How Much Growth

One of the major issues facing the American public in the late 20th century had to do with growth. Economic growth has been at the core of American success: despite periodic depressions or recessions, the U.S. economy over time has continued to grow. The economic "pie" was always getting large enough for new generations of immigrants to carve themselves a slice.

Still, the voices of those who argue that a high rate of economic growth cannot be maintained, or perhaps might have to be forcibly constrained, had become increasingly loud. While no one accepted all the positions taken by nogrowth or slow-growth advocates, there clearly had been a weakening of belief in the idea that unconstrained, uninhibited growth was automatically good in itself.

For example, the development of land was being questioned as never before. In the 1990s, developers were required to file environmental impact reports with various levels of government. Local planning commissions and a number of federal agencies, such as the
Environmental Protection Agency, were conducting research and administering programs in the name of safe, well-planned, economic development.

How much pollution is too much? How much open space are Americans willing to abandon in the drive to create new jobs? How many jobs should be sacrificed in order to protect endangered wildlife? (Some Americans were delighted -- and others enraged -- by a decision in 1991 to curtail timber cutting in certain federal forests in order to preserve the existence of an endangered species of owl.) How will decisions on these and other questions affect the overall quality of life? These are hard issues that generate almost as many opinions as there are interested parties.

Similar concerns on a global level were making their way to the forefront of U.S. policymakers' agendas (as well as those of other nations): How to deal with environmental challenges such as climate change, ozone depletion, deforestation and marine pollution. Will coal-burning power plants and gasoline-powered automobiles have to be constrained to limit emissions of carbon dioxide and other "greenhouse" gases, so-called because they are believed to contribute to a phenomenon known as global warming? If global warming occurs, will it lead to devastating changes, such as the destruction of rich agriculture-producing areas like the American heartland? Because of the huge size of its economy, the United States has necessarily become a major actor in such matters.

These questions and others like them go to the crux of the debate about future economic growth. What is an acceptable level of economic inequality in a nation as affluent as the United States? Would a prolonged period of slow or no growth, coupled with declining real incomes bring with it a host of new and possibly explosive social, political and economic problems -- problems that can barely be discerned from today's perspective?

Given the continuing existence of budget deficits, not just at the federal level, but also at the state and local levels, public funds seem sure to be limited. Will government maintain its role of watchdog and regulator? What will become of the services provided by the various forms of government? Will they be increasingly turned over to the private sector? Should such services continue to be provided at all?

As in the past, the decisions made in the future will substantially affect the shape and character of the U.S. economy.

Thus, more than two centuries after the birth of their nation, Americans continue to face many challenges. But as they had done 200 years earlier, immigrants continued to flood into the United States. In the 1990s, they were no longer coming in such great numbers from Europe, but from Asia and Latin America. For them, America was still what it had always been: the land of opportunity.