I read the article, “Economic Fears Drive a Global Sell-Off”, on the front page of yesterday's (9/23/11) edition of the LA Times. The author reports that investors all over the world are holding on to their money for fear that economies in various parts of the world will falter or even collapse. Towards the end of the piece I read that, despite the worrisome economic trends around the world...
Still many analysts say the U.S. economy hasn't fallen of a cliff. Whether it will depends on how American consumers react to the latest market turmoil because consumer spending accounts for two-thirds of economic activity... “The key is whether consumers keep spending and don't make sharp cutbacks as they did in 2008,” said Dean Maki, chief economist at Barclays Capital in New York.
It is sobering to contemplate the statistics on world consumer spending versus statistics on total world spending and see the importance to the U.S. and the entire world economy of U.S. consumer spending. With only five percent of the world's population, the roughly $10 trillion spent in 2009 on consumer spending represents 71 percent of the U.S. economy and 16 percent of the total spending in the world! Particularly sobering is what percentage of that $10 trillion that could be considered one form or another of unsustainable overconsumption.
I'm concerned about that U.S. overconsumption, what it says about our society, and whether it is healthy or not going forward, for the U.S. to even try to go back to the level of consumer spending we have been at for the past sixty plus years (probably since the end of World War II). Overconsumption in a world where more and more parts of the world are trying to emulate the American materialistic lifestyle is unsustainable and becoming more and more problematic.
I see the Great Recession as an opportunity to get off that train headed towards a world living beyond its means, before our American addiction spreads to the emerging economies throughout the world. But to do so, I think Americans need to do an honest assessment of our economic behaviors and realize that it does us no good to continue to “shop 'til we drop”, “eat 'til we drop” and finance those addictions by working “'til we drop”.
A Society Motivated by Fear
We Americans are routinely accused of being materialistic and narcissistic workaholics. I think there is a lot of truth to that, so what's it all about? The secular Calvinist ideology that still seems to be at the foundation of much of our conventional wisdom says that human beings are by nature profoundly “depraved”, which is exhibited by sloth, greed, immorality and selfishness. I certainly see that attitude in many of the adultist things I hear adults say, particularly about older youth that many derisively call “teenagers”.
I don't believe this dour Calvinist view of humanity to be true! I instead believe that when we see most sloth, greed, immorality and selfishness, what we are seeing are expressions of anxiety motivated by an underlying fear. An underlying fear perhaps that we are somehow unworthy as the Calvinist conventional wisdom paints us. Rather than facing those fears and maybe exorcising this Calvinism from our world view, we instead attempt to prove our worthiness by working too hard ('til we drop)... to the point of risking our health and beyond.
How many discussions have I had over with the years with coworkers where the topic becomes calling out how late they worked and how little sleep they get! And how many others with fellow parents complaining about how lazy kids are.
Our own adult narcissistic materialism (expressed as “shop 'til you drop” and often “eat 'til you drop”) can then be seen as a sort of self-medicating addiction, perhaps justified in our minds because we are working so hard beyond our psychic capacity to really balance it.
Here's my friend Ron Miller's take on this American angst from his book What are Schools For?...
American culture... has not encouraged true self-reliance in a moral or spiritual sense, because it disdains nature and so mistrusts an unconverted, uncontrolled, undisciplined human nature... Believing that human beings are cut off from the divine, and are instead moved by innate evil impulses, American culture has become highly moralistic; it is commonly believed that a rigorous moral code, and vigilant enforcement of social mores, standards of behavior, and civil laws are all that stand in the way of social upheaval and anarchy.
Miller sees this conventional wisdom expressed by behavior that goes against our natural instincts as human beings, thus the anxiety and fear that begs to be medicated...
Despite the emphasis on “liberty”, “freedom”, independence”, and “individualism” in the American myth, the dominant worldview actually does not trust the spontaneity and self-expressive creativity of the individual. The proper beliefs and proper ways of acting which lead to social and economic success are predominantly moral, rational, entrepreneurial, and “professional”; in short, they impose rational discipline on the deeper, more impulsive, intuitive, mystical, and emotional aspects of human nature... The standards for measuring success are overwhelmingly materialistic; whole realms of human experience, notably the aesthetic, emotional, and spiritual, do not count as qualifications for the job market or as emblems of achievement... Practicality and productivity are more important than contemplation or inner questing; meditative practices are disdained as “contemplating one’s navel.”
The Economic Expression of Fear & Anxiety
Healthy economic activity involves spending that adds real value to our lives and to our society as a whole. A healthy economic system produces lots of goods, services and infrastructure that create an enriched environment for everyone. But in my opinion most of the behaviors associated with fear, as drivers of economic activity, lead to a great deal of spending (and extra work to pay for it) that beyond getting us through stressful days is adding little or no real and lasting value to our lives!
The unhealthy economic activity driven by fear includes...
* As we lose faith in humanity, many of us with means lose our sense of charity and increasingly oppose public spending for a safety net for people who are economically disadvantaged
* As we attempt to keep our families safe, many of us with means pay a premium to live in communities that separate us from economically disadvantaged people, pay additional high costs associated with long commutes, security, and pay to send our kids to exclusive private schools
* To the extent we can afford to, we surround ourselves with an excess of material goods and technology to enrich our own homes rather than contributing to the enrichment of public venues that can be shared by everybody
* Feeling wounded and frightened, we are captivated by and live vicariously through shrill and angry voices in the commercial media, encouraging (with our ears and eyeballs) those voices to crowd out those who might be more thoughtful, loving and less angry
* Suffering from boredom and inertia we shop impulsively and pay to see movies and buy video games full of adventure and/or violence to perhaps make up for real lives that lack adventure and stimulation
* As we surrender our life balance, we increasingly “live to work” rather than “work to live”, and given the continuing prevailing Calvinist ethic, only feel we are worthy when we can demonstrate that we are getting little sleep and working ourselves to the brink of ill health or beyond
* Rather than arranging our lives so we naturally walk or bicycle for transportation or as part of our work routine for exercise, we pay for memberships in health clubs which often go underused because we struggle to find the time in our otherwise over-scheduled lives
Food & Drug Consumption as the Metaphor
I think the most powerful metaphor for the entire American economic system is the food and drug industries and the negative synergy between them. Perhaps half of our food production industry is about producing natural whole foods which we purchase and consume to develop and maintain healthy bodies and minds. This represents economic activity that is adding real value to us as individuals and therefor to society as a whole as well.
But the other half of that industry in my opinion is not at all about health, but about entertainment, self-medication and addiction to cope with the debilitating stress of “living to work” and other expressions of our fears. Dimensions of this part of the food industry include...
* Coffee-based beverages, fruit smoothies and soft drinks laced with caffeine and/or sugar to jack us up and prepare us for perhaps a stressful day of “living to work”
* Alcoholic beverages at the end of our work day to relax us and apply a needed social lubricant to our otherwise tightly wrought selves
* Anti-anxiety and anti-depression medications
* Endless tasty snacks and fast food full of fat, salt, sugar, unhealthy meat and dairy products, and “empty calories”
* And even when we have more thought, time and money to spend on our food, a diet full of even more fat, salt, sugar and cholesterol (on full display if you have cable TV and watch the Food Channel)
Since “you are what you eat”, all this unhealthy eating becomes the prelude to obesity and our “lifestyle” diseases and the need for an array of expensive medications and treatments to try and mitigate their debilitating symptoms. We pay a premium to consume unhealthy foods to excess and then a second premium for an expensive health care system to try and help us recover from our earlier purchases. Where is any real lasting value being produced?
The “GFP” (Gross Fear Product)
What percentage of the $10 trillion in U.S. yearly consumer spending is about mitigating and medicating fear rather than otherwise adding real value to our lives? Consumer spending represents 71 percent of American expenditures compared to a world average closer to 60 percent. Is that additional 11 percent a part of our “gross fear product”?
It is interesting that many of the nations in the world with a percentage of consumer spending higher than the U.S. are countries like Egypt and Afghanistan which live within a context of violence and fear.
A Difficult Move to a New Normal
I don't think it is healthy for the U.S. consumer economy to return to where it has been prior to the Great Recession. Like other illnesses and cataclysms, an economic calamity has a developmental component and ideally spurs a new perspective leading to reassessment and thoughtful changes. If we are truly developing as a society and as a species we gather the most learning from our failures, and process and incorporate the lessons learned.
I feel as a society America has been running on psychic “fumes”, pushing ourselves to the point of disease and death to attempt to maintain an unhealthy, and ultimately unsustainable lifestyle. It is a lifestyle that has encouraged people of economic privilege (from the middle class on up) to over-consume while people lacking that privilege struggle to get what they need to survive. It is not about rich people so much (though they over-consume as well), but about those of us in the middle class and how we have been spending our money.
To get to a more sustainable society with more healthy lifestyles we of some economic privilege need to adopt the mantras of “doing more with less”, that “small is beautiful”, and finance our dialed-back expenditures by “working smarter not harder”. Smarter, by looking carefully at our economic activity, both what we do to make and spend money, and applying the metrics of what is really adding value to our lives and to others.
Is there more satisfying work we could be doing (done perhaps at home or a work site that we can commute to by some combination of walking, bicycling and mass transit) that may pay less than our current work but can allow us to cut back on the expenditures of the commute and mitigating and medicating for a life spent doing unsatisfying work?
Are there free or less expensive ways we can be balancing our lives by getting exercise, adventure and “play”, without expensive vacations, cars, home entertainment systems, and other expensive pass times (golf comes to mind, the sport of privilege)?
Can the U.S. become a country that moves beyond its current economic narcissism and moves to a consumer economy – like Belgium, Denmark or Ireland perhaps – that is closer to just 50 percent of overall GDP? Can we become a country that is more about building its shared public infrastructure and selling value added goods and services to the rest of the world?
I think we can and we will if we can figure out how to truly move beyond all this fear.