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American Capitalism, Debt and Tailwind

by Paul Snitzer

“God bless the U.S.A., so large,
So friendly, and so rich.” W.H. Auden, On the Circuit

The poet W.H. Auden, born in England, recorded these and other partially tongue-in-cheek, but partially heartfelt, observations about America in 1965, when the country’s gross national product was $742 billion, or $3,800 per person. By 2018 America’s gross national product was $20.5 trillion, or $63,000 per person. Adjusting for inflation, America in 2018 was about two and a half times richer than the land Auden had observed in 1965. We can presume that Auden, had he lived until 2018, would have continued to find the U.S.A. “so rich” and “so large” (and before we scoff at the notion that Auden would also still find us “so friendly,” we should put away our nostalgia for 1965 and remember that that year saw the rapid escalation of US military forces in Vietnam, violent attacks one “bloody Sunday” against civil rights marchers near a bridge in Selma, Alabama, and that two years earlier JFK was assassinated).

In any event, Auden was not the first observer of America to be startled by its wealth, although the humor and poignancy of his poem is likely unique. As Alan Greenspan, the chair of the Federal Reserve from 1987 to 2006, reminds us in his recent book, Capitalism in America, Alexis de Tocqueville, another great foreign-born observer of America, found during his travels in the early 1830s that “the entire society is a factory” and that he knew “of no country, indeed, where wealth has taken a stronger hold on the affections of men.”

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