A Turn for the Worse

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A Turn for the Worse by James Howard Kunstler

The Democratic Party has steered itself into an exquisitely neurotic predicament at a peculiar moment of history. Senator Bernie Sanders set the tone for the shift to full-throated socialism, and the primary election win of 28-year-old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in a New York congressional district seems to have ratified it. She promised voters free college tuition, single-payer health care, and free housing. Ah, to live in such a utopia!

One can actually understand why New Yorkers especially would fall for that agenda of promises. When I was a child there in the 1950s and 60s, New York was a mostly middle-class city. City College of New York, with a really distinguished faculty, was free. That’s right, stone free. Much of that middle-class was educated there, including most of my high school teachers. In the 1950s and 60s, it cost a few hundred dollars to have a baby in the hospital, and less than that to receive three stictches in the ER. Back then, New York real estate was mostly rental housing and not subject to the deformations of wandering global capital.

You can’t overstate how fortunate this country was after the Second World War. The mid-twentieth century was the apex of American industrial wealth. We produced real goods and lived in extraordinary comfort. Now, of course that has all turned around, the industry is mostly bygone, the magnificent energy supply is getting sketchy, and all that’s left is a false-front financialized economy based on swindling and accounting fraud. Medicine and health care have become unabashed rackets, and good luck finding a place to live for less than half of your monthly income.

Things have changed, as Bob Dylan once noted in song, and the times they are a changing once again. This is probably the worst time in recent history to go full-bore socialist. Look, it’s as simple as this: the 20th century saw the greatest rise of global GDP ever. The prospect of that is what drove the various socialisms of the period — the belief that there would be evermore material wealth and that a lot of it had to be fairly redistributed to the workers who brought into being. You can debate the finer socio-ethical points of that — and indeed that’s what much of politics consisted of throughout the industrialized world — but the stunning bonanza of wealth compelled it.

That is the world we are moving out of right now, despite the fantasies of Elon Musk and the many techno pied pipers like him. GDP growth has stalled, the implacable trend is toward contraction, and the wizards of financial hocus-pocus are running out of tricks for pretending that they create anything of value. In short: there’s no there there. All that’s left are IOUs for loans that will never be paid back — and that kind of loan (especially in the form of a bond) doesn’t have any value.

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James Howard Kunstler

James Howard Kunstler says he wrote The Geography of Nowhere, “Because I believe a lot of people share my feelings about the tragic landscape of highway strips, parking lots, housing tracts, mega-malls, junked cities, and ravaged countryside that makes up the everyday environment where most Americans live and work.” Home From Nowhere was a continuation of that discussion with an emphasis on the remedies. A portion of it appeared as the cover story in the September 1996 Atlantic Monthly. His next book in the series, The City in Mind: Notes on the Urban Condition, published by Simon & Schuster / Free Press, is a look a wide-ranging look at cities here and abroad, an inquiry into what makes them great (or miserable), and in particular what America is going to do with it’s mutilated cities.