Wow, so many posts to write, and so little time. I mean, in the grand scheme of things. Let’s start out with this quick one:

BUY MORE STUFF is a fantastic protest I saw outside the malls on Black Friday* yesterday. (let’s just say I love my family very much, and their coming to visit is just about the only thing that would bring me anywhere near a mall on black friday. Yes, family, I’m aware that you are a full 50% of the readership of this blog, and that we really didn’t spend too long there.) I’m thinking about joining them on their other Buy More Stuff days. The one thing I’m worried about: do people not get it? I mean, they have to. Right?

*I guess “Black Friday” means “the Friday when retailers get ‘in the black’.” Maybe it is that. It is also an awful awful day. I was packed in by hordes of people all the time. Some parents yelling at kids, etc. Stuff like this makes me want to do a big thought experiment (pow!) about what it is about modern-consumerist-Christmas that is broken and how we can fix it. Coming soon!


Gerrit -

“The economy needs YOU to Buy More Stuff, so get on it!”

This is actually true. The mortgage crisis creates a spiral where the people who lost their homes can’t buy stuff from best buy anymore because loans for that crap isn’t available. Then best buy fires some retail sellers, who can’t afford to go to Wendy’s anymore. So Wendy’s fires a few people and they can’t afford their cars anymore. And so on.

I recognize that I, Gerrit Betz, am essentially freeloading by not buying lots of stuff because the only reason things like Wii’s are available (for only $250!) is because people are willing to just buy any old thing. Or I couldn’t buy all my clothes from second hand stores if people didn’t consume like crazy.

Arguably if we all consumed less we could create an entirely new way of life. It would probably be a lot better. But getting there would be tough, because if we’re not wasting our money all the time, we’ll have to find something for all those people to do who currently facilitate our circle-of-life style economy.

I am not an economist.

Dan -

Yeah. I’m fully calling for the entirely new way of life. And maybe it will be tough getting there. But we have to. Our current economy sure isn’t sustainable.

I’m generally not sympathetic to talks of “creating jobs” because it often means “doing things less efficiently just so some people can get a piece of the pie.” Like “the robots are going to put us all out of a job! So we shouldn’t have robots!”

But there’s plenty of work to be done; plenty of jobs to create, if you want to look at it that way. Green energy, green roofs, more (and more sustainable) farmers for crying out loud, etc.

The idea that you are freeloading by consuming less is asinine. I mean, it’s not your fault; it’s true, in a sense. What kind of economy have we created where that kind of perverted logic is true?

Erik Swanson -

You’re glossing over this “maybe it’ll be tough getting there” issue. Currently, consumption makes up about 80% of GDP. When, last quarter, consumption fell by 1%, that dramatically impacted the overall economy. If we were to drop our consumption by 10% over the next 2 years say, we would be looking at an 8% contraction in GDP. (I’m overstating this slightly, the government would probably pick up some of the slack, and this money that was being saved would have to be invested somewhere, which would create growth). This big of a contraction would be HUGE. We could easily be looking at 20% plus unemployment. I know you have a cheery image of a less consumerist world, but the bottom line is that our current standard of living is only able to exist because we have built a consumption economy.

I’m not arguing that it’s wrong to take a personal stance against consuming too much - go for it. I agree with you that there are some areas of the economy that could absorb some of the displaced workforce; this will not, however, be a painless transition. Without either a staggering recession or an all out revolution, I think that your desired outcome is basically impossible. (Unless, of course, we ride out the current recession, and then, during a period of robust growth, people make a decision to very gradually curtail their spending and increase savings. It would also help if the rest of the world would start spending some more, so we don’t have to be the end market for the whole world’s goods…)

- Erik

Dan -

Maybe you’re right. Gerrit’s disclaimers about not being an economist apply (probably doubly) to me.

But what’s the alternative? Keep spiraling upwards and upwards until we’ve consumed everything?

I gotta admit, I was reading this, even though citing these snotty liberal holier-than-thous probably costs me a good 90% of my credibility right there.

But maybe you economists can tell me what’s wrong with that guy’s argument. It does feel a little hand-wavy, like he gives the example with the pigs and then says “therefore our system of economics with loans and derivatives and stuff is flawed.” But there’s some level of argument I agree with: our economy is built on buying a bunch of (often disposable) stuff, and how can we possibly sustain that?

(btw, I’m not saying we should keep our current standard of living, either. more density! fewer mcmansions! fewer boats, cars, fancy furniture, and electronic toys! less meat!)

(oh, and I’m not talking about just the US either. If everyone else started consuming a lot, that would just burn through all our resources faster.)

Gerrit -

Contraction would be painful, but in the end it would resolve itself.

Electric mixers are made to break after a few years. This is so that mixer-makers can sell you a new one. If we aimed to make everlasting mixers, we could do it. We put a man on the moon. But if we make ever-lasting mixers, we can’t employ as many mixer-makers, and mixers will be more expensive at retail.

We’d have to adjust to having less money because we work less, but that would be fine because we’d be spending it on less things. Presumably, we’d spend our free time outside, playing with free toys like rocks and leaves.

Or, we’d make toys from things like sheep’s bladders! Maybe someone will get really good at it. Maybe his name will be “Spalding,” and he’ll make tons of toys! And they’ll be so good that we’ll all wait in line to use them, or give him all of our rocks to skip ahead in OH NO IT HAPPENED AGAIN

Dan -

Right. Plus collegiate “it’s necessary for the economy” etc arguments always seem to me like childhood “I want a lot of stuff” arguments plus justification.

And there’s got to be a way we can live without an economy that is by nature always spiraling out of control. To argue otherwise seems a pretty dim view of human nature.

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