Opinion Columns & Blogs

Robert L. Sharp: Who ate the seed corn? Lots happened in 30 years away

I am curious what happened to the United States in the period since I went overseas to pursue a career -- the "Ozzie and Harriet" period -- until I returned 30 years later, finding deteriorating social conditions that made me think about the environment depicted in the movie "Blade Runner."

I have a theory. After the full production of World War II, the U.S. applied Keynesian economic policies to keep the economy from collapsing. Lord Keynes was the British government economic adviser who pointed out the pump-priming effects of government spending on the economy.

From 1945 through the Eisenhower period, there were the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe and similar activities in Japan, which meant giving those whose countries which had been destroyed the ability to buy American goods, in large part, to keep up American production and jobs.

This was a time of large public works expenditures at home, when the interstate highway system was built, along with many bridges, dams, schools, libraries, and tunnels. Projects like the Tennessee Valley Authority brought lights and modern electric appliances to rural areas, and America took off, straight up. It became a matter of orthodox belief that each American generation would have a better life than the previous one.

At the end of this infrastructure-building period, the economy continued to expand, but with a different engine: consumer products, not capital goods.

Houses became larger to hold more adult toys, closets became bigger to hold more clothes, garages became larger to hold more and larger cars with tailfins.

"Plastics" was the career advice given to Dustin Hoffman in the movie "The Graduate," and obsolescence was engineered into everyday products.

The only problem is that we didn't create a sinking fund to cover the inevitable cost of replacing the depreciating infrastructure that supported this new good life. It is similar to a man who plants corn and eats all the resulting crop.

If you don't save some of the crop for seed corn to replant, there will not be a new crop to provide future meals.

The life span of infrastructure projects, such as the Bay Bridge in San Francisco, the freeways in Oakland and Los Angeles, the Chicago waterworks tunnels, the Interstate 35W Mississippi River bridge, may have a life span of 30 to 40 years, depending on how much maintenance is applied.

So now it is 30 to 40 years later and we see these facilities are falling apart.

We have moved from Ozzie and Harriet to Blade Runner because we ate our seed corn and called it a rising standard of living.

Much of our improved standard of living has come from consuming that which should have been saved to pay for repairing the infrastructure. We didn't do so, and now our standard of living is deteriorating because of it.

Think about California's Proposition 13: If we don't move, our property taxes don't go up, but public services do increase in the cost to provide along with everything else. To balance out, public services are reduced.

The deterioration we see in the schools and libraries, the highways and government services, including police forces and public safety, is a direct effect.

The same situation is seen in social conditions: While it is fine that women have more career opportunities than before, many mothers work because they have to, not because they want to.

This results in unsupervised children who get into drugs and crime (a female friend pointed out how chauvinist that latter comment is. OK, many men also work not because they want to, but in any case, the one-income family is no more).

When I was young I used to hear warnings about government debt, that "future generations will have to pay for this." That generation is now here -- the first who will not have it better than their parents.

It took nearly two generations to get to this condition, and no politician, no matter how clever, or foreign power or Wall Street banker he blames, can change what we have done to ourselves, either overnight or in four years ... or longer.

Robert L. Sharp grew up in Linden, just east of Highway 99 from Stockton, and spent most of the following 30 years as an international banker in Asia, after four years as a Naval officer in that part of the world.