Phantom Wealth

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Consumption as a Way of Life

“Don’t people see

that we have gradually

become a nation

of debt slaves?”

 

Julie:

 

If we blindly accept our place in society as consumers — being valued primarily based on our financial wealth — and we go to extreme measures to display success to others, how does that impact our freedom?

 

Don’t people see that we have gradually become a nation of debt slaves?

 

This allure of consumerism, rooted in some modern myth of personal fulfillment at the cash register, has brought a fierce and determined mass loyalty to high consumption, no-limits lifestyles. Physically, we may be free; but psychologically, we enslave ourselves to the shallow and unexamined opinions of our neighbors about our value in society — primarily as consumers.

 

How many of today’s ‘consumers’ are aware of how we got to this place in our culture?

 

In 1955, marketing guru Victor LeBow proposed a solution to excess post-war industrial production that would determine how we live our lives today: consumption as a way of life!

 

The goal was to exalt the buying and use of goods into semi-sacred rituals and to seek spiritual and ego satisfaction in consumption.

 

Material wealth and consumption have become the generic cultural source of value and identity for most people in industrialized countries, and Western consumer culture has spread virally to industrializing high-population countries such as China, India, and Brazil.

 

With 70 percent of the U.S. economy dependent on the retail sector, collapsing consumption would have severe economic and social consequences.

 

So government makes hasty adjustments to monetary and fiscal policies and overrides natural free-market dynamics to bolster consumer confidence and increase retail sales and other discretionary economic activity whenever growth is remotely threatened.

 

People with this consumer’s sense of relationship and a tourist’s sense of place cannot grasp that human well-being depends on healthy natural and social systems, at the local level, and that we share a responsibility for restoring and preserving them.

 

The economic freedom many of us understand as the unimpeded individualistic pursuit of limitless desire is actually negative liberty, because it is blind to our true place in — and relationship to — the natural world.

 

This narrow conception of liberty is the basis for much of our current political economy, law, and governance, and much of our moral philosophy.

 

In the aftermath of the collapse of communism in 1989, the trend toward anti-regulatory and free-market orthodoxy in economics and public policy accelerated. The genie of unfettered, guilt-free mass consumption was out of the bottle.

 

Our colleges have become factories for producing compliant, debt-burdened workers destined for indentured service to sociopathic profit-seeking global corporations.

 

We should be moving to more local and regional economies. Perhaps small, local, and distributed should replace large, distant, and centralized models.

 

And while we’re at it, maybe it’s high time to break out of our fragile little consumer cocoons and begin to act more like artist-activists, challenging ourselves as engaged citizens to produce original ideas that have genuine life-serving value, rather than being duped into trying to shop our way to some elusive state of happiness and fulfillment as isolated ‘self-interested’ individuals.

 

Tucker:

 

Look, we just need to find a new source of cheap energy to keep our economy growing. We have to have growth, because that is the way our financial systems are designed — debt must be paid back — with interest!

 

Our current economic system has no easy route to a non-growth, steady-state economy. Its natural dynamics push it toward one of two states: the economy either grows or collapses, period.

 

There is no middle ground. Lowering taxes would put more money in people’s pockets, which would help boost consumption.

 

Growing the middle classes in developing countries is the key to prosperity for all.

 

Jack:

 

That is both deceitful and impossible. We have already overshot the carrying capacity of the planet with existing levels of consumption.

 

That discredited global wealth-production strategy would only further enrich a few well-connected business folks like you, folks with mobile capital available for investment; but it would be a disaster for the environment and for future generations.

 

To pursue relentless growth means blowing past several environmental planetary boundaries that define a safe ecological operating space for humanity and endangering the global ecosystem on which we — and all other species — depend for long-term survival.

 

No, what we need is a large and steadily rising carbon tax, a consumption tax, and — dare I say — a tax on babies, not a tax-break for them!

 

These would all send strong ‘price signals’ to modify behaviors for the common good.

 

Income taxes could be reduced or eliminated to compensate for these new taxes on environmental impact.

 

We should tax what we burn, not what we earn — tax social ‘bads,’ not social ‘goods.’

 

Jan:

 

Jack, what you propose would require bigger government. That is not the solution.

 

We don’t need to become a sissy European high-tax nanny state.

 

We need hard-working people who don’t expect handouts from their government.

 

We don’t want to encourage idleness in America.

 

Clara:

 

Jan’s right. Whatever happened to the good old Protestant Work Ethic?

 

We need to reduce regulations and get the government out of the way to free up the innovation that we need to solve our problems and get people working hard again.

Phantom Wealth

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​© 2019 Rich 'Rico' Leon