Economy and Society: The Future

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ABSTRACT. This comment is in response to Frederic L. Pryor (2000). "The Millennium Survey: How Economists View the U.S. Economy in the 21st Century." The American Journal of Economics and Sociology. 59 (January), pp. 3-33.

In trying to foresee future trends, the surest approach is simply to project present trends forward, assuming the future will resemble the past and present. This approach has not always worked well in the 20th century. Two world wars provided breaks in a number of steady trends and the Great Depression of the 1930s reversed nearly all measures of economic progress. Minor ups and downs of the business cycle were anticipated on empirical and theoretical grounds, but the severity of the Depression and its effects, including political upheavals, were not. The early postwar period witnessed an utterly unexpected rise in fertility, the "baby boom," which ended equally unexpectedly in the 1960s. The postwar economic boom exceeded expectations; its end in the early 70s with combined rising unemployment and inflation was not foreseen, nor was the recovery leading to the long continuing boom of the 90s. Major technological inventions and their effects are almost by definition unforeseen.

The forecasts of the economists surveyed by Professor Pryor are unremarkable: they do not anticipate any great cataclysms of war, revolution, depression, technological breakthroughs, or ecological collapse. Should such explosive critical events occur, the American people would certainly once again turn to, even run to, Mama in the form of the federal government, bringing to an end current depreciation of "the nanny state" and proclamations that "the era of big government is over." Nor do the economists consider more gradual processes of change whose effects on the economy are uncertain, such as changes in cultural values that might affect the market preferences of consumers, the economist's primary subject. What might some of these changes be, presuming that a sociologist is likely to have some sense of their possibility?

A large majority of Pryor's economists foresee rates of American per capita economic growth until 2050 of slightly over 1 percent. Although they believe this predicted trend will have "a major impact on the economic system or major institutions," they evidently do not anticipate any significant revolt against "consumerism" that might negatively affect the trend. In the past, minorities composed of bohemians, intellectuals, radical students, religious sectarians, and some upper middle-class groups have denounced materialistic consumerism: "zero-economic growth" even became a slogan and goal in the prosperous, rebellious 1960s. Today's mockery of sports utility vehicles is reminiscent of the animus nearly half a century ago against the bulky tail-finned automobiles of the 1950s. Is it not possible that such attitudes might be adopted by a larger segment of the population now that memories of the Depression have dimmed and the satisfactions of relative affluence have become both more widespread and apparently m ore permanent? The pervasive commercialism of the 1990s has already induced in many a mood of cynicism and resistance, including in several states organized political opposition to the development of remaining open spaces. One form of anti-consumerism that might emerge could be a demand for selective elimination of the low bulk mailing rates that have inundated private homes with an unprecedented volume of catalogues, commercial "special offers," and advertising throwaways. If enough people spent their time perusing this mail instead of instantly consigning it unopened to the wastebasket economic productivity would fall to new lows! Economic growth ultimately depends on consumer demand, both new consumers wanting goods and services previously available only to a few and demand for new goods and services. …


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