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In the midst of the Great Depression, my mother would talk to me about the need to spend money, not just save it, in order to increase consumer demand so that people could become employed to provide goods and services. The only problem was that we hardly had any money and borrowing to spend for consumption was unthinkable. But the message was clear–it's patriotic to consume.
Later I read H.G. Wells' turn-of-the-century musings about future societies in which science and technology had advanced productivity so far that the labors of only a small portion of the population were sufficient to provide goods and services for all. In Wells' view the producers would become the privileged class, with everyone else relegated to a singular patriotic responsibility: to consume. An interesting turn of events, to be sure, but it made a point about the need to think about work and reward in an age of technology and knowledge-based economy.
More recently, the expansion of consumption has combined with the market system and open societies to drive down unit costs of goods and services to the point where yesterday's luxuries are today's affordable necessities. But rather than taking our gains in more leisure and contemplative activities we seem inextricably hitched to the treadmill of income production and insatiable consumerism–strongly abetted not by arguments of the depression years but by commercial and even some religious figures.
What’s wrong with this? I suggest that if prices were "right" we'd make wiser choices. But the private market cannot, or does not, charge for considerable "external" costs such as environmental damage, or intergenerational justice.
The results, as we move into the twenty-first century, are worrisome. Two centuries after Thomas Malthus' treatise on population, we need to recognize that we are headed into truly dangerous waters: too many people consuming too many resources on a finite planet.
The twenty-first century will be a century-long moment of truth for humankind. If we hope to continue human progress as the most extraordinary form of biological evolution we must transform our consumption passions into a sustainable rather than exponential form. And we must make a similar transition to a stabilized population. Technological progress can go only so far in enabling more people to consume more goods while staying on a sustainable course. Without a change in direction, as an old Chinese statement goes, "We're very likely to end up where we are headed."
What should be done? Julie Schor offers some interesting elements for a new policy of consumerism. I would only take issue with her first: a right to a decent standard of living. My preference would be for rights of opportunity to earn a decent standard of living. We need safety nets, but I don't think we've arrived yet at H.G. Wells' visions of a future where people are paid simply to consume.
I offer a few suggestions for action:
1. We need to get prices right–to ensure that they reflect the true total cost of goods and services. As Schor points out, most consumer goods are underpriced. Whether by regulations (shadow price) or fees, we should pay the true cost of goods and services. Henry Caudill, Kentuckian lawyer and author, made a compelling case, for example, for stiff separations taxes to be placed on the sale of natural resources such as coal so that the wealth taken by this generation and denied future generations would be at least partly replaced by a different wealth–education and technology–for future generations.
2. We should pay more attention to product labeling–to make it trustworthy and meaningful. Recent progress in food labeling has been very helpful, and energy efficiency labeling (like food, a federal requirement) helps achieve the economic assumption or goal that consumers exercise judgment when information is available. Remember the Sears labels of "good, better, best"? Or the Good Housekeeping Seal?
3. We should give greater emphasis on truth in advertising. The lure of easy access to credit cards–especially to the young and the poor–is destructive and relevant public policies need reform.
4. More attention is needed in education and our churches and families to raising awareness of the value of non-monetary things. As one sage put it: "Being rich is having money; being wealthy is having time." As Schor points out, our opportunity is to stop marketplace bias against workers who wish to substitute some income for more time off from work.
"Think globally, act locally" is a phrase that merits more attention, and applies both in space and time. We all need, in our shrinking and accelerating world, to be more cognizant of the twenty-first century imperative to stabilize population and transform the way we provide goods and services so that the system becomes more sustainable. This can be accomplished with the help of advanced technology used by thoughtful people. Otherwise we are destined to leave the planet a much poorer place–not an attractive goal for the human condition.
Somebody needs to be for quality of life, not just quantity of stuff. And to do so requires an approach that does not trivialize consumption, but accords it the respect and centrality it deserves.
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