Economic optimism offers opportunity for future

September 03, 1999|By Ronald Brownstein

NEW YORK -- More than color and line explode off the paintings collected in the final gallery of the Whitney Museum's mammoth survey of American art during this century's first 50 years. Self-confidence leaps from the canvases too.

It's a great irony. For years, few Americans accepted the abstract expressionist painters -- names like Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning -- whose works were celebrated in the recent Whitney exhibit as the culmination of the nation's artistic maturation.

Yet in their barrier-breaking innovation -- so powerful that it shifted the center of the Western art world from Europe to America -- the abstract expressionists were the perfect emblem of a society rediscovering its self-confidence.

Having surmounted the Depression and defeated fascism, America in 1950 -- the year that Pollock and several of his contemporaries produced their greatest work -- was beginning a sustained economic boom that would dispel anxieties and doubts. There was optimism.

By the late 1960s -- after the turmoil of Vietnam and race riots and the sexual revolution -- no one would describe America as optimistic. Nor would that word have applied to the America of the 1970s or 1980s.

It has only been in the long boom of the 1990s that Americans have started to recapture the optimism that the post-World War II generation took for granted. The Internet and computer revolution virtually have banished the fear that the American economy was doomed to decline.

In one Gallup Organization poll earlier this year, 71 percent of Americans said that the economy was the best in their lifetime.

That optimism -- qualified by anxiety about the nation's moral direction and lingering concerns about living standards for less-skilled workers -- is a national asset, no less than factories and universities.

Raging optimism

In synergistic fashion, today's economic optimism -- coupled with the technology-driven prosperity that undergirds it -- provides the means to expand opportunity for coming generations. Prosperity creates the resources to invest in tomorrow.

History will judge today's Americans by how they use this opportunity. The post-World War II generations offer a mixed precedent. In some ways they were myopic. Until the mid-1960s, they largely averted their eyes from poverty and state-sponsored segregation -- the defining moral challenges of their time.

But in other ways, post-World War II America admirably invested in its future. The GI bill opened college to more Americans than ever. To accommodate the baby boom, states and cities went on a school-building crusade so enormous that, even today, nearly half of the public schools in use were built from 1950 through 1969.

In the same spirit, Washington built the interstate highway system and poured billions into scientific research.

In all, through the 1960s, federal investment in education and training, infrastructure (like roads) and research consistently constituted about one-third of Washington's budget -- an amount equal to about 6 percent of the gross domestic product.

Today investment makes up just 14 percent of the federal budget -- an amount equal to 2.7 percent of GDP. The country is not totally ignoring its responsibilities to the next generations -- but the need is outpacing the response.

In just one example, the amount spent annually to build new grade schools or to renovate existing ones has increased from $9.3 billion in 1989 to $17.1 billion now. But with enrollment exploding (the Census Bureau recently reported that the number of children in K-12 grades is now approaching the record of 49 million in 1970), school districts are still struggling to keep up. So much so that fully 42 percent of the schools built before 1970 have not even been renovated in the last 20 years.

Budget priorities

Yet to varying degrees, both Congress and the Clinton administration have overly tilted their budget priorities toward the voters with the most electoral power now -- the baby boomers and their older siblings who dominate upper income brackets.

Republicans want to lavish them with tax cuts today. President Clinton wants to pour most of the federal surplus into their Social Security and Medicare benefits tomorrow.

Neither side gives enough priority to the steps most valuable for tomorrow's workers: increasing public investments that can support their future productivity and paying down the national debt to slash interest costs and give them more control over the federal budget.

An economic plan focused on the next century would favor debt reduction over tax reduction and spending on public investments over spending on entitlements. As emphatically as the mesmerizing images of the abstract expressionists, such an agenda would stand as the lasting mark of a nation confident enough to place its own stamp on the future.

Ronald Brownstein is a national correspondent for the Los Angeles Times.

Pub Date: 9/03/99

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