Take the Next Exit: When It Comes to Economic Growth, the Express Lanes Are Closed

Article excerpt

YOU'VE PROBABLY HEARD FRIENDS COMPLAIN ABOUT tie-ups in Los Angeles or Chicago or New York that transform already long commutes into sweaty practice runs for purgatory. But nothing compares to what motorists recently endured on a roadway heading into Beijing in August's mother-of-all traffic jams: an 11-day, diesel-clouded snarl, stretching more than 62 miles and entrapping thousands of trucks and motorists trying in vain to snail into China's capital city.

Roadwork and a handful of accidents were blamed, but the real culprit may have been China's voracious appetite for coal. Hundreds of truckers were moving illegally mined coal along a specific route, choking the highway system in an effort to avoid government inspectors.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Coal powers 70 percent of China's energy. It's an essential component of the Middle Kingdom's spectacular economic growth over the last two decades. Economic growth has rejuvenated China and moved millions of people out of abject poverty. But, as the DeMilleish traffic jam suggests, unrestrained growth is not without its own risks.

Folks in the United States may be tempted to look at China's growth pains with envy as container ships that arrive full from mainland factories languish in America's ports, waiting in vain for cargo for the return trip. As in China, the average citizen in the United States has been taught the mantra that economic growth is the answer to virtually all that alls us, including the nation's current social and fiscal breakdown. If only we could export more, produce more, consume more, out unemployment and housing crises would disappear in a puff of economic fairy dust.

This may seem an inopportune moment to question that strategy, but what if that assumption is a bright, shining lie? The Great Recession has taken a terrible toll around the nation, with poverty and unemployment rates that threaten Dust Bowl records and America's vast but declining middle class awakening to the reality of deeply reduced expectations. Incomes are dormant or sagging; more and more people are living paycheck to paycheck. Unable to raid exhausted home equity, many are dipping into retirement packages. …