Henwood does a superb job of illuminating many of the ironies of the Ninties, whether simply quoting George Gilder (who Henwood notes, rivals Whitman as an exuberant list-maker) or pointing out that the phrase "New Economy" was first used by President Reagan in a speech at Moscow State University.
Too good to be true--but it is.
And Henwood underlines how, from the very beginning, the New Economy rested on a flight from the physical world. He quotes Reagan: "In the new eocnomy human invention increasingly makes natural resources obsolete."
While the Bush admnistration's environmental policy could be read as an attempt to fulfill Reagan's dream, world markets are now telling us that natural resources are far from out of vogue. Copper, gold, silver, oil, wheat--today, this is where wealth resides. Demand for these resources is rising in parts of the world where higher productivity actually means higher standards of living for a significant number of people.
By contrast, Henwood shows how, in the West,the productivity revolution of the Nineties produced more, always more, of things that, in many cases, we don't need and couldn't afford.The miracle? They were doing it with fewer people. Jobs vanish (though Henwood shows, low-wage jobs are growing at nice clip), debt mounts, the dollar declines.
And, he notes, in some cases what we produce may even lower the standard of living: "The contribution of the brokerage industry to productivity was mainly web-based trading; how much it contributes to human welfare is debatable. The more people trade, the worse they do (though it makes their brokers happier.)"
Henwood deconstructs GDP, and productivity numbers emphasizing the "statistical fetishism" surrounding both, asking important questions about the quality rather than just the quantity of what is produced (does it offer a gain for human possibilities or a loss?) and offering perhaps the clearest explanation I have seen of the fuzzy math involved in guesstimating both GDP and productivity growth.
Finally, in just a few pages he offers a fine analysis of how "so much of the last twenty years comes together in the Enron story . . . Lay's assetless trading model was right in line with the celebration of postmateriality. The pension system was right in line with New Era pension thinking. And relying on the stock market to judget he company and pay senior managers was right in line with all of the trendy talk from professors and consultants. And it all went badly wrong." Here, Henwood makes what may be his most important point: "But instead of being read as a judgment on the idiocy of all these fashions, it's being read as a case of personal corruption . . . " Our obsessive focus on crime--and putting the perps in jail--may be emotionally satisfying for some, but it too-neatly dodges the heart of the problem. The real problem was not that individuals corrupted the system--the real problem was that the ideology of the new paradigm was, itself, bankrupt.
Yet that ideology is still driving the U.S. economy. Just take a look at stock market valuations--or, better yet, the President's Economic Report. But first read this book.