pastry holding creamed mushrooms and moist, pearly bay scallops touched with white wine and then baked under a golden brown breadcrumb topping…a delicate walnut gâteau rich with maple flavored and chocolate flavored butter creams…” suggests not only the depths to which the language of pornography has sunk, but reveals an interesting conflict within the current American sensibility, a conflict of values and motives which, were it to occur within a single mind, might indicate serious emotional impairment. Consider with what feelings the Secretary of Agriculture might read Dr. Tarnower’s list of forbidden foods. No kidney, lima, or baked beans. No avocados, rice, or potatoes. No pasta, sausages, sugar, peanut butter, mayonnaise, candy, chocolate, cakes, pies, jams, jellies, and other preserves; no whole milk, cream, or butter. Very little alcohol and only two slices of bread a day. Will Mr. Carter’s feedgrain embargo turn out to have been an inadvertent contribution to Soviet well-being?
Africans, rising from their golden stools to pursue their regular physical activity, having enjoyed their high fiber lunches, not only aren’t as worried as Ruff says we should be about where their next meal is coming from, they don’t have to worry about the meal when it gets there. According to Pritikin they almost never get coronary artery disease, diverticulitis, colon or rectal cancer (second only to lung cancer in the United States), gall bladder inflammations, or constipation. The Tarahumara Indians whose diet is very much like the one Pritikin recommends are even better off. They run 500 miles in five days and can carry a 100-pound pack 110 miles in seventy hours even without the costly jogging outfits on which Americans spend so many of their illusory dollars. Though Dr. Tarnower’s high-protein diet reflects the sumptuous implication of its oxymoronic title (he also includes a “money saver” regime for people who can’t afford expensive proteins and suburbs), Pritikin’s diet is one that “the poorest can afford,” a diet for “the descamisados, the havenots, humble peasants: people who simply cannot afford the sauces, viands, desserts, liquors, salty appetizers, and elegant and inelegant non-foods that foster heart attacks, strokes, gout, diabetes and arthritis.”
The God-fearing Howard Ruff, who calls himself an “economic ecologist,” believes that the dollar has collapsed because we have violated the divine law of the biosphere as a whole, the natural workings of the free market. Ruff also recommends a diet, devotes in fact nearly a fifth of his short book to the absolute importance of accumulating a year’s supply of nourishing food, for when the economy collapses the supermarkets will be empty and the improvident will starve. Once his readers get their food hoards together, Ruff advises them to pack them up, together with the bags of silver and gold which they’ve exchanged for their decomposing dollars, flee the false luxury of their rotting cities, abandon their moist and pearly bay scallops together with their golden brown, buttery toppings, and wait out the apocalypse in a small town or city, preferably one with fewer than 100,000 inhabitants, mostly white, ideally Mormon, heterosexual monogamists. They should liquidate their debts, call in their loans, and hole up until a relief column led by free market politicians rescues them.
But who can be sure that such relief will come? Not Ruff apparently, who notes that “56 percent of the people in this country receive tax money and are largely dependent on it,” and this does not include “workers for government contractors (Lockheed, etc.), merchants and suppliers serving government installations and military bases, and those who use government services (farmers, small businessmen, private pilots, schools, etc.), and a zillion others, including all those who are looking forward to collecting Social Security some day.” Ruff “wouldn’t bet on a significant number of these people giving back the money,” an indulgence at the expense of America’s industrious remnant which he compares, predictably, to a cancer “that has spread through more than 56 percent of society,” not counting the rugged individualists who run Chrysler and the faltering free enterprisers waiting in line behind them for similar government support or the contractors who are hoping to dig holes in the desert for the MX missile, or the businessmen who will supply their warheads, categories that Ruff leaves out of his zillions.
As for the immediate future, Ruff expects “exploding inflation, price controls, erosion of savings (eventually to nothing), a collapse of private as well as government pension programs (including Social Security), vastly more government regulation to control your life, and eventually an international monetary holocaust which will sweep all paper currencies down the drain and turn the world upside down.” Despite these warnings he advises his readers, curiously enough, to buy bonds at their present high yields so that when interest rates fall in the coming depression they can be sold at appreciated values. The United States is like Rasputin, he thinks, nearly indestructible even after repeated attempts to poison it. But these may be only brave words. In the meantime, inflation, he says, is a euphemism for bankruptcy, the repudiation of debt through the creation of worthless paper money. Ruff thinks that the coming bankruptcy of the United States as a whole differs from that of New York City only to the extent that the federal treasury can print money, but how much longer will anyone agree to exchange things of real value for the government’s increasingly worthless paper?
To find ourselves in this woeful situation when we are already threatened by the actual cancers, blocked arteries, diabetes, and constipation that Tarnower and Pritikin diagnose is trouble indeed, trouble that all three authors agree comes from our having violated some kind of natural order, those longstanding adaptations from which the human species has taken its appropriate shapes and rhythms. These authors are Darwinian fundamentalists, unwitting sociobiologists. They are afraid that we have violated our proper evolutionary niche, that in our Promethean willfulness we have tried to perform a mutation upon ourselves, become ourselves a kind of cancer. We are each of us, they seem to be saying, our own Love Canal. “Much of what organized religion calls sin,” Ruff writes, is the violation of certain “behavioral standards,” violations “which will destabilize society…[lead] to fiscal instability, confiscatory taxation and to inflationary ruin.” He is most disturbed by sexual misbehavior. “It may be the one factor that can cause all of [his] forecasts of [eventual] economic recovery to go astray.”
Along with the many vices they charge us with, these books include many valuable suggestions. Anyone who bought gold and silver a year ago on Ruff’s advice has already prospered well before the bad times have actually come. Anyone who can transfer his compulsiveness from gluttony to vanity will lose weight, look and feel much better by following either the Tarnower or Pritikin diet, though the latter will put him to more trouble. Both diet books are extremely repetitive. Each could be condensed to the length of a short pamphlet. But the repetitiveness is hypnotic. Suggestible readers may find that they can acquire the will to lose weight simply by letting themselves fall under the spell of these monotonous pages.
But what is interesting about these best sellers apart from the value of their specific recommendations is that some millions of Americans, prudent enough to worry about their assets and shrewd enough to have acquired them, together with still others rich enough to be plugging their arteries with expensive animal fats, are indulging that old American fantasy that virtue resides not in the social order but in the primitive, much the same pastoral fantasy into which the flower children disappeared nearly a generation ago. “There are no fat wild animals,” Pritikin says. The great success of these books suggests that the counter-culture has now broadened into unhappy middle age as millions of us jog off toward the truly natural, clutching our bags of gold and silver, our wheat germ and our low-fat cottage cheese.
Only a few years back the so-called self-help best sellers were taking a much different line. They were telling us that it wasn’t our sins that were getting us down but the guilt that we felt after we had committed them. They were telling us that our typical miseries came from psychological games badly played, from our erroneous zones, that we were really all O.K., that we should learn to become our own best friends, be number one; recommendations no less innocently savage than those of the past year’s best sellers, but far more optimistic in their outlook.
What these best sellers were telling us was to shed the guilt that flawed those self-denying generations that preceded us and gratify our primitive appetites for love, nourishment, and power: for orgasms, buttery toppings, and whatever could be charged on an American Express card. This after all was why our forebears came here in the first place, fleeing the constraints and complexities of meaner times and places, with all their government regulation, hypocritical decorum, bureaucracy, taxes, hopeless wars, and other pathologies. And it is why, having exhausted the continental frontier a century ago and then having exhausted the frontier that succeeded it based on cheap labor, abundant resources, and mountains of capital, we conceived yet a third frontier based on credit, on, the idea that consumption itself was the source of prosperity.
For many Americans, borrowing money to buy things they couldn’t yet afford was not, as Keynes suggested, a stimulus to renewed production but an end in itself, an unlimited personal entitlement. The goal was neither work nor saving nor the ingenious application of technique but only pleasure without guilt. It is in the aftermath of this spree that last year’s guilt-obsessed self-help best sellers have flourished, yet another oscillation in the continuing American dialectic of self-indulgence and blame.
America, Ruff believes, is now some six trillion dollars in debt, not including the $650 billion that the treasury actually owes its note and bond holders. He points to the four-trillion-dollar gap between potential assets and unfunded liabilities in the Social Security system, a system which Ruff compares, not unjustly, to a gigantic Ponzi scheme, in which a diminishing group of Peters is expected to repay an expanding group of Pauls. This debt represents “75 percent of everything that everyone in America owns” and grows worse as the population ages in proportion to its wage-earning generations. If one then adds the billions of dollars of consumer debt, the 800 billion Eurodollars that slosh around in overseas accounts and that our depressed productivity cannot now redeem, together with the fresh billions we send overseas each year for oil that we can’t afford, to say nothing of some $350 billion in municipal debt, then we may, as Ruff suspects, be approaching the primitive wilderness of our dreams faster than we like.
For Freud the guilt that the readers of these books now seem to invite and the constraints they now want to impose on themselves were the sine qua non of civilization as well as of its neurotic discontents and the social pathologies that arose from them. But what is perhaps more ominous than the bankruptcy and death that these current best sellers predict is that the solutions they propose are entirely personal. They have as little to offer in the unending debate, as Freud saw it, between our instinctual desires and our desperate attempts to subordinate them to an imperfect civilization as the books that were telling us a few years ago that everyone ought to be his or her own best friend.
What the readers of these books seem to want is not to reconstruct but to transcend a society that disgusts and frightens them; not to come to terms with a flawed civilization but to seek the lineaments of gratified desire, a lean body, unblocked arteries, and a bag of gold, to make a separate peace with nature itself where, as J.-J. Rousseau thought, people have “no need of one another.” These books are truly uncivil, most poignantly so when Ruff’s Christian conscience occasionally reminds him of “those collective values that make nations governable and societies peaceful.” Such is the way to the kingdom of heaven, but not for those gold buyers who gamble on their country’s bankruptcy. Even on the Scarsdale diet a camel can’t get through the eye of a needle.
But why await the apocalypse in a rural hideout with a diminishing store of dried food when you may help avoid the coming bad years by pooling your gold with that of your neighbors to build, say, a factory that makes small cars for which the demand seems obvious? Why not campaign for energy conservation so as to save some of the $1.7 billion we spend every week on imported oil, dollars with which OPEC countries buy gold and which we ought to be using instead as new industrial capital? If the standard American diet is so poisonous, why not campaign for a tax on buttery toppings and moist fillings that will help restore our finances as well as our health? If soft drinks and animal fats are so deadly, why not shut down the bottling plants and feedlots, or at least print dire warnings on their products? Why not chip in to erect a statue of Carol Tucker Foreman, the Assistant Secretary of Agriculture who has proposed to restrict the sale in public schools of candy, soda, ice cream, and chewing gum? Why not raise 20.9 percent of a cheer to celebrate the 134 percent increase in wages that Americans enjoyed during the 1970s, even though only 28 percent of this amount remains after discounting for inflation?
By the considerable extent to which such proposals seem quixotic or subversive we can measure the distance that still remains between ourselves and a rational political economy. Still, is it useless to observe that while Ford lost a billion dollars last year on its domestic production of big cars and for the first time was surpassed in its own market by foreign imports, a General Motors plant near New York City, at the very heart of the depressed industrial Northeast, so old that it was originally used to build steam-driven vehicles nearly a century ago, is now working night and day to turn out small, front-wheel-drive cars for shipment here and abroad? Its manager thinks there is every reason to believe “that conditions will remain bright for the foreseeable future,” conditions that include an annual payroll of $107 million and $23 million spent last year on local goods and services. And this at a time when car production has fallen to its lowest point in five years, which “just about spells disaster for the entire 1980 model year,” according to Ward’s Automotive Reports. Last month Honda announced a plan to assemble 10,000 small cars a month in a new plant in Ohio while Ford was preparing to close its Los Angeles plant permanently.
Jane Jacobs in her Economy of Cities suggests how such disasters happen. Economies grow, she said, as they replace goods that had formerly been imported with goods manufactured domestically. These new domestic manufactures then become exports in their own right, with which the local economy earns new imports, which it then replaces with its own manufactures, and so on.
Detroit, for example, began to grow in the 1820s as it exported flour to other Great Lake ports and beyond. Soon it was building its own ships to carry these cargoes and then its own ships’ engines. Now Detroit was exporting not only flour but ocean-going steamships. By the 1860s Detroit was sending marine steam engines to Europe. Meanwhile all sorts of new industries had arisen to service the shipyards and engine works, including copper smelters that turned the local ore into brass for various marine fittings. Between 1860 and 1880 copper would become Detroit’s major export. Detroit, in other words, was replacing goods that it once had to import with domestic manufactures which it was now exporting. By 1880 the local ore had begun to run out and Detroit was soon importing copper once again, this time from smelters that it had set up near mines farther west. But this was not a problem, for by now the city had accumulated so much capital from its various enterprises and acquired so many diverse skills that it was now exporting all sorts of things: paints and varnishes, furniture, steam generators, pumps, tools, stoves, medicines, and so on—products most of which had evolved from other work that Detroit was already doing.
From this diverse prosperity, growing largely unplanned as one activity led to another, the automobile industry emerged two decades later, eventually to bring the long history of the city’s diverse economic development to an end. Soon the automobile industry became so vast, its claims on talent, labor, and capital so great, that the old pattern of industrial breakaways petered out: the invisible hand that once guided it now chained to the wall. Detroit would now be ruled by an aristocracy of automakers who hereafter would decide the city’s future. Eventually Detroit would take its place beside Manchester and the textile cities of New England as its own company town. Inevitably it would begin to import goods—engines, technological processes, even finished cars—that it had once exported and the process by which it had grown would reverse itself. Depression and bankrupty—disaster in the words of Ward’s Automotive Reports—would follow. Detroit would itself become an Edsel.
The moment at which these blockages become fatal can often be seen, Mrs. Jacobs says, in the architectural style that marks a city’s ultimate growth: the brick fronts of New England mill towns, the highway interchanges and public housing that loom over the slums of the South Bronx. But the reborn General Motors plant shows that this decay may also be reversed through a little elementary common sense stimulated by foreign competition. Though the Detroit manufacturers have insisted on making big cars, even though for years the market had been signaling frantically that it wants small cars, there still may be enough gaps in the system for sensible alternatives to break through here and there, for domestic manufactures to replace certain imports and for American industry to begin earning its necessary imports rather than paying for them with borrowed money.
The recent coalition of politicians, unions, and management that conspired in the Chrysler guarantees, when nearly everyone but the groups involved was opposed, including Chrysler’s own banks, is not encouraging in this respect, not enough at any rate to affect the calculations of Howard Ruff and his fellow gold buyers, who are gambling, with such spectacular success, that the Chrysler example is typical and that bankruptcy is inevitable.
Perhaps something in the American character prefers dismay to the recognition that our entitlements are after all limited and insofar as they exist must be earned, that those polymorphous American appetites that have turned Keynes no less than Freud inside out ought to be reduced, by various sensible adjustments, to the scale of a less indulgent agricultural and industrial economy.
To expect such reflections from two diet specialists, though perhaps not from such a social prophet as Howard Ruff, is of course absurd. What matters is how the avidity with which these books have been taken up reflects the current obsessions of their readers. The guilt, the despair and self-hatred, the claims and metaphors of cancer and bankruptcy in which these books indulge tell us more about the emotional condition of a considerable part of the American public than we are likely to learn from more formal studies or from the blandishments of our political candidates. Our manic-depressive economy with its recessions and inflations falls and rises on tides of popular feeling and our markets arise from our dreams, as any advertising man or woman knows. Agricultural economists might learn from the success of these popular diet books more about what’s in store for the sugar growers, the dairymen, and the feedlot owners than from all the computer programs in the Department of Agriculture.
What these self-help best sellers tell us is that many Americans are now seriously alarmed by the cost to themselves of the promiscuous entitlements that they have recently enjoyed. What they are also telling us, alas, is that they may not yet be ready to forgo the indulgence of their individual egos for the sake of eking out our common survival. Abandon ship. Every man for himself. The captain’s only a politician, the purser’s a crook, and the cooks are poisoning us. Let the poor and the unenlightened, the savings bank customers and the helplessly fat drown with their coke and cookies, their mayonnaise, and their dollars. Better to gamble that the bottom will fall out than bother to man the pumps. Let’s jump off with whatever we can carry. This is what the readers of these immensely popular books seem to be saying as they pursue their personal salvation, their own thing, even though the ship may not be sinking but only fogbound and even though there may be no place to jump to.
February 21, 1980