Real-World, Real-Time SF?

When retail sales levels for the United States were recently announced, stock prices in the USA immediately dropped, and a number of large retailers immediately announced plans to close down “unprofitable” outlets. My initial reaction was to think that, well, if sales were down, that would be understandable. Except sales weren’t down. They were up three percent. They only increased three percent over the sales levels of the previous year, as opposed to the four percent sales increase registered in 2006. Today, the market plunged again…even after the Federal Reserve announced an interest cut of three quarters of a percent, a rather large one time cut, and the largest in more than 16 years. The market recovered somewhat but remains down at the time I write this.

Three percent is an increase. It’s an increase greater than the rate of U.S. population growth. And yet the economists, the stock market, the retailers, and the commentators are all saying that we might be entering a recession… unless government gives them the means to borrow money more cheaply and provides more “stimulus.” They may well be right.

What exactly does this say about the United States and modern economies in general? That we can’t maintain close to full employment and prosperity without an ever-increasing amount of consumption and production in a world that looks to have finite resources? That steady and sustained growth isn’t enough, that for us to be happy and prosperous, we need incredibly high growth rates that are unsustainable without government deficits and subsidies…and loans at artificially cheap rates?

This obsession with more permeates everything. In the past generation, the size of the average house has nearly doubled, and Americans in general have more cars, more televisions, more “stuff” than ever before. I’m not against improvements or new devices that make life better, but I don’t need a new computer every year or every other year, or even every third year. Nor do I need a new vehicle anywhere close to that often. Frankly, while there are those who do need frequent replacements and updates because of their occupations, most of us don’t, and many of those who do only need those replacements because the computer and other industries employ a combination of “improvements” and planned obsolescence that makes older but still functional equipment incompatible with the “new” models and software.

Yet this obsession with “more” is highly selective. We reward hedge fund managers with annual earnings in the millions and hundreds of millions of dollars, and their only contribution to society is success in high level and legal gambling, all of the rhetoric about the need for arbitrage notwithstanding. We reward high profile CEOs, and yet recent studies have shown that, in general, the lower profile and lower-paid CEOs do a better job. We pay a comparative handful of entertainers and athletes incredible amounts, but every time the economy slows a trace, all across the country, the salaries of teachers are frozen, and the increases given to those at the bottom in government and industry are minimal or non-existent.

Not only that, but market response and public reaction appear nonsensical. Oil prices are above $90 a barrel, and yet the stock prices of oil companies that made great profits when the prices were “only” $70 a barrel are down, and neither their production nor their reserves have changed significantly. Food prices are increasing, and the government subsidizes ethanol made from corn, which further boosts the cost of corn without making any significant difference in the amount of imported oil or in air pollution.

We spend billions on “measuring” various kinds of progress, from retail sales and output of goods and services to educational testing… as if the measurements were reality, and as if the resulting numbers automatically equate to immediate and significant changes in the economy, or the educational system. But, once we have the numbers… what happens?

Most of the time, there’s a demand for “better” numbers and measurements… or the results are ignored. Or… as in the current case, there’s universal dissatisfaction with a federal commitment over more than $145 billion. Of course, that’s somewhat less than the $150-200 billion U.S. companies spend annually on radio and television ads, in hopes of increasing sales and profitability, because, after all, sales were only up three percent, but what can one expect from government?

Now, if I or any other SF writer created a future world that portrayed such idiocy in this kind of graphic detail, such a novel would either be regarded as far-out satire or patently impossible.