You’re the most affluent people on the planet, you Americans. The choices available to you, in food, clothing, gadgets, travel, education, and entertainment, are almost without limit, and you love to shop, especially at this time of year. But all the while, you hate yourself for it. Even if you’ve got money to burn on gifts, you’re probably spending less.
You’ve been conditioned to feel ashamed of excess. You know that you consume too many global resources, that you save too little. You know that when equipped with credit cards or home equity, you can’t delay the immediate gratification of your desires—you just can’t seem to save for a rainy day. You know that while consumer spending may be good for recovery in the short run, it’s a drain on long-term economic growth and a threat to the environmental integrity of the planet. You want to tighten your belt, control your impulses, defer your desires—and you want your fellow citizens to do the same, because you believe it would promote the common good. You’re convinced that consumer culture is bad for the environment, bad for the economy, and bad for your souls.
Well, you’re wrong.
Many economists, journalists, and politicians would have you believe that your desire to buy things is turning the earth into a landfill. But in fact, consumers have been the leaders in demanding alternatives to the most pressing environmental threats of our time: fossil fuels and industrialized food. About 40 years ago, you switched allegiances and started buying Japanese-made cars, because they cost less, lasted longer, and got better mileage than American-made vehicles. You’ll make a similar move to American hybrids when the auto industry—chastened by bankruptcy and socialized by government mandates—gets its act together. Your purchasing decisions also helped fuel the food revolution that has changed everything about what, how, and where we eat. Now you can (and do) select healthier food options, checking the nutrition labels imposed on corporate agribusiness by your demands for better buying information. Progress in both areas has been curtailed for 30 years by a distribution of national income that rewards corporate profits at the expense of wages, thus depriving consumers of the ability to vote with their pocketbooks for better products. But when presented with real choices backed by discretionary income, you consumers typically do the right thing, whether it’s springing for a hybrid or shopping at the farmer’s market.
Many economists, journalists, and politicians would also have you believe that consumer culture is wrecking the economy. They say consumers have to spend more in the short term to strengthen the economic recovery, but they also say that we need to increase private investment and reduce consumer spending in the long run if we want balanced growth. But in fact, historical evidence shows that since 1910, private investment as a percentage of GDP has been declining steadily, with no effect on aggregate demand and thus none on growth. Consumer spending, not private investment, has made up the difference. Cutting taxes on business in the name of job creation just leads to ever-larger surpluses idling in corporate coffers, or eager speculation in the next bubble, or both—as we saw in the 1920s and as you’ve seen in spades since the Reagan tax cuts of 1981. If balanced growth is the goal, what we really need to do is redistribute income, shifting away from higher corporate profits and toward better wages for shoppers like you.
Many economists, journalists, and politicians will have you believe that consumer culture will lead to a vapid, empty life. In fact, consumer culture is what you do when you’re off the clock, at your leisure. It’s the time when you can treat people—your friends, your family—as ends in themselves, not means to the advancement of your career. You can’t be businesslike when you’re buying gifts and spending money for fun, because then your goal in interacting with others is the acquisition of an emotional surplus, not money in the bank. This spending is far better for your soul than what happens when you’re using the expense account to entertain clients, in hopes of getting new business and fattening the bottom line.
So ignore what the economists, journalists, and politicians would have you believe. Happy holidays. Get to the mall and knock yourself out.
James Livingston is the author of Against Thrift: Why Consumer Culture Is Good for the Economy, the Environment, and Your Soul, to be published in November by Basic Books.