- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 28, 2000

There is a little-known fable of Aesop that recalls the tale of a man on his deathbed speaking with his two sons. He tells them that he has buried a treasure in the family vineyard. After the father's death, the sons dig and till feverishly, finding nothing. When their inadvertent agricultural efforts yield the biggest bumper crop in years, they become richer than they had ever thought possible.

Dinesh D'Souza, in his "The Virtue of Prosperity: Finding Values in an Age of Techno-Affluence," promises that we too will find a utopian treasure trove in the vineyard of the new economy if only we keep digging enough. Unlike Aesop's mythological father, however, Mr. D'Souza warns of several potential thorny patches we may find along the way.

The author of "Illiberal Education," "The End of Racism" and "Ronald Reagan: How an Ordinary Man Became an Extraordinary Leader" begins his new book quite in character: optimistic, pro-growth and Reaganesque. He touts the productivity improvements in the economy in the last two decades and (quite correctly) gives much of the credit to the 40th president. One of the results of this new economy is the dot-com millionaire the millionaire next door.

Mr. D'Souza demonstrates through convincing economic statistics and cultural trends that the rich have indeed gotten richer, much richer, but so have the poor and middle class become better off. In the 19th century, there were only a handful of millionaires. By 1980, there were 13,500 such households. Today, close to 500,000 people earn a million dollars a year. As a result, standards of living have increased across the board.

All is not well in this gilded city, however. Potential storm clouds lurk on the horizon, according to the author, and how they are addressed will be key to U.S. and world policy debates well into this new century.

First, despite the fact that almost everyone is doing better than they were before, persistent social inequality still exists, and the gap between rich and poor shows no sign of closing. (This seems more a problem of ideology than reality, since everyone has made gains.)

In a related vein, the power that comes with wealth has caused a certain license among the new rich and those who benefit from their productivity. Moral constraints that more readily bound those in humbler economic circumstances are in danger of giving way to a Roman debauch of moneyed excess. Finally, the ability to use technology to manipulate our bodies will inexorably draw us closer to being able to alter the very form of human nature itself.

These issues and more simmer just under the surface of our collective political and social consciousness and are known in a general way by all interested observers. Those that care enough to take a stand invariably fall into a pro or con opinion about this vision of the near future. Mr. D'Souza calls them "The Party of Yeah" and "The Party of Nah."

The "Yeahs" tend to be young Gen-Xer types, centered in the American West, optimistic, unfamiliar with real material scarcity, and firm believers in progress. "Nahs" are quite the opposite: disaffected souls, worried about various social indicators, readers of books like "The Lonely Crowd" and "Bowling Alone," and they can come from either the political left or right; two such types ran for president this year: Ralph Nader and Patrick J. Buchanan.

The author does not cast himself with either side. Instead, and to the occasional frustration of his reader, Mr. D'Souza picks and chooses by issue and often leaves one wondering where in fact he stands. For instance, he questions the moral efficacy of man's genetic manipulation via technology in the extreme, but sees some achievable shorter-term prospects as being for the good.

Nonetheless, Mr. D'Souza seems more affiliated with the "Yeahs," though in a moderated form. He believes that increased prosperity can be a good, since it increases the opportunity to be virtuous. This all depends on one's definition of virtue, of course, and his formulation strikes one as illogical when the inverse is considered: Does less wealth incline one toward vice? Charity, justice and moderation cost nothing, so one would say not. After all, we know that crime rates dropped during the Great Depression.

To be fair, Mr. D'Souza does not view the prosperity of the new economy as a panacea, separating himself from the "Party of Yeah" to that extent. This is reason to be grateful, for when thoughtful men like Mr. D'Souza begin seeing heaven in a fat paycheck, it is indeed time to return to the catacombs. Still, by proposing a wait-and-see attitude to several core issues, including those central to what Pope John Paul II has called the culture of death, the author misses an opportunity to take a stand firmly against material dehumanization of a kind that would make many of us pine for the simplicity of tending our vines.

Ryan Ellis is a policy analyst and writer in Washington.

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