Friday, January 25, 2008

The End of Economic Fetishism

I laughed at Barbara Ehrenreich's comment on the bipartisan politicos' effort to stave off recession:
With all the talk about how to stimulate it, you’d think that the economy is a giant clitoris.... The immediate how best to get the economy engorged and throbbing again.

The joke works, too, if the economy were a giant penis. Either way, politicians' desire to stimulate our economic lives is the politics of the pimp, a $1200 come-on from the Wall Street john. For most of us struggling in the middle classes, all this economic stimulation will produce at best fleeting pleasure, consumerist titillation, climaxed at the cash register, and usually ending there. To be sure, $1200 is not nothing, which is what we would otherwise get, what we usually get. But is that what we really want? Will such consumerist titillation change anyone's lives?

Even if this stimulation works and gets the economy throbbing again, the politicos' obsession with the consumerist fetish doesn't begin to address deeper questions:
  1. Does economic growth really make us wealthier?
  2. Does it make our world better?
  3. Does it make us happier?
1) The much ballyhooed economic growth in recent decades serves mainly to create a huge and increasing gap between rich and the rest of us, who try to keep up by working too hard, 350 hours a year longer than Europeans or Japanese. Much of that enforced workaholism is economically ephemeral, except for those who own a home. No surprise, then, that the bursting housing market bubble is the reason the politicos decided to get together and throw a $1200 sop to us middle class saps. Santa Barbara is perhaps a great example of this class dynamic of comfortable wealth, invisible poor, and struggling, over-worked, middle class DINS (double-income no sex), except that the middle class in Santa Barbara hasn't been able to purchase a home since maybe 1998.

2) Even if our politicians won't connect the economy to the environment, many people, especially in places like Santa Barbara, are now beginning to realize that a stimulated, throbbing economy predicated largely on the dizzying production and consumption of stuff ain't natural. Global economic growth, especially in China and India, is stretching resources and stressing the planet. Choose your Armageddon: peak oil or global warming. Rather than addressing the question of sustainability, politicians can only think to provoke our consumerist fetish in order to stimulate unsustainable economic growth.

3) Finally, fortunately, is the question of happiness. As Bill McKibben argues with grace and hope, "the more we nurture the essential humanity of our economy, the more we will recapture our own." He advocates sustainable, local economies, that value connections to people rather than wealth as the source of human happiness. Why work so hard for money if it doesn't make us happy? Why destroy the environment if there's no happiness in it? Why do we focus on our consumerist fetish when what we really want is so much bigger and more human?

I'm not advocating that our leaders do nothing to prevent recession or depression. I also have to struggle to feel the hope promised by local economies in some murky, idealistic, post-apocalyptic future. I'm not sure what the answers are. But I'm not turned on by stimulating economic growth or tricked by the john's promise of $1200.


Trekking Left said...

The $1200 does nothing but make the politicians feel better because they feel that they are doing something. Plus, the best way help it work is to target it to the poor ... which, of course, Bush won't do.

Anyway, I agree that the U.S. economic rise is unsustainable. Not only is resource consumption an issue, but it presumes an infinite growth in population as well. We are definitely (some day) going to have to learn to be happy and "productive" without necessarily being the king of the economic hill.

George said...

Well, as they say, if the economic rise lasts for more than four hours, consult something better than a politician hiding behind an economist.

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