EYE ON THE PIE: Nation forgets how it achieved prosperity

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“How do you do it?”

The question came from Mumbles Marcus, my talk-showhost cousin. “Every week, another fresh, insightful column addressing one of our nation’s leading issues.”

Since we were onair, I kept my reply polite: “Actually, Mumbles, I write the same column almost every week. I change the clothing, but the body remains the same. I am obsessed with the many choices we must make to satisfy private interests today and meet the needs of ourselves and others in the future.”

“So you’re heavily into the battle between capitalism and socialism, is that it?” asked Mumbles.

I looked at him, without saying out loud that he was both an idiot and an irresponsible provocateur.

“That’s not the issue, Mumbles,” I replied. “Let’s look at the facts. In the past 25 years, personal consumption expenditures in the United States have climbed from 62 percent to 71 percent of gross domestic product.

“That’s a huge shift in spending to satisfy what consumers want today. Private investment is now a smaller share of our national economy. Even government spending is a smaller share than it was. Americans are involved in a long-term shift that means we spend for what we want today without building for tomorrow.”

Mumbles did not let a precious second of air time go by.

“So, you’re against the average guy getting what he and his family need? You’re opposed to the good life for Americans? You want us to be a nation engaged in selfdenial for some mystical future benefit?”

“Needs? Good life? Mystical future benefit?” I shot back. “Are jet skis needs? Recreation spending has gone from 2.4 percent to 4.1 percent of consumer spending. We’ve gone from 10 percent to 17 percent of consumer spending on health care. Did you ever think that we are overspending on health care, trying to treat every aliment no matter how trivial as well as keeping people alive who might be allowed the dignity of dying?”

“That’s a brutal view for a liberal to take,” Mumbles said.

“Liberal, conservative-what’s that got to do with it?” I responded.

“Well, liberals always want to get government to interfere with the market,” Mumbles said.

I promptly reminded myself of the words that cannot be said on radio and replied, “Baloney. Both liberals and conservatives want to get government to interfere with the market, be it by taxes, spending or regulation, but in their own ways for their own benefit.”

“So what do you suggest to correct the problems that you see?” Mumbles asked.

“That’s where I’m not hopeful,” I admitted. “People need to understand the importance of investing, of planting trees, if you will, that will not mature for many years but that will provide shade and oxygen in the future. Instead, they want to have lawns today that require watering, mowing and riding tractors that burn gasoline and pollute the air with fumes and noise.

“People need to learn history so that they understand how prosperity is attained. Today’s population thinks health care is a right rather than a choice. It may be an individual choice or a collective choice, but it is a choice nonetheless. History teaches us about the choices individuals and nations have made, often at great sacrifice, to secure a better tomorrow.”

“So,” Mumbles said, “you would have us all go back to school?”

“No,” I answered, “I would have us go back to learning.”

“Well, thanks,” Mumbles said, concluding our interview, “It’s always a pleasure, of sorts, to have an unrepentant dreamer on the show.”

Marcus taught economics more than 30 years at Indiana University and is the former director of IU’s Business Research Center. His column appears weekly. To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to mortonjmarcus@yahoo.com.

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