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Depend on Facebook For Smutty Photos, Not Economic Prosperity

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It pains me to be a killjoy, but I cannot join the gush of enthusiasm that Facebook constitutes any reassurance about the innate and imperishable American genius for wealth creation.

Mark Zuckerberg deserves great credit, of course, for a genius idea and the tenacity and ingenuity to make a great fortune at a very young age. The accessibility of the summits of American wealth creation for a young and inventive person are things to celebrate. The vagaries of his personality -- summarized in The Social Network in which his Ivy League girlfriend said that having a relationship with him was like being on a Stairmaster -- are irrelevant and mere tittle-tattle.

But this isn't really wealth creation, other than for Zuckerberg and his immediate associates. Again, this is no rap on him -- he didn't hold himself out as the pathfinder to American economic recovery. Unfortunately, there is no shortage of beleaguered and deluded Americans who see this rapid transition from collegiate vision, initiative and sharp business practice into great wealth as indicative of America's ineluctable will and vocation for economic prosperity.

I'm not on Facebook and I accept the circumscription of my qualifications to be too declarative about its use and content, but as far as I can see, it is essentially the recording and transmission of utterly mindless reflections, mainly between boring and under-occupied people.

We already knew from the pestilential ubiquity of cellphones that even a casual stroll on almost any urban sidewalk becomes an itinerant and discordant cacophony of vapid half-conversations. The unlimited and universal access to instant communication highlighted the absurdity and dispensability of most social contact.

The venerable, such as me, remember lamentations over teenagers tying up the family telephone, or even the party line, with adolescent chatter. Now, everyone inflicts upon all acquaintances, as urgent bulletins, every trip to the mall or fleeting sensation of road rage or some other irritation. The most mundane and inconsequential fill 95 per cent of the vacuum that has been created by instant communication. It is of a piece with the thousand-channel television service and, all too soon, with Internet picture definition as clear as television, the infinite variety available on the screen. In the one as in the other, the editorial function has been drowned like the crew and steerage class passengers of the Titanic. Everyone says everything to everyone and the average intellectual level of discourse descends to subterranean depths of fatuity.

These are the sociological consequences. It is apparently true that social media has helped destabilize some despotic regimes, but they have also empowered criminals. In the London riots last year, vandals warned each other of police presence, so those who broke into shoe and clothing stores were able to try on what they fancied to be sure it fit before they stole it. But I am unable to discern any net benefit from this vertiginously increased exchange of spontaneous cyber-verbosity.

Economically, almost no jobs are created in the principal user countries, apart from a few salespeople. It is not like the great advances of industrial history: the light bulb, the telephone, the Bessamer steel-refining process, the suspension bridge, steam locomotive, the automobile, even radio, television and motion pictures, baneful though they have been in some ways. All spawned colossal industries and ancillary industries that generated new skills and the creation of large numbers of jobs, and economic growth by marrying a need to a product or service and increasing the multiplier effect of invested units of currency that ramified into higher levels of education, and social services eventually. There is no such discernible benefit here, and, indeed, the illusion of such benefit is a negative.

The entire Western economy is in a distressed condition, except for the resource economies that prosper from the higher recent growth rates of populous countries newly converted to the virtues of economic growth, especially China, India and Indonesia, with almost 40 per cent of the world's population. The chief beneficiaries are resource-rich Australia and Canada, but almost all the rest of the West is stagnating under the weight of collapsed birthrates and out-priced manufacturing, and over-addiction to the temptation of the service industry economy, and the dead hand of the public sector in particular.

Facebook, though both the company and its founder are guiltless in this, has inspired the unwitting with the idea that this form of undoubted ingenuity and enterprise will contribute to economic recovery and a new era of American and Western prosperity that will keep millions of insecure job-holders in occupations that are essentially unproductive, and that the reckoning with the present crisis will be less serious than is feared.

There are far too many people doing unproductive white collar work, starting with lawyers. (That occupation, fortunately, is finally paying for its milking of society, as senior partners take steady cuts in pay to honour extravagant promises to younger recruits from law schools. Thomas E. Dewey's old law firm is just the tip of the iceberg.) There is an insufficient number of people working in any gainful occupation to sustain the levels of benefit most western countries have attained in the relentless political endeavour to bribe democratic populations with their own money. More people will have to work in ways that actually add value in the extraction and transformation of resources and products, instead of just pushing papers and giving opinions; more people will have to contribute to the economy rather than clog the benefit rolls. Facebook is, in this context, an innocent distraction.

Finally, the IPO was an outrage. No company can sustain a market multiple of 100 times gross income for long. Morgan Stanley were both insane and unethical in trying to hit the highest possible opening number. And the spectacle of J.P. Morgan Chase chairman Jamie Dimon interrupting his emergency sessions over mysterious trading losses of over $2 billion to don a hoodie to meet Mark Zuckerberg could become an epochal moment in the history of American economic crises, like Herbert Hoover's "The economy is fundamentally sound" and George W. Bush's "The sucker could go down." (He was referring to the U.S. economy, not the electorate that had twice elected him to his great office.)

As I wrote at the outset, I hate to be a killjoy, but Facebook, in economic terms, is a mirage, other than for Zuckerberg and anyone else who has founders' stock. It illustrates the need for salvation, not the road to follow to achieve it.