SUPER SIZE ME

Many of you probably remember the 2004 documentary Super Size Me, about a man who explored the effects of the fast-food industry by eating nothing but fast food for a month, and accepting, when offered, the largest portions. It resulted in deleterious changes in his physiology, among them a condition known as fatty liver, and likely would have killed him had he continued on this reckless, unnatural diet. It serves as a useful analogy for what is going on in the country now. On the economic side, we’ve “super-sized,” i.e., we’ve been on a long-term consumption and spending binge out of proportion to our productivity, and the toxic effects are beginning to accumulate, affecting our generation and generations to come. At the same time, we’ve “down-sized” on the social side. More affluent families have produced fewer children and families have become more nuclear and geographically dispersed, with both parents now typically in the workforce, creating a void in the care of the very young and very old. This vacuum has led to an increased reliance on institutionalized care for both young and old, some of it subsidized by government, further contributing to the super-sizing on the economic side.

Reversing these trends will not be easy. On the economic front, we will have to “level the playing field.” Presently, jobs are going overseas because hourly wages are a fraction of what American labor charges, a situation heavily influenced by powerful unions. Of course, we benefit from lower prices at home, which raises our standard of living in the short run but, as is the way with any band-aid on an untreated sore, only allows the wound to fester underneath. The resistance of the current joblessness despite an uptick in the economy, I believe, reflects the relative paucity of jobs as companies found ways to preserve profits through new efficiencies in the face of a smaller domestic workforce. Meanwhile, many overseas companies are free to hire with little or no union or human resources constraints, akin to the exploitation that occurred in our own Industrial Revolution in the nineteenth century (under those circumstances the worker’s unions served as a positive, moderating force). On another economic front, China, our biggest creditor, has been free to manipulate its currency in its favor.

To correct this sorry state of affairs would require limiting free trade by fiat or tariffs, both isolationist policies that would entail reducing our influence in world affairs as China’s power continues to grow. Not exactly an environment conducive to our getting concessions from the Asian behemoth on fair monetary practices.

On the social front, to rehabilitate things a change in the very fabric of our society would have to take place, with a rebirth of the extended family, something made even more difficult by the harsh economic conditions that often leads families to travel in search of work. Also, a return to the era of the single wage-earner household, even when children are in the mix, has become unlikely as couples have become accustomed to dual careers and expectations of a higher standard of living have become entrenched.

So, can this decline be reversed? Possibly, but it will require major societal shifts. I’ll try to predict what might happen in my next rant.

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