Observing US:
A column about America,
by Marylaine Block
originally published by
Fox News Online, 1998-2000

#59.htm, November 2, 1999


by Marylaine Block

According to the latest tally by the Conference Board, consumer confidence has begun to slip, and my editors were wondering whether in the great Midwest, home of millions of fabled "ordinary Americans," we might be somewhat more confident about our economic future. My answer is an unequivocal "yes and no."

Yes, because record numbers of us were sure enough we could meet mortgage payments that we took advantage of low interest rates and bought homes in the last couple of years. Most of the housing starts that have been increasing throughout the 1990's are for spacious expensive homes, twice as big the ones many of us grew up in.

Yes, because looking at wedding announcements in the paper, I notice how many of the happy couples clearly expect to make ends meet even though they have low-end jobs at gas stations and chain stores and temp agencies.

Yes, because there are more jobs available than good people to fill them; the fabled niceness of Iowans is less in evidence in service at our fast food joints these days because minimum wage employers have to take whatever workers they can get. Workers who get bawled out for being late or surly can just walk out and get another job.

Yes, because the internet has led thousands of people (including me) to set up their own businesses on the net. More of us own stocks and have seen the value of our portfolios and pensions climb, or even skyrocket, over the last several years, Even I, for the first time in my life, have come to know the joys of capital gains.

Yes, because we're buying lots more. Most of us can afford some of the luxuries of life -- VCRs, cable TV, flying instead of driving when we visit our families. Many of us are able to take dream vacations, send our kids to college, and buy time-share condominiums down South.

As for people with technical skills or accounting degrees, they're not just confident, they're downright arrogant. They don't say, "yes, thank you," when offered staggering salaries, they ask why the package doesn't include stock options.

And yet…

No. Because the old concept of getting a job with a good company and staying there forever has gone by the boards. Even in my town, where jobs with Deere or Caterpillar used to mean security for life, the ups and more frequent downs of the farm economy have meant good years punctuated by layoffs, mergers, and plant closings.

No, because the biggest single employer in the country now is Kelly International, the leading supplier of temp workers.

No, because college students don't want to risk taking anything except professional preparation courses that will land them a good job. Seniors are panicky about landing a job with a salary big enough to pay off their crippling load of student loans and credit card debt. Our disposable income may be up, but we're spending even more than we're making, our credit card debt is high, and filings for personal bankruptcy are going through the roof.

No, because many of us don't have health insurance or pensions, and know that retirement or one serious illness could exhaust our pitiful savings and plunge us into poverty.

No, because hardly anybody believes anymore that honest labor will get them all the things they want. For that, they look to state lotteries, Indian casinos, riverboat gambling, and omnipresent slot machines. My state, Iowa, defying its Protestant work ethic roots, now offers more forms of gambling than any other state -- and that's not even counting day-trading.

No, because all these problems exist now when times are good. And most of us have the sense to understand that good times always come to an end.

Robert Samuelson, in The Good Life and Its Discontents, argued that our economy has flourished and given us an unparalleled standard of living, but because our wants are even larger, we are forever doomed to disappointment. That may be as good an explanation as any for why we are doing so well, and yet running so scared.

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