The Upside to South’s World

Mr. and Mrs. Goodhue Livingston and Mrs. Alfred Vanderbilt
Mr. and Mrs. Goodhue Livingston and Mrs. Alfred Vanderbilt (Create Commons via Wikimedia)

If you’ve followed my series of posts about the dystopian version of 2032 America in my work-in-progress South, you may be wondering if anything good has come of the state of things. Someone in my critique group asked what the South equivalent would be to Italian trains (supposedly) running on time under Mussolini (they didn’t).

The definition of “good,” of course, is strictly in the eye of the beholder. Very little is going well from the point-of-view of the main characters. However, taking a macro view, I can imagine someone would consider these items to be bright spots:

  • The U.S. has achieved full employment (less than 5% unemployed). With no surviving safety net, the only choices open to the bottom 90% of the population are work or starvation. Even utterly crappy, unsafe jobs with wretched pay don’t go empty.
  • America is energy-independent. All of the Pacific, Atlantic and Gulf coasts are open for oil and gas drilling, as are all federally-owned lands, including what’s left of the national parks. Hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) has boosted production even in played-out oilfields, and coal is being used in record amounts. The EPA has been zero-funded for several years, so nobody’s keeping track of the environmental damage except some nosy people from the United Nations Environment Program. Since the U.S. withdrew from the UN in 2026 and kicked the UN Headquarters out of New York, the U.S. government doesn’t pay any attention to them anymore. (Canada is less than pleased with the spillover pollution, but we don’t care much about them, either.)
  • Everyone’s taxes are the lowest in the OECD (as opposed to being only the fourth lowest in 2011). Of course, tolls, fees and bribes aren’t included in this ranking, and there are a lot of those. It’s as if an airline ran the country.
  • Corporate profits as a percentage of GDP are at a record high. Depressed wages (due to the elimination of wage floors such as the minimum wage and labor unions), a 0% corporate tax rate (the effective rate in 2011 was ~18.5%, and for several members of the Fortune 500, it’s already 0%), and essentially nonexistent labor, safety, and environmental regulation have significantly lowered the cost of doing business in the U.S.
  • Because it’s so cheap to operate here now, the U.S. has taken over China’s position as the world’s leading exporter, which makes up for suppressed domestic demand. China has priced itself out of being “the world’s factory floor” due to political reform, environmental regulations, and the heightened expectations of its huge middle class. American industry competes with African-based manufacturing, which, though also featuring low-wage labor, carries significant other expenses (security, for one) that make operational costs at least equal to those in the U.S.
  • Because its economy is so export-oriented, America has been dragged kicking and screaming into a heightened awareness of other national societies, cultures and tastes. After all, American companies have to design and build products that European and Asian consumers will want to buy. Americans are learning second languages (Mandarin and Hindi are favorites) in greater numbers than ever before, and foreign cultural products (films, fashion, music, web content) are considered chic.
  • Illegal immigration is a thing of the past. American workers have taken all the bottom-of-the-barrel jobs the illegals once filled, so there’s no point. If you live in Latin America and want a better life, you go to Brazil; if you’re in Asia, you go to China or India.
  • If you’re in the economic top 10%, you’re doing very, very well. Your decile accounts for over 50% of all pre-tax income in the U.S. (up from a mere 36% in 2009) and, because the tax rate for capital gains and the marginal rate for incomes above $1,000,000 have gone to 0% (you’re a “job creator,” after all), you get to keep nearly all of it. Your share of all national financial assets has increased to 85% (up from 73.1% in 2007). You probably live in the safest parts of America, with the cleanest air and water, best services and nicest roads.
  • If you’re a ten-percenter, not only are you living well, you’re living longer. In addition to living in safer, cleaner places, you’re unlikely to work in a factory or someplace else that will kill you young (industrial accidents are once again a leading cause of death among working-class males). You can afford top medical care; gene therapies that have eliminated several common forms of cancer, heart disease and Alzheimer’s; and healthy food. Life expectancy for the top income decile now stands at around 90 years. For the other 90%, it’s below 70 for the first time in a century. (In 2007, the gap between income groups was only five years.)

So yes, some things are going quite well, depending on who you are.

Can’t Happen Here?

I’ve been accused of concocting an “extreme” or “unrealistic” future scenario.

However, if you’ve been paying attention to these posts, you may have figured out something: South’s America of 2032 is the pre-New Deal, pre-Progressive Era America of 1890, with drones. During the so-called Gilded Age, eleven million of the twelve million families in America lived on less than $1200 a year ($30,600 in 2011 dollars); the average annual income of this bottom 92% was $380 ($9,690 in 2011 dollars; the U.S. poverty line in 2013 is $27,570 for a family of five, which would have been considered an average family in 1890). On the other hand, the top 1% lived like Renaissance princes, as they do today. All the rest of this world – low taxes, minimal government, explosive industrialization, brutal working conditions, no safety net, ecological rapine, corruption, monopolization, regular financial crashes, rampant poverty, electoral fraud – is the same in South as it was at the height of the Gilded Age.

Extreme? I hope so. Can’t happen here? Surprise! – it already did.

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