July 17, 1997 in City

It Looks Good Now, But The End Is Near

William Safire New York Times
 
Tags:column

Those of us whose job it is to view the world through alarm-colored glasses are having a very tough summer. The good news keeps piling up.

The dollar is strengthening against the franc and mark because the Europeans can’t get their act together and we did our downsizing years ago. That means a bottle of wine, as well as imported still water, is tantalizingly cheaper for Americans.

Epidemics are coming under control and welfare rolls are shrinking. The Food and Drug Administration bureaucracy snapped out of its lethargy long enough to approve an anti-plaque dentifrice that enables modern mothers to wash their kids’ mouths out with soap. Meanwhile, a potency potion on the horizon for both sexes is getting the geezer generation all excited.

Peace is breaking out all over the world. War criminals are belatedly being given a hard time - resist arrest and make my day - while political reformers from Mexico City to Moscow are riding high. Astronomers with roving eyes are thinking of renaming planets (Mars is too warlike, Venus sexist).

Economics, which Thomas Carlyle dubbed “the dismal science,” is now the delirious science. Inflation is a spent balloon and unemployment a relative joke. The Euphoria Index (new-job creation plus productivity gains multiplied by the percentage rise in consumer confidence) is making new highs every day.

Which brings us to the stock market. A few years ago executives had to rent the Glomar Explorer to observe their company’s stock options, but now they’re up here drying in the warm sunshine of runaway prosperity. Who would have thought that lowering the capital gains tax would become a populist issue - with the populists in favor?

Such a happy combination of peace, progress and prosperity is not without its downside. It has driven professional pessimists - “prophets of gloom and doom” and “troubadours of trouble” who see the tank half-empty - into disarray.

Wall Street bears are stuffed and hung on the wall. The Union of Concerned Scientists’ clock has been wound back to two minutes past noon. As catastrophists in every field suffer their worst disaster, Gloomy Gus has become a laughingstock.

In journalism, too, naysayers are in a rout. Upbeat reporters focus on the ho-hum reaction rather than the underlying action and cover the coverage rather than advance the story. Sight-bite newsmaggies declare Senate hearings not geared to a one-week attention span or seven-second sound nibble to be “not ready for prime time.” All this goes right to the top and is reflected in opinion polls. As we “laissez les bons temps rouler,” the president of the United States, Reno-loose and fancy-Freeh, rides this wave of national positivism and worldwide well-being to new crests of popularity.

What’s missing? What element does the nation need to give sharp definition to the picture of unrelieved optimism - to remind good pilgrims that the Man with the Muckrake, his gaze eternally cast downward, fails to see the glorious celestial crown offered to him?

Needed at this moment is a contrarian. No garden party is complete without its skunk. Who will volunteer to click on the icon of the iconoclast, to provide the partying populace with the low mutter of a jeremiad, to be the happy society’s scapegoat for the sin of negativism, to present a target to be hooted at with universal glee?

I volunteer. Here I stand scruffily in sandwich boards, proclaiming my deviant doctrine.

You see this article in Foreign Affairs titled “The End of the Business Cycle?” and assuring baby boomers no babybust is ahead? I say hogwash. You’re going to see a correction one of these days that will curl your hair, followed by a year in the doldrums before the next recovery.

Count on the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse as an entry in the Belmont Stakes, computer crashing on Millennium Morning, and the unexpected social consequences of the geezer-sex pill. Brace yourself for the dreary data in indictments handed up on Hubbell and Hillary followed by the Great Popularity Plunge.

All this loathed melancholy do I provide as a summertime public service. Repent! The end is near.

xxxx


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