I saw this Citibank commercial today and it just about made me ill. It begins with Jonathon Rose, a developer, noting that America’s population is projected to grow by 90 million people over the next 40 years, and he speaks of what a great challenge it will be to grow and develop cities to handle all these people, and he speaks glowingly of how wonderful it will be.
Wonderful for developers like him and, of course, it won’t do their financiers – like Citibank – any harm either. Both will make a killing. But consider this: America’s population grew by 90 million over the last 40 years. Do you think we’re better off for it? The fact is that the top one or two percent of Americans are better off. But the middle class has fallen behind. And poverty rates are at a record level. Unemployment (the real kind, not the number that the Bureau of Labor Statistics publishes) hovers just above 10% and 17 million Americans are out of work. It wasn’t like this 40 years ago. And 40 years from now, today’s economy will look like the good old days.
I bring up this commercial because it illustrates one of the key points that I tried to make in Five Short Blasts - that beyond some critical population density, the interests of business and the interests of individual citizens – once in alignment – begin to diverge. It’s in the best interest of business that the population continue to grow forever. As the population grows, so too does total consumption of all products. As total consumption grows, so too do corporate profits. If 310 million people in the U.S. consume 310 million widgets, and 400 million people will consume 350 million widgets, then you’ve sold an additional 40 million. What do you care if the per capita consumption of widgets has declined and, along with it, the number of people with jobs? As long as your company is making the widgets, you’re doing great.
But unless you’re someone high up in the Widget Co. hierarchy, you’re not doing so well. Because per capita consumption has declined, unemployment is higher and it’s putting downward pressure on your wages. You’re fearful of losing your job – with so many people eager to do your job for less. And your world is a dirtier, more crowded place, one in which rising poverty is taking its toll on government’s ability to provide an adequate safety net.
So whose interests do you think will hold sway, yours or Citibank’s? Where do you think your congressman will turn for campaign donations – to you or to Citibank? And then who do you think he/she will listen to?