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The evil of the consumer economy

Each year, the Thanksgiving holiday is ruined by the revolting attention that the media pays to the retail industry in the days immediately following Thanksgiving. They wallow in stories of sales, of early-bird shoppers on Friday lining up in the cold at 4:00am to get bargains, fighting with other shoppers to grab sale items, people getting trampled in the crush, the long lines at cash registers, the year’s “hot” gift items, and the breathless reports of how much was spent and what it predicts for the future of the economy. The media eggs on this process by giving enormous amounts of coverage to people going shopping, a non-news event if there ever was one, adding cute names like “Black Friday” and more recently “Cyber Monday.”

Frankly, I find this obsessive focus on consumption disgusting. In fact, I would gladly skip directly from Thanksgiving to Christmas, because the intervening period seems to me to be just one long orgy of consumerism in which spending money is the goal. The whole point of the Christmas holiday seems to have become one in which people are made to feel guilty if they are not spending vast amounts of time and money in finding gifts for others. There is an air of forced jollity that is jarring, quite in contrast to the genuine warmth of Thanksgiving. And it just seems to stress people out.

Since I grew up in a country where people were encouraged to be frugal, often out of necessity, I still find it disquieting to be urged to spend as if it were somehow my duty to go broke in order to shore up the retail industry and help “grow the economy.” I still don’t understand that concept. An economy that is based on people buying what they do not need or can even afford seems to me to be inherently unsustainable, if not downright morally offensive.

There is a curious schizophrenic attitude one finds in the media to this consumption. On the one hand people bemoan the fact that the savings rate in the US is so low that the country has to borrow from overseas to meet its investment needs, that individual Americans are not saving enough for retirement, that they are living beyond their means because of easy access to credit, and that personal bankruptcies are on the rise. The current sub-prime mortgage debacle has been caused by people being urged to pay more for houses than they could afford, and now many face foreclosure and homelessness.

On the other hand, the media gleefully cheerleads when it is reported that people are going shopping, since this is supposed to be a ‘consumer economy’, and the stock market goes up when retail sales are high.

I don’t get it. Apart from the fact that buying stuff other than to meet a direct need is simply wasteful, surely people must realize that we live in a world of finite resources, not just of fossilized energy but of minerals and other raw materials and even fresh water. Surely we should be cutting back on consumption so that we can leave something for future generations?

We are using up resources like there is no tomorrow and I am amazed that people don’t see the disastrous consequences of this. It is not even a long-term issue since the resources crunch will start to manifest itself in around thirty years or so. I know that the ‘end-timers’, the rapturists and the like who think that the world is on the verge of coming to an end see this problem (and that of global warming) as nothing to worry about since Jesus will return very soon. But what about the others? Is it that religious people think that since we are special in the eyes of god, he will somehow pull a miracle out of his hat and save us from our profligate selves?

To me the long-term problem faced by the Earth having finite resources is so obvious that I am amazed that we are not doing anything drastic about it. Here is a suggestion to start. We begin by boycotting Black Friday, staying at home and enjoying a quiet day. We should also decide that we will only buy Christmas gifts for children under twelve years of age, and then too just a few simple things, rather than the expensive “must have” items that advertisers thrust on us. We must force a shift from a consumer economy to a sustainable economy

And we use the holidays mainly to spend time with people, enjoying the old-fashioned art of socializing.

POST SCRIPT: High finance explained

I have to admit that the world of high finance baffles me by its seeming irrationality. Two British comedians give the best explanation I have heard so far about the volatile stock market and the sub-prime mortgage crisis.

Comments

  1. Robert says

    Mano – many thanks for your insightful blog comments and links. I feel a need to point out that the skit by the two British comedians is funny (almost tragically so, since it is basically the truth), but it is also blatantly racist. They imply that a poor person would be a worse credit risk simply by virtue of being black. The whole skit would be just as funny if they had omitted any mention of race, and their reference is offensive and gratuitous.

  2. says

    Robert,

    I noticed that too and it was jarring but thought that they were portraying how rich financiers viewed people. In other words, they were being in character when they said such things. But I don’t know for sure.

    In general I have found that British and Australian TV humor is more rough-edged than in the US, not shying away from things that might make us cringe over here.

  3. Greg says

    Mano,
    I don’t think the extreme use of resources by Americans has anything to do with religion; one would suspect that those who are most religious would take the most care of the Earth, as it is part of God’s creation, Ann Coulter’s comments to the contrary notwithstanding (I, in fact, know many very religious people who have exactly this opinion and are enviably successful at limiting their resource use without sacrificing too much of quality of life). I think that it has more to do with an incredible lack of a sense of causality in America (and maybe elsewhere). We buy, buy, buy, then wonder why we’re in debt. We can simultaneously want to keep greenhouse gasses out of the atmosphere and buy a huge SUV. The list goes on. I wish I had any insight on how to fix this, but I’m stuck. However, it’s a very big problem, and it needs to be remedied.

  4. says

    From someone that fancies themselves to know a little bit about economics and finance, I’ll chime in and say that there isn’t a particularly sensible economic rationale for buying “to help the economy.” Buying stuff helps some parts of the economy at the exact offsetting expense of taking money out of other parts of the economy.

    The economy is only ever better off when the buyer is happier with the good they bought than they were with the money, and the seller is happier with the money than with the pre-retail cost of the good. That is to say, if you want to buy something because it will make you happier, buy it. If you try to weigh “this will help the economy” into your measurement of how much the good is worth to you, on the other hand, you’re being a silly person!

    Of course, I quite disagree on the “finite resources” and “future generations” rationale. Future generations are almost certainly likely to be far far wealthier and better off than we are today. That’s because efficiency by which any resources will be used will almost certainly be higher tomorrow than they are today. Why shouldn’t we transfer some of that wealth to ourselves by consuming resources now? It’s taking from the rich to give to the poor, basically. :)

  5. says

    Bad,

    Increased efficiency, even if it happens, just slows the rate at which resources get used up. The problem of finite resources remains.

  6. says

    I think increased efficiency is a pretty darn good bet since that’s been the trend, and the accelerating trend, throughout human history. The price of virtually every major natural resource outside of oil has gone down in the long run (and even oil hasn’t by much corrected for inflation, and that market is tightly controlled in any case), not up, and all this despite finite supple and increasing demand. If anything does start to get harder to acquire, prices temporarily go up, making it less attractive, making people switch to something else, and so on, and then the prices fall again.

    There are certainly physical limits on just how efficient things can get, but the bottom line for me is that we likely aren’t even close to those limits at present, and thus I think most resource crunch fears just aren’t as bad as they might look. The Malthusian crunch was right around the corner when Malthus wrote about it, but its not only never come in the long term, the trend has been the opposite, and poverty and the problems of overpopulation today seem to me to stem far more from political injustice and economic inequality than anything else.

  7. Halley says

    Overall, I agree that consumerism is much too prevalent during this season. However, I would hate to skip straight from Thanksgiving to Christmas. There is a wonderful Christmas tradition, practiced by Episcopalians (Anglicans in the rest of the world), Catholics, and probably other denominations, called Advent. This is a time of waiting and preparedness. It is marked by a time of reflection and quietness, used to still your soul and be ready for the birth of Christ.

    And, by the way, there are Christians out there who don’t think the end of the world is eminent and are environmentally conscience –

  8. Pete Christ says

    Mano I completely agree with your stance on consumerism and I too have found that it is often the strongly religious sector of society that buys into the consumer economy. You would think that Christians would be more likely to take care of the earth but I believe it to be quite the contrary. If anything it becomes more apparent daily that most “religious” people are very hypocritical when it comes to the environment and the impoverished

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