Dog Days in the Golden Age
What does it mean when the major item in the president's end-of-year news conference is a puppy-naming? It means we should be wistful at the passing of 1997. We may never see another year like it. When a chocolate Lab leads the news, we know times are good.
How good? Look at the numbers. Unemployment is at its lowest in two decades. Inflation hovers at 2 percent, early 1960s numbers. That is not supposed to happen. We have been bred on the axiom that unemployment and inflation are mutually contradictory, that when one form of social misery declines, the other must rise. Well, not anymore.
The economy is growing at more than 3 percent. Hourly wages are up 4 percent. Factories are producing at that perfect knife-edge of near capacity, but not quite so much as to create industrial bottlenecks (and thus shortages and inflation).
Even more amazing are the indices of social pathology, which we once assumed must inexorably get worse. They have reversed course. Crime is down, dramatically. Rape, for example, is down 45 percent since 1993; murder about 30 percent. In New York City, the crime rate has not been this low in 30 years. The unlivable has become livable again.
Welfare rolls are down, too. After just 12 months of welfare reform (August 1996-July 1997), one in every six welfare recipients has gone off the dole. That is almost 2 million people. In places with aggressive anti-welfare programs such as Wisconsin, rolls have been cut by a third. Even such recalcitrant indices as abortion are down.
Nor are the good times just economic and social. Geopolitically, we are enjoying the fruits of victory in the Cold War. At no time in the past 500 years has the gap in power between the No. 1 nation and its nearest rival been as great as it is today. While the critics had conceded America's military and cultural hegemony -- a carrier in every ocean, a Big Mac in every pot -- they had long clung to the idea of American economic decline.
And look what happened. We are now riding a productivity and growth spurt that has left the rest of the world in our dust. Europe lives with double-digit unemployment and almost total economic stagnation. Asia, the rising tiger, is now in the throes of a collapse so great that its ripples, ironically, constitute the one major threat to our current prosperity.
Now the puzzle: If this is a golden age, why doesn't it feel like a golden age? I recently told an assembly at my son's high school that they were living through a time so blessed they would tell their grandchildren about it. They looked at me uncomprehendingly. First, because they have known little else but good times. And second, because it is hard for anyone to apprehend the sheer felicity of one's own time until it is gone.
But I suspect there is a third reason: We live in gold -- but without glory. We associate golden ages with heroic times like that of Pericles. Our triumphs, in contrast, are of the domestic variety. This is the age of Seinfeld, life in miniature. No great battles, no great art, no great triumphs. We know these are diminished times when our most recent military hero is a pilot who, shot down by ragtag Serbs, manages to survive by hiding in the forests of Bosnia like a "scared little bunny rabbit" (his words: Scott O'Grady's heroism is his honesty).
No matter. Who needs wars? Who needs heroes? Who needs glory? These things are not sought; they are thrust upon a nation, unwillingly. Britain's finest hour was 1940. Would you choose for your child to live in London during the blitz, or in Lansing under Clinton? By any historical standard, life has never been so good. Why, the news has gotten so absurdly good we have to cast our net very far to find the bad. El Nino is about the best we can do.
Does this mean that the news will only get better? On the contrary. With every passing month of such profound tranquility and prosperity, the implausibility of these times becomes all the more striking.
Golden ages never last. There might be a sudden crisis, perhaps a collapse of economic confidence coming from the Asian contagion. Or perhaps just a gradual undoing of all the self-reinforcing good news: a spike of inflation, a little recession, a rise in welfare, and the whole cycle slowly reverses itself.
I hold with those who say this lovely world will end in ice, not fire. But either way, it must surely end. So enjoy it while it lasts. Because it won't.