Thus it’s important for those of us who want to be prepared for the future to try to think about the unthinkable—to come to terms with the possibility that the future will see a widespread rejection of the myth of progress and everything connected to it. That wasn’t a likely option in an age when economic expansion and rapid technological development were everyday facts of life, but we no longer live in such an age, and the fading memories of the last decades when those things happened will not retain their power indefinitely. Imagine a future America where the available resources don’t even suffice to maintain existing technological systems, only the elderly remember sustained economic growth, and the new technological devices that still come onto the market now and then are restricted to the very few who are wealthy enough to afford them. At what point along that curve do the promises of progress become so self-evidently absurd that the power of the civil religion of progress to shape thought and motivate behavior breaks down completely?
The story that I wrote on the Manheim Township School District for Sunday’s paper is one that I think may ultimately be written, have to be written, about every school district in the county, maybe the state – maybe the country.
Township was first out of the gate for some very specific reasons – primarily the fact that they borrowed so much money, which must have seemed a great idea at the time, but doesn’t that always come back to bite you? Money spent on debt service is money you can’t spend on anything else, and when the amount of debt service is proportionately greater than other districts, it’s going to crowd out other things, things that some parents/residents think very important.
But as I noted in an interview with some district officials – Township may, in fact, simply be the leading edge of the wedge. Because I think ultimately all school districts will wind up at this same place. Expenditures, some of them on things you can’t control, continue to grow while revenue doesn’t keep pace. You raise taxes but those who can least afford the greater burden make more and more noise. You trim here and there, but soon enough it becomes obvious that big cuts are needed, so you make those – and anger parents or other stakeholders who value the programs that were slashed.
Every single school district is going to get to that point. What stops it? Are fewer kids/families going to bail out for cyber or charter schools? Will the cost of special education suddenly start to fall? How about the cost of health insurance for employees, pension costs, personnel costs in general?
This model requires more, ever more. Well – what if there isn’t more? What if, on a permanent basis going forward, the “more” available simply cannot match the “more” demanded or required?
Then you got yourself a pretty interesting conundrum, don’t you?
It’s not just school districts, of course. This unsustainable model, unfortunately, is common across our country and our economy. Health care costs and college costs would be additional examples. As I noted a few weeks back in the print edition, how is it that college administrators, the head of health systems, sit in their offices and think the current model is sustainable? Do they actually believe that costs can continue to rise at the pace they have? Because clearly, that’s impossible. You reach a point as a society where the average citizen is increasingly unable to afford a college education, unable maybe to afford health care – as co-pays and deductibles keep escalating.
If and when that happens, you wind up either with a product (education, health care) that only the wealthy can afford; or a system destined to collapse under the weight of its own unrealistic expectations.
Our economy as a whole, unfortunately, is based on this same faulty essential premise, that ever-escalating costs can somehow be covered via revenues generated by rapid growth. Need more revenues? Speed up growth – Democrats say, via government spending that primes the pump; Republicans think the pump can be primed by lowering government spending, cutting taxes, freeing private enterprise, etc.
But Greer’s point about technological advances rings true across the board: What if the era of sustained economic growth is over?
The old John Belushi/Jake Blues line from “The Blues Brothers” comes to mind: “Well then. I guess you’re really up sh*t creek.”
Call it the Era of Less, and we’re smack in the middle of it. New breakneck economic growth isn’t just around the corner – though, thinking we can goose it along, we’ve set the stage for disaster via everything from monetary policy (the Fed’s Quantitative Easing and all the easy money flowing into “risk assets,” distorting the market) to the environment (frack now, worry about the consequences later).
There is no end to the risks we’ll take to foster this growth. Because we’ve got to have it, see? As a society, we’re not asking – What if the era of sustained growth is over? We accept that sustained growth is not only possible but probable, if only we create the right circumstances. Because sustained growth is our birthright, the very story of American history. First it was physical expansion that fueled the growth, then the expansion of the industrial economy; then it was the growth of credit and debt, now we say the “knowledge economy” will fuel this same breakneck pace of growth into the future.
And so instead of asking, what if we can’t achieve that, instead of planning ahead for scarcity, we stake it all on our fervent, if increasingly desperate, belief in the civil religion of progress and growth.
It’s the parable of the ant and the grasshopper, right? We’re the grasshopper, demanding the ant/the government/the taxpayers/Mother Nature herself continue to generate all that we require. And we require ever more – as the grasshopper grows and grows.
At some point the ant dies, the government becomes paralyzed, the taxpayers revolt and Mother Nature is exhausted. We’re long past the time when we as a society should have thought ahead about this possibility. And no, this isn’t a call to vacuum-seal three years worth of beans in huge plastic tubs. It may be a call to get to know your neighbors better, try to live more frugally, rely more on yourself and less on the complex and thus vulnerable systems we just sort of assume will always be there.
The end of sustained growth, and I believe it’s well on its way if not here now, is going to be a profound and profoundly unsettling event in the moment of this country, and the world. I really like to think it’s not going to blindside us. But I’m almost positive it will.