Monday, February 23, 2009

Another Perspective on Consumption

I was just reading a New York Times article about how devastating it is for Japan's economy that its people are saving their money instead of spending it. The idea is that consumers drive an economy, and when consumers don't consume, the economy is not driven. Then people get laid off, they have less money, they buy even less, and the whole economy goes into a downward spiral. Clear enough. Another perspective says, however, that you can't keep supplying increasing billions of people with stuff. The environment can't take it, and anyway the resources aren't there. There's a real risk -- a reality, for millions upon millions of people -- that even food will become scarce and unaffordable. You hear farmers talk about "potatoes made of oil," for instance, and you realize that even agriculture is heavily dependent on petroleum and other industrial inputs. If we hadn't had marketers and advertisers and salespeople to sell us all kinds of crap for all these many years, maybe we wouldn't have bought so much of it to begin with. There's no law of human nature that says people are happier when they have to spend more of their precious time buying, installing, cleaning, fixing, insuring, adjusting, storing, and otherwise screwing around with a houseful of random gizmos. Not to put all the blame on the marketers et al.; the point is just that it somehow became normal to create demand, when common sense would suggest that this is actually abnormal. So what are the Japanese doing with their savings? They are protecting themselves in case their pension and retirement system falls short. Not a bad plan. If having the extra doodad in your house means someone in your family will not be able to afford the critically needed bit of food or medical care in a pinch, it could be reasonable to ask whether that doodad was really so bloody necessary. It has become normal to believe that people are supposed to spend their lives working for someone else, doing what that other person tells them to do, having a sense of self-worth and an ability to live and enjoy life for only as long as that seems appropriate to the other person. Under such an arrangement, people spend the bulk of their adult lives away from the people and things that matter most to them. It is a strange arrangement. In a world that has the technology to satisfy so many needs and desires so easily, it does seem extreme that we would all find ourselves compelled to work nonetheless -- and even then, in many cases, not to be able to afford the essentials.