Sunday, May 25, 2008

How Much is Enough?

On an old Catholic Yahoo discussion group I used to moderate, I posted this in December 2002:
"In a weekly report Tuesday, the Bank of Toyko-Mitsubishi and UBS Warburg forecast that sales at stores opened at least a year, known as same-store sales, for the combined November and December period will be up only 1.5 percent. That would be the weakest increase since the same-store index started tracking the data in 1970."

I'm a news junkie, so this bit above represents about the 73rd time i've seen, heard or read some version of this "woe are we who have only increased sales of stuff by 1.5% over last year!" and i'm really sick of it.

A few thoughts (and keep in mind the irony that this is coming from a guy who on most economic policy issues is a supply-side republican):

I understand the need for continuous growth to drive job creation, pull us out of recession, etc. But why is a 1.5% increase such terrible news? Is it possible that after 30 years of increasing spending, marketers efforts aren't working or at least resulting in diminishing returns?

Another statistic I read put total holiday spending at a projected $215 billion this year. Thats about $1,000 per American over the age of 18 and it specifically excludes big ticket items like cars, and household goods and groceries which are bought anyway. So its $1000 per person on STUFF. And much of that is added to the enormous high interest credit card debt of America's middle class families. Given how highly debt laden the average american is, newspapers should breathe a sigh of relief when growth in spending matches instead of exceeds growth in disposable income.

From an investor's perspective, I don't understand why top-line revenue growth is such a priority anyway. It seems to me a company with $1 billion in sales and $100 million in profit is alot more attractive than a company with $10 billion in sales and $200 million in profit. I would welcome a shift in focus toward efficient cash flow and profit margin over a "growth at all costs" mentality.

And besides, how well does most of the stuff we gave and received this year fit this line from Pope John Paul in his general audience on Wednesday 12/18?:

"Christmas gifts are a reminder that the person of Christ is a gift to humanity. Our gifts in this feast to each other are a reflection and expression of this great Gift."

Five years later, and I still think I'm right. (except for the part where I say on most issues I'm a supply-side Republican. Sheesh. I suppose the first crack in that dam was posting something like this; and wondering if there might be something wrong with unending, undirected and unaccountable economic growth.)

In her books The Overworked American and The Overspent American, Juliet Schor discusses how after a certain point (a point long, long past) productivity gains would produce more overall happiness if they were applied to producing the same amount with less time, rather than producing a greater amount with the same time. In other words, growth and technology should lead to more leisure time, but instead they lead to less leisure time as we work and borrow toward ever newer and greater "necessities".

For a lot of reasons, this can't happen. The underlying assumptions of our economy won't allow it. The purpose of the economy is not to fulfill human needs, it is to create new ones. Orion Magazine takes a look at this phenomenon in The Gospel of Consumption:

By the late 1920s, America’s business and political elite had found a way to defuse the dual threat of stagnating economic growth and a radicalized working class in what one industrial consultant called “the gospel of consumption”—the notion that people could be convinced that however much they have, it isn’t enough. ... They celebrated the conceptual breakthrough: “Economically we have a boundless field before us; that there are new wants which will make way endlessly for newer wants, as fast as they are satisfied.”

Today “work and more work” is the accepted way of doing things. If anything, improvements to the labor-saving machinery since the 1920s have intensified the trend. Machines can save labor, but only if they go idle when we possess enough of what they can produce. In other words, the machinery offers us an opportunity to work less, an opportunity that as a society we have chosen not to take. Instead, we have allowed the owners of those machines to define their purpose: not reduction of labor, but “higher productivity”—and with it the imperative to consume virtually everything that the machinery can possibly produce.

A question for you: Do you remember what life was like in 1991? Were you living in squalor or were you reasonably well fed? Exactly. And yet:
By 2006 that figure [the amount of goods and services produced for each hour of labor] had risen another 30 percent. In other words, if as a society we made a collective decision to get by on the amount we produced and consumed seventeen years ago, we could cut back from the standard forty-hour week to 5.3 hours per day—or 2.7 hours if we were willing to return to the 1948 level. We were already the richest country on the planet in 1948 and most of the world has not yet caught up to where we were then.
Will we ever stop? I think the crux of the problem is it's tremendously difficult to opt out of the consumer treadmill in any meaningful and significant way. Part of the goal of this blog will be to look at ways our family is trying to live more simply and at least half-heartedly swimming against this tide.

An inspiration in this area has been my latest night time reading: Beyond Capitalism & Socialism: A New Statement of an Old Ideal. I'll be posting some reflections on the essays as a way to help me digest them.

... and be sure to go and read the whole Orion Mag article ... especially the story of the Kellogg company's 6-hour workday experiment.

1 comment:

friarpaul said...

Loved the article on the "The Gospel of Consumption"--a must read for all who want to know the "spirit of this world"--a central concept in the Pauline and Johannine epistles.

I recommend that one reads the following Scriptural texts as a lens through which to understand the article "The Gospel of Consumption".
Though the article has not a trace of theological language or God consciousness, what the writer explores is PRECISELY an insidious attack, in very high places, to get Americans bowing at the altar of the GOD OF MORE STUFF. Here is one of the great IDOLS of our age, and you hardly hear ne'er a word about it from the pulpits of our Churches nor the discussions of respectable Christians. KEEP UP THE GOOD WORK BRIAN!!!!!!!! And I'll keep reading!!!!!!!!

"For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms." (Ephesians 6:12)

See also

"This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world." (I John 4:3)

Or again, another personal favorite from John's first letter:

"For everything in the world—the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does—comes not from the Father but from the world."
(I John 2:16)