Sunday, February 08, 2009

The intellectual limitations of anti-consumerism

Writing in the Nation, Benjamin R. Barber argues that Obama's election and the global economic crisis should usher in a Revolution in Spirit, where Americans shed the crass consumerism of the past in pursuit of more nobles goals. Or something like that. It's a well-written piece, but the anti-consumer tone comes across as almost no different than the culture warriors on the right who can't just ignore Hollywood, but insist on fighting it. It's not enough that avoiding the pratfalls of consumerism be a personal choice, it's the very foundations of our republic that rely on people choosing to live their life the "correct" way.

I've included substantial parts of the piece here, as it is worth the read.

But it is hard to discern any movement toward a wholesale rethinking of the dominant role of the market in our society. No one is questioning the impulse to rehabilitate the consumer market as the driver of American commerce. Or to keep commerce as the foundation of American public and private life, even at the cost of rendering other cherished American values--like pluralism, the life of the spirit and the pursuit of (nonmaterial) happiness--subordinate to it.

Economists and politicians across the spectrum continue to insist that the challenge lies in revving up inert demand. For in an economy that has become dependent on consumerism to the tune of 70 percent of GDP, shoppers who won't shop and consumers who don't consume spell disaster. Yet it is precisely in confronting the paradox of consumerism that the struggle for capitalism's soul needs to be waged.

The crisis in global capitalism demands a revolution in spirit--fundamental change in attitudes and behavior. Reform cannot merely rush parents and kids back into the mall; it must encourage them to shop less, to save rather than spend. If there's to be a federal lottery, the Obama administration should use it as an incentive for saving, a free ticket, say, for every ten bucks banked. Penalize carbon use by taxing gas so that it's $4 a gallon regardless of market price, curbing gas guzzlers and promoting efficient public transportation. And how about policies that give producers incentives to target real needs, even where the needy are short of cash, rather than to manufacture faux needs for the wealthy just because they've got the cash?


Of course, much of what is required cannot be leveraged by government policy alone, or by a stimulus package and new regulations over the securities and banking markets. A cultural ethos is at stake. For far too long our primary institutions--from education and advertising to politics and entertainment--have prized consumerism above everything else, even at the price of infantilizing society. If spirit is to have a chance, they must join the revolution.

The costs of such a transformation will undoubtedly be steep, since they are likely to prolong the recession. Capitalists may be required to take risks they prefer to socialize (i.e., make taxpayers shoulder them). They will be asked to create new markets rather than exploit and abuse old ones; to simultaneously jump-start investments and inventions that create jobs and help generate those new consumers who will buy the useful and necessary things capitalists make once they start addressing real needs (try purifying tainted water in the Third World rather than bottling tap water in the First!).

The good news is, people are already spending less, earning before buying (using those old-fashioned layaway plans) and feeling relieved at the shopping quasi-moratorium. Suddenly debit cards are the preferred plastic. Parental "gatekeepers" are rebelling against marketers who treat their 4-year-olds as consumers-to-be. Adults are questioning brand identities and the infantilization of their tastes. They are out in front of the politicians, who still seem addicted to credit as a cure-all for the economic crisis.


The convergence of Obama's election and the collapse of the global credit economy marks a moment when radical change is possible. But we will need the new president's leadership to turn the economic disaster into a cultural and democratic opportunity: to make service as important as selfishness (what about a national service program, universal and mandatory, linked to education?); to render community no less valid than individualism (lost social capital can be re-created through support for civil society); to make the needs of the spirit as worthy of respect as those of the body (assist the arts and don't chase religion out of the public square just because we want it out of City Hall); to make equality as important as individual opportunity ("equal opportunity" talk has become a way to avoid confronting deep structural inequality); to make prudence and modesty values no less commendable than speculation and hubris (saving is not just good economic policy; it's a beneficent frame of mind). Such values are neither conservative nor liberal but are at once cosmopolitan and deeply American. Their restoration could inaugurate a quiet revolution.

The struggle for the soul of capitalism is, then, a struggle between the nation's economic body and its civic soul: a struggle to put capitalism in its proper place, where it serves our nature and needs rather than manipulating and fabricating whims and wants. Saving capitalism means bringing it into harmony with spirit--with prudence, pluralism and those "things of the public" (res publica) that define our civic souls. A revolution of the spirit.

As I indicated above, this is more than advice on how we should live our lives, this is call for the government to take a more active role in shaping our values. To go back to the beginig of Barber's piece, the real problem here is his assumptions about the role of the market in modern American society. "The market as God" theory makes for an interesting straw man, but does it reflect reality? Certainly, we are a society of consumers, but most Americans would argue that there are more important things in our lives- religion, family, and friends for one. Some individuals may value the pursuit of material happiness over the pursuit of the nonmaterial, but it doesn't seem to me that those individuals represent an ideological majority. And more importantly, from a liberty-oriented perspective, why should it matter just how other individuals elect to pursue happiness?

Barber goes on to list a number of institutions that have prized consumerism above all us, listing off education, advertising, politics and entertainment. Of course, I don't remember my public education being particularly consumer driven, but regardless, the possibility that any single agenda could be pushed on us through education is only possible because of the government monopoly. As to advertising, I'd be worried if advertisers didn't value consumerism. Politics, I suppose one could argue, is driven by a consumer-based model in which campaigns attempt to sell us on candidates, although similar to entertainment, the argument could be made that the public gets what the public wants. Ultimately, it's a rather disparate list that makes less sense the more you think about it.

What I find particularly odd is that in the midst of a recession, Barber takes joy in people buying less. I imagine anyone in the retail industry would be to differ. Hundreds of thousands have lost jobs and many more are fearful they will lose their jobs, all because people are buying less. It's the dirty little secret of the market that crass American spending habits help to keep the wheels of the economy turning. It's easy to pontificate about all the things we don't need, but the truth is that the "things we don't need" industry employs a substantial number of Americans. Not only that, but the "things we don't need" industry helps to propel economic development around the globe, raising standards of living and improving quality of life.

Regardless of one's opinion of American consumer culture, it's difficult to make the argument that this culture has been significantly shaped by government policy, making Barber's policy arguments all the more troubling. Mentioned in the piece are mandatory national service, increased funding for the arts, and the vague idea of increasing our concern about equality. Perhaps my most important reason for writing this post is to point out the unrealistic vision Barber has for society. And I don't mean unrealistic in a dressing down idealism sort of manner, I mean unrealistic in the sense that Barber is arguing that a certain segment of our economy should be torn down without actually bothering to let us know what should replace it. If we all stopped buying half the shit we buy that we don't need, than what about all those people whose livelihood depends on Americans buying all that shit? I suppose those of us who remain employed could give that money we're no longer spending to help the poor folks who lose their jobs, but if the choice is between give money to feed X who used to work in retail, or get a new toy you like and have X keep his job and feed himself, I'll take that option two.


Anonymous rose said...

You're way too kind to this idiot.

Mandatory national service is a terrible idea. There are two consequences of forcing people into this kind of work. Firstly, you'll be reducing the hours people spend doing their core competency and replacing this, with work that they have a comparative disadvantage at. This reduces the size of the overall pie, or tax base if you prefer.

Secondly, its been proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that people are more efficient if their compensation is tied to their productivity. Making a bunch of self-interested people do stuff where there's no incentive to perform well, yet again reduces the size of the overall pie/tax base (that funds entitlements).

Lastly, Americans' are among the most giving people in the world. This isn't because we're born better than everyone else, it's because people become less self-interested the more their own personal needs are met and we happen to be the most prosperous nation on earth.

Just a really dumb piece, clearly written by a well-meaning, smart guy who is blinded by empathy for the poor.

3:44 PM  
Anonymous rose said...

LL, thought you'd enjoy this commentary from the great Arlen Specter. He engages in EXACTLY the type of anti-intellectual logic that you've been talking about.

"Highlights" from (R) Arlen Specter's "Why I'm Supporting the Stimulus Bill" editorial. (Surprised he's not too busy investigating the Arizona Cardinals right now)

"I am supporting the economic stimulus package for one simple reason: The country cannot afford not to take action."

"The unemployment figures announced Friday, the latest earnings reports and the continuing crisis in banking make it clear that failure to act will leave the United States facing a far deeper crisis in three or six months. By then the cost of action will be much greater -- or it may be TOO LATE."

"Our $780 billion bill would save or create up to 4 million jobs, helping to offset the loss of 3.6 million jobs since December 2007."

Specter supports the stimulus bill because 1) we cannot afford not to take action, 2) he believes its possible the US will be in an irreversible economic slump 6 months from now and 3) he apparently doesn't understand that the public sector jobs created by the $780b bill are at the very least partially offset by a loss in private sector jobs and is engaging in propaganda.

Good to know there's lots of substance behind Specter's decision.

Does the logic "we can't afford not to act" and "the US may cease to exist in 6 months" apply to future conversations about a nuclear Iran?

11:23 AM  
Blogger lonely libertarian said...

Thanks for the comments-

First, this "we must act now" nonsense is practically criminal. It's the same thing we heard back in October and then we came o find out that large portions of that TARP money wasn't even being distributed. Just watch and see how long it takes for these new programs to be implemented.

To go back to your first comment, I'd quibble with your remark that the guy who wrote the Nation piece is blinded by empathy for the poor. I think the problem is that he's not thinking about the poor and that he's blinded by ideology. His world view trumps all, including what might happen to the poor if his world view was actually implemented. It's the same sort of thing as the liberals who fight so hard against sweat shops without realizing that in most cases, sweat shops are a step above subsistence farming.

12:25 PM  

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