By Dave Lindorff
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
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.
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
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
This is not condition we need to go back to.
Nor can we.