It shocks me how the imperative to consume is worming its way into our intellectual life in America. When I first observed it, I laughed and thought it was passing. I suppose that's how every insidious idea begins. As I watch the discussion now about how to "stimulate" America into better economic health -- a defibrillator metaphor, it seems -- many of our smartest commentators seem to assume that what will lead to long-term health is Americans spending our very last dime. Here's the New York Times' editorial board today, writing about President-elect Barack Obama's economic agenda:
That argument starts with the correct premise that a stalled economy needs all the juice it can get, hence the need for the roughly $800 billion recovery package to spur consumption and create jobs, taking shape in Congress and championed by Mr. Obama.
The need to "spur consumption" is so assumed by these writers that it doesn't even bear explaining. The American economy runs on consumption, I guess, like America runs on Dunkin'. Nobody is questioning the premise that we need to spend in order to maintain the health of our economy.
And here is the New Yorker in "Talk of The Town" this past week, written by Adam Gopnik, with a similarly embedded value that consumption is good:
Consumers have stopped consuming, the papers say, for the same reason that the child has decided to cry: I’m really damaged, we want the world to know; attention must be paid.
As though we, as Americans, don't have a right to be royally pissed off that our retirement and college savings have declined precipitously along with the hogwash that is the investment banking business-as-usual -- a high-risk gambit with the Big Hamptons Home in sight.
So, we American consumers want to save a little money now, as a hedge toward the future, and Mr. Gopnik believes that we are crying babies. If I'm reading Mr. Gopnik's essay correctly, he is attempting to convey to us uninitiated masses that economics is an emotional venture, as well as a social science. It's lovely of him to explain this to us, and I do applaud it as a student of economics myself, who has understood this concept all along. But then, would it not also make sense that we consumers here in America would react to tough economic times, emotionally, by socking a little something under the mattress? This could be expected. And it could be accommodated in econometric models. Disatrous times = people getting frightened and stashing money away. Don't begin to tell me that this is irrational, or worse, unpatriotic.
Which leads us, of course, to the very worst of the worst pleas for Americans to act as consumers, as opposed to something larger. It was the call by President George W. Bush for us to "spend money" as a way to respond to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. We women know what it is to be objectified -- to be wanted for our bodies or our body parts. Imagine the leader of the Free World calling on Americans to respond to the murder of nearly 3,000 of our fellow citizens by advising a shopping trip to K-Mart. Lost is any sense of what we are as humans.
I admit that this Sept. 11 complaint is a long-ago irritation by now. I assumed that, in the interim, it had been identified and observed as completely insane; but now I see that the New York Times and the New Yorker are echoing Mr. Bush's views that we are consumers first, consumers uber alles. Second, maybe we will have to send our sons and daughters to be killed in Iraq.
It's insanity, in the George Orwell "1984" sense, to believe that "consumption" can make us what we need to be. I can get behind railroads buying American steel. But I can't think that I have to have a dazzling new blouse at work every week for our economy to remain vibrant. It's not that I believe that our economy is not organized to need continuous injections of consumer dollars. It may be. It's that I think that it's wrong to set us on a treadmill where everything we own must be new or "the latest" for us to survive as a nation.
When I lived in Togo, in West Africa, people owned so much less. They had one or two sets of clothes. And yet they knew how to find happiness, perhaps in a way that we have forgotten here. Their happiness was based on family and community. Granted, it's an easier task to be happy when the goal is simply survival, not superlative success, as it has become in the U.S., and especially in New York.
I wish that we could use this economic crisis to re-evaluate what's right in our lives, and what we hope to live for. That would be a far better lesson, I think, than getting a hybrid Hyundai or an Ann Taylor jacket on the cheap. A crisis is a terrible thing to waste.