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A Public Service Message from the American Income Life Insurance Co.Waco, TexasBernard Rapoport, Chairman of the Board and Chief Executive Officer NOISES OFF By Lewis H. Lapham This essay first appeared in the January 1986 Harper’s, and is reprinted with permission. New York this past autumn has been busy with diplomats attending the fortieth anniversary proceedings of the United Nations, and for several weeks it has been hard to walk into a crowded room without being asked for a commentary on a geopolitical text. The matters of larger policy global environmental ruin, the collapse of the international banking system, the meaning of the Geneva summit I refer to sources more knowledgeable than myself about the likelihood of World War III. Mostly I talk to minor and unassuming officials about the weather in Tunis, the virtues of Hungarian novelists, the price of fish in Kuala Lumpur. To my surprise, I notice that few of them set much store by the example of the United States. Their indifference has nothing to do with ideology. They watch reruns of Dallas, wear blue jeans, drink Coke, and go out of their way to praise American movies, American flags, American money. They show little affection for communist systems of government or belief. Nobody denounces the evil of American imperialism; nobody preaches Marxist sermons. The travelers from abroad make a more subtle point. Without prior consultation, and probably without meaning to do so, they speak about America as if it were the Old World, not the New as if it were the past, not the future. In the evening hours of the eighteenth century, the American envoys in Paris presumably reserved similar judgments while acknowledging the perfection of the ancien regime and the loveliness of the court at Versailles. I can imagine Franklin complimenting the Princess de lamballe on a dress that cost $18,000, or Jefferson saying to the Duc d’Orleans that it was a pity he’d lost $1.5 million the previous evening at cards. I also can imagine Jefferson and Franklin thinking that neither the card game nor the dress would have made much sense in Philadelphia. Twenty years ago it was still possible to assume that everybody’s portrait of the future looked like an American postcard, that the rest of the world wished to become as much like the United States as time, money, and circumstance would permit. Other countries might not wish to own quite so splendid a military establishment, and maybe they wouldn’t have the resources to support three television networks and two divisions of the National League, but surely they knew that the very idea of the future came in an American box complete with instructions for assembling a constitution, a bill of rights, a first amendment, and a row of Marriott hotels. But to at least a few of the diplomats at the U.N. this autumn possibly an unrepresentative faction or a subversive minority the United States no longer presents itself as an ideal to which the world can safely aspire. The property costs too much: so do the furniture and the servants. A gentleman from Seoul observed that although the Korean steelworker earned less money than the American steelworker, his countryman probably lived in a better house in a better suburb and owned a better car; certainly he retained more of his income as savings, and for his children he held a higher hope of the next ten years. A lady from Canton phrased her doubts as a question: “How can America stand on the side of the future,” she asked, “when it sets the example of eating the future?” A friend had taken her shopping that afternoon on Fifth Avenue, and she had been impressed by the prices of luxury: $195 for lunch for two at the Four Seasons, $2,000 for a silk nightgown, $150 for a forty-five minute consultation with the exercise director at Elizabeth Arden. It had occurred to her that the United States had become a nation of waiters. The most recent figures show that Americans now retain only 1.9 percent of their income as savings, the lowest percentage since the government began keeping records in 1959. The banks serve the function of shills in Las Vegas casinos, hustling goldplated instruments of short-term debt and setting up speculators with the funds necessary to make a play for an oil company or an airline. The stock market rises and falls on the rumors of inside trading, and the states operate numbers rackets that compete with the gambling games run by the newspapers. The magazines publish hagiographies of the old and new rich. The ratings accorded to Dynasty and President Reagan’s staging of Star Wars measure the ethos of an age that thinks it possible to buy the future as if it were a season subscription to the Metropolitan Opera. Unlike their forebears in the late nineteenth century, the current heroes of finance display a talent for consumption but not for production. The magnates of the Gilded Age, men like Morgan, Carnegie, Harriman, and Hill, at least took the trouble to build railroads or steel mills. No matter how conspicuous their vanity, their labors added to the sum of the nation’s energy and wealth. The modern nabob is a parasite, and more often than not his story is the story of a stomach. He takes his money in fees or arranges a leveraged buy-out in which the assets of the acquired company pay the cost of its acquisition. The deals almost invariably result in the contraction rather than the expansion of the enterprise. The earnings of the new company service its debt to the past instead of its development into the future. Historical analogies deserve to be regarded with suspicion, but it is easy enough to imagine Louis XVI’s brothers, the Comte d’Artois and the Duc de Bourbon, paying the current New York rate of $20,000 for a five-minute “personalized” fireworks display. Marie Antoinette, known to the salon gossips as “Madame Deficit,” was in the habit of paying her dress designers $1 million a year, a sum that the wives of important Hollywood producers might regard as a trifle low. During the same reception at which I spoke to the lady from Canton, I ran across a prominent New York lawyer who had been disbursing funds for the reconstruction of a large apartment overlooking Central Park. His client, a woman distracted by her ambition to become acquainted with “the best people” advertised in the magazines, had already spent nearly $3 million, which is as much as it cost Marie Antoinette to build the garden at the Petit Trianon. The woman wasn’t yet satisfied. In order to make a bath and a dressing room spacious enough to accommodate her self-esteem, the contractor had broken through three walls and joined what once were two bedrooms into an arena that could bear decoration in the manner of the Louvre. Still, the result was somehow lacking in effect. That morning the woman had instructed the contractor to supply additional mirrors and to install a refrigerator in the marble wall next to the bath. “She needs the refrigerator to chill the cologne,” the lawyer said. “She says it’s demeaning to step out of a bath on a warm day and have to wear tepid cologne.” Seen from the perspective of the poorer nations, the American future begins to look like a proposition that not many people can afford. The more careful travelers, as much as they might marvel at the refined wolfishness of the American appetite, begin to think of America merely as a market, not as an idea as a melon that can be plucked, not as an example that can be followed. 6 SEPTEMBER 26, 1986