The Downside to Consumerism

Last week we looked at the upside of Consumerism, the ways in which it functions well as an employment-creation system.  This week we’ll look at the darker side of our trusty economic engine.  Seventh in an ongoing series about the deeper reasons behind the difficulty of finding work

The question of course, is this:  If Consumerism works so well, why are people out of work?  Who turned off the jobs spigot?  As it turns out when we take a closer look at how well Consumerism meets our criteria for a great employment-creation system, the picture isn’t nearly as rosy as we painted it last week.  Let’s take a look at the criteria again.

  1. It creates jobs:  An unlimited supply, right?  Not really.  Theoretically the kinds and quantities of consumer goods that can be produced (and thus the number of jobs producing those goods) are only limited by people’s imaginations.  But in reality, there’s an actual limit to how much people want to acquire.  Most people in the First World already have far more consumer goods than they need to live a comfortable –one might even say luxurious –life.  This leads to the problem we discussed in week three (“The Global Pyramid Scheme“) of markets drying up.There are a number of ways in which consumerism compensates for this effect, but they all have problems attached to them.  One way is by making cheaper, more disposable products that wear out faster (such as blenders that break on the third usage) –which is wasteful.  Another way is to stimulate people’s desires for new and different products –which involves making them unhappy with what they already have (as in the case of cell phones that are already out of date a month after being sold) .  A third way is to promote ostentatious excesses (such as the purchase of giant gas-guzzling automobiles).  In addition to making our lives unhappy and filled with cheap crap, these techniques also accelerate the depletion and pollution of the Earth’s natural resources.  Consumerism is a driving force behind impending shortages of such vital and irreplaceable resources such as clean water, oil, fish populations, trees, and unpolluted air, a trend pushing us in the direction of an ever-accelerating environmental disaster.One cutting edge “solution” to the problem is the invention of “virtual” consumer goods, simulated objects that are bought, sold, coveted and “gifted” on various websites and in various virtual reality environments around the internet, ranging from Facebook and MySpace to World of Warcraft and Second Life.  These objects don’t draw a lot of resources, they don’t take up any physical space, and people love them.  It’s a perfect solution, except for the fact that people are now spending huge portions of their lives in the pursuit of shiny objects that don’t, strictly speaking, even exist.  Plato would be horrified.
  2. It distributes jobs:  Apparently not as well as it once did, but that’s more of a symptom of jobs drying up than the cause.  A more serious concern is Consumerism’s poor prioritization of projects, since it elevates trivial industries (say, the marketing of soda pop) to positions of central importance, while letting projects vital to the future of humanity (such as preventing mass extinctions) languish.
  3. It makes jobs meaningful:  This is where we run into real problems.  As you recall, Consumerism makes jobs meaningful through the money you earn from working those jobs, and money is meaningful, not just for its raw purchasing power, but because it allows us to each measure our own self-worth against that of those around us.  But reducing everything to money has its downside as well.  It’s nearly always possible to increase your profit margins (at least in the short term) by doing some bad or immoral thing such as clear-cutting the forest primeval, farming out your labor to five-year-old workers in a Third World country, or putting sawdust in the chicken nuggets.

The upshot of all of this is that Consumerism is faltering.  People are no longer in tune with its devil-may-care, spendthrift ethos, and the loss of confidence in the Consumerist philosophy is having a very real effect on global markets.  Furthermore, the stopgap measures that gave Consumerism an extra century or so of viability have run their course.  Now like the snake eating it’s own tail, Consumerism has begun to consume itself –one reason, perhaps, for current pop-culture’s tendency to endlessly regurgitate and redigest it’s own recent past.

The problem, of course, is that Consumerism is what is keeping Capitalism afloat, and when it comes to Capitalism, as Margaret Thatcher famously said, there is nothing else.  Competing systems, such as Communism, have been much worse.  But is Consumerism the only possible employment-creation system that can rescue Capitalism, or are there other options?

NEXT WEEK – Feudalism

Spend ’till you drop

Sixth in an ongoing series about the deeper reasons behind the difficulty of finding work

Let’s take a good hard look at our old friend Consumerism, the dominant Employment-Creation System (ECS) in the modern world.  In many ways it works quite well, and it fits all the criteria we outlined last week.

  1. It creates jobs:  Consumerism creates what has always seemed to be an unlimited supply of jobs, all revolving around the manufacture, marketing, sale and distribution of consumer goods –the famous fabulous prizes of Capitalism.  Blenders, cars, t-shirts, posters, paperweights, computers, microwaves, gold teeth, embroidered wall-hangings –the list goes on, and on, and on.
  2. It distributes jobs:  Consumerism distributes jobs via what might be called the “franchise” method.  Anyone can buy into Consumerism at any point in time –just create a product and put it on the market.  You’ve just manufactured your own job, and if you’re successful enough, you’ll create jobs for other people as well.
  3. It makes jobs meaningful:  This is where the true brilliance of Consumerism comes into play.  Many, perhaps most, of the jobs in a Consumerist system are not intrinsically meaningful.  With notable exceptions, consumer products aren’t saving lives or making the world a more beautiful place.  However, each and every job in the Consumerist framework has a quantitative value attached to it –that value being the amount of money you get for performing it.  The amount of money for a Consumerist job is related to the amount of money earned by selling the consumer products that generate the job.  The amount of money earned by selling the product is in turn based on the price of the object.  The crucial part of the whole thing, the part that makes it all work, is that the prices are quasi-objective.  No one person or government sets the prices, they are all assigned automatically by the actions of people buying and selling on the open market. In other words, we all set prices collectively, by establishing through buying and selling what we are willing to pay for things.The utility of this system of evaluation is that it gives us all a way to measure our own self-worth, i.e. in terms of dollars and cents.  In our society, under the Consumerist system, your status, your value as a person in society, is roughly equated with your purchasing power, your accumulated wealth.  The day you first get a job, you secure entry into a global system that allows you to compare yourself –quantitatively –to every other person in the system at any given time.

    This in turn provides the motivation that keeps people working.  True, for people at the very low end of the income scale (a vast number of people, largely invisible to the those above them), the primary motivation is survival, the need to purchase the essentials of life, food, shelter and clothing.  For everyone else, however, no matter how it may be disguised, the goal is status, the getting ahead in the system represented by accumulating more money and more goods.

NEXT WEEK – The Downside of Consumerism

The Bright Side of Unemployment

Fifth in an ongoing series about the deeper reasons behind the difficulty of finding work

Don’t jump off any tall buildings yet.  Despite the abundant Direness, things are less bleak than they appear.  The problem may present as though we’ve run out of a scarce resource –namely jobs, particularly meaningful ones –but viewed from the proper perspective, it becomes clear that we are in fact suffering from an overabundance of a different resource –namely human labor.  And an overabundance is a better kind of problem to deal with than scarcity.

It may seem hard to believe that this could be a problem at all.  After all, the imagination is staggered by the sheer volume of worthy projects in need of more workers.  Desert reclamation, space travel, teaching in the inner city, bridge building, planting trees, the list goes on and on.  Yet the things that need done rarely seem to get matched up with the people who need things to do.

You can’t just throw the people and the projects into a jar and shake it up to see what settles out.  You need a system –a system with the following characteristics:

  1. It creates jobs:  Your Employment-Creation System (ECS) must have a deep (ideally endless) supply of projects that need to be completed.
  2. It distributes jobs: Your system needs a way to match people with projects.
  3. It makes jobs meaningful:  Most importantly, your system must provide a unified larger context for its workers that motivates them to complete their assigned tasks.

For those readers with an economics background, it may seem like there are some important things missing from this list:  Supply and demand, channels of distribution,  methods of production, and so forth and so on.  But what I’m describing here is not a economic system, but rather an Employment-Creation System.  For example, here in the United States, our economic system is Capitalism, but our employment-creation system is Consumerism.  Capitalism provides the overall system, but Consumerism generates the majority of the jobs.

NEXT WEEK:  A closer look at Consumerism.