by Paul Mackintosh
In 1988, the English writer J.G. Ballard wrote a remarkable story called “The Secret History of World War 3.” The story imagined Americans so distracted by the uninterrupted televised coverage of their President’s medical condition that they failed to notice the brief exchange of nuclear missiles, between the Soviet Union and the USA, that came to be known as the Third World War. In Ballard’s telling, Ronald Reagan is so dearly missed, after his second term, that the people demand his return. Despite his serious physical and mental dilapidation, not to mention legal term limits, he resumes the office.
In their obsessive concern for the health of their political leadership, they were miraculously able to ignore a far greater threat to their own well-being. (23)
I’ve remembered this story many times in the last few months as the Americans seem mostly to be ignoring what they can see in their own neighborhoods and cities, while faithfully looking to the newspapers, radio, television and the internet to give them their “economic news.” This “news” suggests either that the economy is recovering nicely or not-so-nicely, but in a style that suggests that the economy is a thing remote from anything they might be able to inspect for themselves.
If you attend a local City Council or School Committee meeting, however, as I have been doing recently in different Rhode Island municipalities, the irrelevance of the stories of economic recovery’s ups and downs is striking. Like all American communities, these Council and School meetings are open to the public and usually attended by a small group of concerned citizens. The realities of these meetings, in nearly all the municipalities, are similar:
1. There are very serious infrastructure problems that have not been attended to for the last 5-10 years. Deferred maintenance has been the rule, as projects have been put on hold in the face of unexpected, and then not-so-unexpected deficits.
2. There has been deficit spending despite (and really because of) laws that were designed to prevent deficit spending. Rhode Island is one of several states to have passed a state-wide cap on property tax increases, and these caps have been a disaster because of course they do nothing to contain the costs that lead to the need for such increases.
3. The State government has responded to their own deficits by cutting significantly their aid to municipalities. In East Providence, for example, these cuts will be between 1.5 and 2 million dollars between now and July!
4. What is proposed by City and School leaders are a variety of schemes that always involve enormous amounts of Federal assistance, and unrealistic assumptions about how much of their State’s slice of that Federal pie their own municipality is likely to receive.
5. Finally, in the case of nearly all municipalities (and states as well), the pension burden is growing so fast that in several communities it will be in the 40-50% range in the next couple of years (i.e. 40-50 cents of every revenue dollar will have to be used to service the pensions).
These are five features of local economic life in the United States that all Americans can inspect for themselves, and yet they are rarely attended to by large portions of the population and rarely discussed by large numbers of citizens. Instead one hears about unemployment in the aggregate, or various national statistics concerning home sales, prices, or consumer confidence, which are at best consequences of important measures rather than clear indicators in themselves.
There is certainly a kind of fantasy at work here, and it’s one I think Ballard recognized in his story more than twenty years ago.
I switched off the set and sat back in the strange silence. A small helicopter was crossing the grey sky over Washington. Almost as an afterthought, I said to Susan: “By the way, World War 3 has just ended.” (31)
Ballard’s vision of Reagan’s third term is of course far more terrifying that anything facing Americans now, but unfortunately the deep economic problems facing nearly every town and city in the United States have none of the hilarity of that vision and are almost certainly not to be contained in a short story. Yet Americans still seem determined, if not exactly content, to distract themselves with the suspense of the economic pulses being broadcast on the screen.