I was listening to Robert Reich, once the left end of the spectrum in the Clinton cabinet, talking with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer a few days ago, and Reich, who has in the past sometimes made sense, was talking about how Americans’ incomes had fallen over the last eight years of the Bush/Cheney administration and that it was necessary to get their incomes back on an upward trend, so that they could “start shopping again.”
Now I understand Reich was trying to make the case that the bailout so far has been focused on the banks and the insurance industry, and that none of this will help unless ordinary people start getting some relief, but still, there’s something completely twisted and out of whack when the best we can come up with is that we need to get Americans back into the malls.
In fact, that is a good part of what’s wrong with the US economy: Fully 75 percent of GDP in America is consumer spending.
The problem facing America, and to a great extent the broader world economy, is that we’ve pretty much met basic human needs long ago, and now it’s about creating human wants and then convincing people that they need to buy more stuff and more services.
This is wrong in so many ways and on so many levels.
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First of all, we don’t need all this stuff. Is my life any better if I go from a 18-inch TV screen to a 60-inch TV screen? Is it, for that matter, any better if I go from an old cathode-ray tube to a flat screen digital display, or from no TV to a TV?
Is my life any better if I buy a high-performance $50,000 BMW than if I drive a $20,000 Honda Civic, or even a $5000 used Toyota Corolla with extended warranty?
Is my life any better if I live with my wife and my teenage son in a 4000-square-foot house than if I live in a 1800-square-foot or a 1200-square-foot house?
The answer is no. The benefits, if there are any at all, are minuscule, and usually short-lived.
The costs of these trying to satisfy these wants, however, are enormous. When I buy the large flat screen TV, I am contributing to the production of gases, used in the flat screen, that are hundreds of times more potent greenhouse factors than carbon dioxide, and of course, from a balance-of-trade perspective, I’m sending dollars overseas to wherever the product is made (none are made in America). If I buy the $50,000 BMW, I contribute to massive waste of resources in building the vehicle and having it shipped from Germany, as well as driving it, not to mention to balance-of-trade issue again. If I buy the Honda, it may at least be made in America, but again there is all the energy waste and pollution that goes into its construction. The used car, on the other hand, gets good mileage and already exists. As for the house, no family, except perhaps one that eschews family planning and has a baby every year and a half, needs a 4000-square-foot house, and any family with 12 kids that might occupy such a palace would never be able to afford one.
So all this buying doesn’t make us happier. In fact, by saddling us with massive amounts of debt, it simply enslaves us to jobs that polls tell us most people are simply desperate to get away from. Why, otherwise, do polls show that so many people want to retire early in an era when life expectancies are extending, and when people are staying healthy much longer into old age? Why, otherwise, do polls consistently show that over 60 percent of Americans say they would like to have a labor union represent them at work if they could get one? The reality is that most jobs, where we spend the majority of our waking hours five or six days a week, simply suck, and in many ways they suck because people are so desperate to hang on to them so they can pay their bills that they don’t dare speak up or, god forbid, sign a union card.
Secondly, these artificial wants which so dominate our daily lives and that are instilled in us via slick marketing campaigns, are a disaster for the environment and for the chances of human survival. The earth is a finite resource, while humanity, growing at a prodigious rate, is gobbling up those resources—water, oil, trees, the oceans, and the very atmosphere itself--much faster than even the renewable resources can replace themselves. This situation cannot go on, and yet we’re told that the goal is to get us back on that rapacious and self-destructive path as quickly as possible. Economic growth, we are always told, is an unambiguous good and is the primary goal of economic policy, though clearly it cannot go on.
Finally, thinking of ourselves as consumers, instead of as citizens and as people, is destructive of our social nature. Instead of learning to build community, and to relate to one another as neighbors and fellow citizens and human beings, as mere “consumers,” we compete to have more or better stuff, compete to get the best deals on the things we buy, and compete to get jobs that will help us buy those things. The one thing we do not do in a consumer-based model of society is cooperate.
This is not condition we need to go back to.
Nor can we.
The consumer society as we have known it since the 1950s is dead, at least here in America. We have bought so much that now the country is a gigantic economic basket case. Our debts as individuals and especially as a nation (of which we all own a piece), are incomprehensibly great. According to a new report by Bloomberg, just the debts that the government has promised to back up in the banking and insurance industry in the current bailout have reached $7.5 trillion, which is half the nation’s annual gross domestic product for the past year! The national public debt now totals $59.1 trillion, which represents over half a million dollars for every man, woman and child in America. External debt—the amount of money owed by the US to foreign nations—was, before the bailout, $13.7 billion, or about the total of a year’s economic activity in the US. Let’s be honest here: There’s no way all, or even a significant portion, of this can ever be repaid.
So what should we do? Well, for starters we need to start to rethink what constitutes a good society. It’s clearly not a bunch of crazed consumers, all struggling to pay their monthly bills, because we’ve seen where that has gotten us. Far better would be a society that valued education, the arts, scientific and philosophical inquiry, and natural beauty. Instead of encouraging kids to go to business school or law school, we should be encouraging them to go into the sciences, into medicine, into the arts. Bailout funds should not be going to Citicorp or AIG. They should be going to the hellholes that are called schools in our decayed inner cities. They should be going into environmental clean up projects and tree planting projects across the land. They should be going into solar and wind energy programs, and geothermal heating installation subsidies for every home in America.
Meanwhile, Americans should be waking up and recognizing how consumerism has reduced us all to little more than serfs of the corporations that sell us the things they convince us we need. Then we should all sign up for unions, and start demanding that the Bill of Rights be extended to the workplace. Why on earth should a boss be able to fire someone for expressing an opinion that is constitutionally protected outside the building? Why should a boss be able to tell me to either do a dangerous job or quit? Why, for that matter, should the boss be insulated from personal liability if I am injured at work because of decisions that were made by management about working conditions? These may seem to be remote issues from the matter of a consumer-based economy, but they are not. It is because we are all consumer-serfs that we have surrendered so much to our corporate masters.
The very idea that someone as supposedly liberal as Robert Reich could speak in terms of getting the consumer debt treadmill back up and running as a goal shows how impoverished our politics has become.
A scant few months ago, people were finally waking up to the fact that human life on this planet, indeed all life on this planet, is in grave danger because of the buildup of carbon in the atmosphere that is being caused by human development and economic activity. Even then, with clear evidence that the North Polar ice cap is vanishing, that the oceans are acidifying and that species are dying off at an alarming rate, there were those who grumbled at the cost when candidate Barack Obama spoke of spending $15 billion over the next few years to combat some of that warming by investing in clean energy program research and development. Now, however, no one is talking about that sorely needed investment, and meanwhile nobody bats an eye as the government, Obama included, talks about blowing as much as a trillion dollars to get the economy moving again!
There’s plenty of money to get people out to the mall, but no money to save the earth, no money to save our children from ignorance, no money for healthcare reform, no money for the arts.
And of course there’s war—two really. Since the US has ceased to be a productive power in the world, and has become the world’s biggest debtor nation, its sole claim to importance and power is now military, and so there is not a word said, even as the country sinks into a depression, of cutting the bloated and out-of-control $1-trillion annual military and intelligence budget, perhaps 90 percent of which serves no function but to frighten and oppress and kill mostly poor, third world people around the globe. The propaganda machine tells us that those poor saps in uniform dodging roadside bombs in Iraq and Afghanistan, or dropping shells and bombs on villages made of mud bricks and killing innocent women and children, are “defending our freedom.”
Nonsense. They are destroying our freedom by helping to bankrupt this nation, while stirring up deep hatreds of America everywhere they set foot.
The good news is that this particular economic downturn in the US may prove to be more than just another turn of the business cycle, but rather, the beginning of the inexorable spiral of decline of the US as a global economic power. The corporations (along with the schools, churches and politicians) that have lured and tricked us all into this mad consumer scramble for more and more useless crap and momentary gratification have driven the country into a debt hole from which it will clearly be impossible to climb out. That may not sound like good news, but viewed from the perspective of the wider world it certainly is—especially if it bankrupts the American military machine, and slows the production of greenhouse gases. It could also be good news if it leads us, the American people, to rethink what our lives are really all about—if it leads us to start thinking of ourselves as part of a society, again, instead of just that incredibly insulting and derogatory term: “consumers.”
People recognized how inane and wrong it was when, immediately after the 9-11 attacks, President Bush told us it was important for Americans to pick themselves up and then go out and shop. But Robert Reich has it just as wrong. The challenge we face as a nation is not to get people’s income growing and consumers back to buying stuff. It is to get people to rethink what is important, to downsize our appetites, to think as citizens of a community, and to focus our politics and government on the important issues, like protecting the environment and enhancing the quality of life not just for all Americans, but for all the people who inhabit this globe.
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