By Tom Toles, the Washington Post.
In 9th grade, Mrs. Studer told me I was a total dud at math. I guess she was right: I just can’t figure out how things are supposed to work in times like these. I think I need some help with these equations.
Finally, folks seem to be spending less, and perhaps consuming what they already have instead of consuming what they don’t need. Do we really need a DVD player in the shower? (Wetflix?).
American consumers have been totally out of control for far too long – journalist Steven Pearlstein, in Saturday’s Post, says that the economic meltdown has been fueled by “decades of national profligacy.”
So here’s the part I don’t get. The pundits, like Pearlstein, or Thomas Friedman at the New York Times, are urging us to come to our consumerist senses, hold mortgages that are non-fiction, get rid of credit card and line-of-credit debt. Meanwhile UCLA’s Prof. Jared Diamond reminds us that the developed nations of the world consume 32 times more stuff than the developing world, a circumstance that is ridiculously unsustainable (if everyone on Earth consumed like we did, it would be as if the planet had a population of 72 billion. Now that’s “Hot, Flat, and Crowded”).
On the other hand, we hear that retail sales have taken a nosedive and earnings are choking. Unemployment is rising fast, new construction is way down, and the car companies are shutting for a month at a time (finally). We need to get out their and spend! So here’s my question: are we supposed to buy stuff now or not?
How exactly should we arrange our economic lives? For decades, our economic mantra has been “more.” Growth, for its own sake, has been the goal. Now we learn that growth perhaps has limits – limits of capital and credit: even greed appears to have found its limits. We can’t really buy what we need most – goods that are renewable and local, and communities that are sustainable – because there’s not much of it for sale at the moment.
When we hear about restructuring, perhaps we need to step back and think more radically about reorganizing our economy. A good read in this regard is Bill McKibben’s “Deep Economy: the Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future.” He asks, and attempts to answer, a pretty basic question: what is our economy for? What is it supposed to do, and what does it need to do for all of us to enjoy a common wealth? For me, the economy is not doing much that I want it to. Maybe for you too.
Something to think about as we zip off to the mall, or the foreclosure auction.