The 'Truman Show' Economy

A Northern Ireland county made news this week when it literally created a false front of prosperity for dignitaries in town for the G8 conference. The Irish Times reports that County

Fermanagh spent roughly PS300,000 ($456,000 at today's exchange rates) to conceal the shuttered storefronts and empty buildings left behind by economy-killing austerity cuts.

They were too close to the "sumptuous" resort where the meeting's being held, says the Times:

The (boarded-up) butcher's business has been replaced by a picture of a butcher's business .... A small business premises has been made to look like an office supplies store ... billboard-sized pictures of the gorgeous scenery have been located to mask the occasional stark and abandoned building site or other eyesore.

Many observers have called it a "Potemkin village."

That expression which dates back to the (probably apocryphal) story about the head of Russia's Crimean military campaign, who allegedly created false villages along the Dnieper River to reassure Czarina Catherine II that all was well as she sailed past.

"If only the Czar knew ..."

It would certainly embarrass British Prime Minister (and austerity extremist) David Cameron to let his peers see the fruits of his economic philosophy in a region which, while largely self-governing is still part of Great Britain.

But they've already seen austerity's results - in unemployment and gross domestic product figures, discredited spreadsheets, and greater deficits. That's why even conservative Germany joined with France in a "New Deal for Europe's youth," as U.S. leaders debate additional austerity measures in the land of the first New Deal.

The deceptions go on anyway. It's been a "false-front" economy for nearly five years. Ireland's deception was ours, in physical form.

Welcome to the "Truman Show" economy.

The Show Must Go On

"The Truman Show" was the 1998 movie in which Jim Carrey slowly realizes that his entire life is a televised illusion. He thinks he lives in an idyllic suburban neighborhood with a loving wife. Nobody wants him to discover the truth because the TV show's so profitable.

There have been many works with this false-reality theme, including Robert Heinlein's classic short-story "They." But the true genesis of the "Truman Show" plotline seems to be Philip K. Dick's 1959 novel "Time Out of Joint," whose protagonist begins to realize his postwar American life is an illusion when he finds that the soft-drink stand in the park is missing. In its place is a piece of paper that says "Hot Dog stand."

From there his entire world unravels. He learns that he's living, not in an idyllic America of the postwar industrial boom, but in a grim and battle-scarred nation at war with its own space colonies. (In 1998!) An imaginary life's been created so that he can be tricked into doing daily "puzzles" to support his nation's endless interplanetary war.

Dick's title comes from a line of Shakespeare's, where Hamlet realizes that the "time" of his kingdom is dislocated (or "out of joint").

"O cursed spite," says the prince, "That ever I was born to set it right! Come, let's go together."

Nation Out of Joint

Much of what we hear nowadays hides a grim reality - not just from our leaders, but from us. Our economy's at war, not with off-world colonies, but with a majority of its participants. To keep us participating in that effort we must be convinced we're living in - or are about to live in - a booming economy with a thriving middle class and genuine social mobility.

But beneath the cheerful reports, it's a Philip K. Dick world out there:

Housing and car sales looking up? Housing's being fueled by Fed-driven lending rates, and could be another bubble. Car sales might largely be the result of pent-up demand.

Jobs situation improving? Long-term unemployment remains at levels unmatched in modern history. The jobs that are being created are low-paying and menial. Under-employment is also extraordinarily high.

Middle class bouncing back? Americans have recovered less than half the wealth lost in the 2008 crisis, and the wealthiest among us got most of that. By capturing 121 percent of post-recovery gains, the top 1 percent actually used the majority's rescue to seize even more of the national wealth.

"Land of Opportunity"? And that made a bad situation worse. Social mobility had declined sharply even before the crisis. The real-dollar cost of a higher education, the key to economic advancement, has tripled for American families since the 1980s. And younger generations are wracked with record unemployment (the official figure's now 16.2 percent; the real one's worse) that is scarring their resumes and crippling their lifetime earning potential.

Stock market booming? The stock market's rise is fueled by cheap Fed money. More investors are borrowing to invest and are potentially over-leveraged. Revenue growth and other indicators are worrisome. The market's a house of cards - and the winds are rising.

Breaking the Illusion

We need to reverse these grim economic trends before they become permanent. That will take a smart and aggressive program of investment, infrastructure development, education expansion, and job creation.

We can do it. But first we'll need to tear down the illusions that prevent us from seeing things as they really are. We don't need to go down tragically, like Hamlet. But the times are out of joint and only we can set them right.

Come, let's go together.