The Lileks Zone

The end of prosperity: hoorah!

Reuters piece: An Inevitable Slide for Americans’ Standard of Living. Nonsense, you think. That’s defeatist talk. Nothing is inevitable but death and taxes –

Oh. Right. Well, the piece isn’t about taxes.

America’s standard of living could turn out to be the main casualty of the debt crisis. For a decade, the middle class made up for stagnant incomes by getting ever deeper into debt. Without housing wealth to tap, a bout of inflation is one of the few alternatives to a decade of austerity.

O joy. You know you’re being ruled by geniuses when inflation is a solution. Of course, if you’re “tapping” your housing wealth to increase your standard of living, your standard of living is based on unsustainable factors. Put it another way: the foundation of your house was cotton candy, and you built in a flood plain. In this situation, a “decade of austerity” is another word for “living within your means.”

It goes on:

Americans seemed to think a perpetually improving lifestyle was written into the Constitution.

Silly, stupid people. It’s not. (Abortion is, though, somewhere, under a penumbra.) But some Americans thought their lifestyles would improve because they expected to be rewarded for initiative or good behavior – work hard, save, don’t borrow money on the house for an RV that needs a full tank just to back out of the driveway, and so on. If millions now feel there’s an inevitable decline in the standard of living it’s because they expect that more of what they have will be taken away by the state.

For some, that’s just jack-dandy. Some on the left who think it’s a perfectly grand thing if our standards of living decline. We consume too much, and have things we don’t need. Our cars and TVs are too big. Our houses are too big. (Side note: everyone talks about the housing bubble, but it’s usually seen in terms of free-standing homes in the ‘rubs. Taken a look at prices of New York condos lately? Why didn’t those dense and urban housing units keep their value, if such lifestyles are the moral superior to living in the suburbs?) Their level of consumption is perfectly tuned, of course, but those other people out there somewhere don’t need what they have. One of these people became shouty and incensed when I made the infelicitous assertion that I wanted my daughter to have the same standard of living I had, at the very least. Might as well have said I wanted to burn down the rain forest to build the world’s largest NASCAR track.

I suspect a good many people on the left don’t mind a protracted economic clusterbundle. It’s comeuppance for the specious concept of prosperity, a rebuke to everyone who left the city for the suburbs, and good for Gaia to boot – but it’s only a start, but not the end. There are still people out there with things they do not need, you know. That’s the new definition of rich. When all you have is a hammer and sickle, everything looks like a kulak.

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October 2010