Nearly eight months ago I wrote an essay entitled "End of the Marshall Plan in which I noticed that President Obama had deftly and fairly quietly defined an end to several generations worth of American economic policy. He, in effect, said that the Marshall Plan was over. Europe--and by extension the rest of the world--is on its own from now on. The world's largest economy, the world's largest base of planetary consumerism is done. The cost is too great, the penalties too steep. We are finished.
I remembered that essay vividly as I read the Boston Globe Saturday morning noticed that of the country's major newspapers only the Globe has the courage to tell its readers what the prognosis is for the holiday economy. It is bleak. In a way, if you read the last statement made in the article, it ties right in with the whole concept of change in America, the long overdue realization that consumerism does not produce jobs in America. It makes producers greedy for "more" and they ship their factories out to low-income economies where they also can avoid environmental regulations.
Who knows whether the Great Recession of 2008-2010 will turn the trick or not. Consumerism is very addicting and the panoply of goods, especially high-tech "toys," is likely to enthrall the society again and again. Still, though, there is a palpable sense abroad that enough is enough. We have seen the country sink deeper into debt with China, and yet China does not liberalize. The dominos do not fall. The ideology of free-market consumerism does not convert foes into friends.
Of course, the prospect of another poor performing winter holiday sales season implies much more than broad brush "end of an era" pronouncements from retired historians. It is sure to set off another cascade of bankruptcies in both retail and manufacturing and consumer banking. This will mean even higher unemployment statistics for 2010, stats that are already locally at 15% in some areas. For historians dismal economic stats like these are, in fact, the engine of significant change. The worse it gets the stronger the pressure to change our "wicked" ways.
The Obama administration would be astute to see the political fallout from this. Clearly they are not responsible for the crash or for the underfunding of the stimulus package, but they are inexorably being seen as responsible for the lack of recovery on main street. Dumping Obama in 2012 might seem like the right thing to do, given the (widely seen as) ineffective activities of the White House during all of this, but the mid-term elections a year from now may obviate the 2012 issue. If Republicans turn the Senate and chop the Democrat's lead in the House in half, the message will be clear enough.
Personally, I think it is the beginning of a new era, and I am thankful for it, but I am cautious as well, because the changes necessary to move us off the addiction of consumerism are going to have repercussions throughout the culture and, indeed, across the planet.
Previously published at Iron Mountain