The gross domestic product per resident in 1998 was over 29,000 dollars, among the highest in the world and yet lower than that of Luxembourg, Switzerland, Norway, Denmark, Japan. There are numerous pockets of poverty, both in the rural areas of the old South (Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, etc.) and, especially, in the run-down inner cities. But there is also a very large intermediate class, which guarantees the consumption of the gigantic internal market, the first reason for the country’s economic strength.
Agriculture (only 2, 7 % of the workforce is officially assigned to the sector, but part-time is widely practiced), the food industry, restaurant chains, supermarkets, but also the numerous minor affiliations of companies apparently individual, they form a gigantic apparatus that guarantees a capillary distribution at popular prices of widely consumed products and foods; if official direct employment in agriculture is reduced, it is nevertheless estimated that related activities employ 16% of assets. Agriculture operates at the cost of significant environmental problems, such as accelerated soil erosion, especially in some sections of the Great Plains, the excessive use of pesticides and the intensive exploitation of aquifers, especially in semi-arid regions. Therefore, the recent diffusion of sustainable agriculture and the so-called metropolitan agriculture take on considerable symbolic and practical value. Although the area destined for cultivation has remained constant since the Second World War (around 20 % of the land area), large agricultural strips of high quality have been lost due to urbanization.
Sustainable agriculture spreads thanks to a greater collective awareness and to the action of the Federal Government, aimed at soil conservation, the protection of the most productive agricultural lands from non-agricultural uses, the treatment of livestock waste to avoid pollution of soil and water, and finally to the reduction of non-renewable energy production processes. According to a survey by the Department of Agriculture, from 1982 to 1992 soil erosion dependent on agriculture would have reduced by at least 1 billion tonnes per year. The Conservation Reserve Program is in place, with technical assistance to farms, which aims to save another 700 millions of tons of potentially erodible soil. Furthermore, the measures envisaged by the Farmland Protection Policy Act and the Agricultural Reconciliation Act (laws of 1982 and 1990) have been implemented more effectively in recent years.
Metropolitan agriculture is practiced near large urban areas and also within megalopolitan regions. It is characterized by the smaller areal size of the farms, by the large use of part time, for productions more connected to daily urban consumption or in any case of short duration (vegetables, fruit, some dairy products). Even in forestry, less destructive criteria are making their way than in the past, especially in the North-West, which hosts the largest forest area, but also in the South-East, with the expansion of mixed deciduous and coniferous forests, partly by cutting periodic. The US remain the largest producers of corn in the world (annual average, over 2.3 billions of q), but the crop that has spread the most in recent decades is that of soy (annual average, 700 million q), of which the country is also the largest producer and which is sometimes exported, like wheat, as a political-strategic tool.
Alternative energy sources have experienced a significant expansion in recent years, in particular through the installation of thousands of wind generators in the Imperial Valley and Altamont Pass, California, as well as in Arizona and other regions of the Southwest; some hydroelectric plants were expanded, others reopened; however, the colossal amount of energy that the US consume as the largest industrialized country in the world still derives mainly from hydrocarbons and hard coal: despite massive imports, the US remains the second largest oil producer in the world after Saudi Arabia; moreover, after China, they are the largest producer of coal. Nuclear power plants are still numerous and supply around 20% of electricity, despite the slowdown in the construction of new plants and the closure of older or less secure ones.
The electronics, aeronautics and space industries (the merger in 1996 is worth notingof Boeing with McDonnell Douglas, which gave birth to the largest aerospace company in the world), the same applied technological research developed in universities but more often in specially equipped areas, now numerous (Massachusetts, Texas, North Carolina, California, Arizona, Washington, etc.), the restructured automotive industry are driving sectors of the economy, but the companies specialized in mixed industrial-tertiary services have experienced considerable development for some time, as have the tertiary and quaternary sectors (i.e. the managerial-organizational tertiary sector) ; the companies projected on a global scale in the US are the most numerous in the world, even if the country has known for some time the phenomenon of globalization and transnationalization in its own territory, thanks to capital investments from Japan and Europe. NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement), a free trade agreement between Canada, the US and Mexico, which entered into force in 1994, aims at the complete elimination of customs barriers in 15 years, and follows partial agreements between the US and Canada. In this regard, a planned expansion of NAFTA and some signs of economic recovery in the West (California has created 700. 000 jobs between 1994 and 1997) seem destined to accelerate the relocation of production processes and enterprise mobilization and people, with a view to consolidating the development of the country towards the Pacific.
The airport network (which also affects some Canadian cities) and that of the interstate highways constitute the circulatory system of the economic-social organism of the United States. Within the Atlantic megalopolitan region there are 5 huge airports (Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington) and at least 10 othersof intermediate importance; the megalopolitan region of the Great Lakes, as well as the Californian region, has numerous other airports, in addition to the large Chicago-O’Hare airport and that of Detroit, which has several medium-large airports in addition to the giants of San Francisco and Los Angeles. But grandiose and modern stopovers serve Atlanta, Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, Phoenix, Denver, Miami, Orlando, Tampa-Saint Petersbourg, Saint Louis and again New Orleans and Seattle. The average stopovers, at the level of a good non-intercontinental European airport, are at least a hundred. The interstate highways system spans 69. 000 km and connects 90 % of the centers with more than 50,000 residents. Although this network represents just over 1 % of the length of US roads, both urban and suburban, it collects over 20 % of traffic. Since many interstate highways, and the bridges connected to them, also act as axes of urban crossing, sometimes even inside the downtowns of the metropolises, they have certainly facilitated urban sprawl., which was mentioned at the beginning, and commuting. The railway network is still widely used for freight transport, while the main passenger lines (managed by the federal Amtrack) are active only between large urban areas, and yet road transport is increasing even over long distances. Some metropolitan areas, such as Los Angeles, have rediscovered the tram as a means of ecological protection, while severe measures regarding exhaust gas pollution are already implemented in some states and are being concretely studied almost everywhere, both at an industrial level and at the level of traffic regulations.