By Michael I. Niman, ArtVoice (etc.) 2/19/09
Over a century ago we used the term “consumption” to refer to tuberculosis, because it consumed its victims. Today the term is more commonly applied to our consumer-based culture—an entity we’re learning is far more deadly than tuberculosis. Our culture of consumption doesn’t simply kill its unwitting victims, happy in their materialist orgy. It kills off the very environment that sustains us while poisoning our souls with shallow, boring, product-based fantasies. It lulls us into a drunken state of complacency, where we feel safely shrouded in airbags as we drive off into a volcano. And now, we’ve finally found out, our addiction to consumerism has bankrupted our economy.
Ship us your bling
What I’m getting at here is that old school “economic stimulus” ain’t gonna get us out of this mess. It’s too complex. An economy based on endless growth and insanely euphoric consumer confidence is not sustainable economically or environmentally. The earth can’t take it. We’ve been ducking simple facts of physics. You can only pack so many people and so much garbage into one room—or planet. And the economy, like the environment, can’t take it. How sustainable did you think a service-based economy, where we basically manufacture weird conceptual “financial instruments” while the rest of the world ships us their bling, would be?
We’ve been on life support for a while. We’ve medicated our dying planet with a junkie’s dose of denial, buying McMansions and Ford Expeditions with make-believe dollars. And we’ve hidden the insolvency of our economy by tossing debt around like a game of hot potato, repackaging dung in candy bar wrappers. Through denial and fraud, we managed to keep the party careening into the 21st century as phrases like “tipping point” and “peak oil” became de rigueur. It’s not a coincidence that the global economy and environment both seem to have climaxed at the same time.
“Economic stimulus” isn’t a magic voodoo fix. If it works, it’s really just digital crack. Yeah, it would feel good—we’d be stimulated. We can go back to working and shopping, consuming things that shouldn’t be ours, with money we haven’t yet earned, while all the fundamental life signs of our economy and environment continue to tank. Crack. Feels real good at the moment. Seems like all your problems are gone—for the moment. Eventually it kills you and sickens everyone connected to you. We’ll borrow money so we can continue doing what we’ve been doing to get to this uncertain juncture in human history.
Don’t get me wrong—I haven’t given up hope. Only my version of hope doesn’t mean we return to the stupor we were in. Hope means we sober up as a culture. We may not want to save an auto company, like Chrysler, who welcomed the new century by dropping all fuel-efficient small cars from its lineup just as “peak oil” started to set in and global warming started slamming us with weirder and weirder weather. Hope doesn’t mean saving banks that went insolvent issuing predatory loans and underwriting the McMansion boom.
The cancer model
Our fiscal emergency, or “collapse,” is predicated upon just a few percentage points of economic contraction. Yet, for the global environment to survive, our economies, which are basically measured by their material output of things, must contract. We have to abandon the old formula that mandates endless economic growth. Cancer enjoys endless growth—until it consumes its host. Historically, economic growth has always meant more pressure on the environment, with more resources consumed and more waste produced. This is not sustainable and we shouldn’t try to go back to the cancer model. Our economic collapse has given us some breathing room—time to get sober and reflect on our collective insanity. It’s given us opportunities to reboot not only the economy, but the culture. In this way it gives us hope.
Hope means we face the challenge of fiscal and environmental collapse and deal with both problems as the one sickness that they represent. We need to feed people, house people, educate and care for them. We don’t need to, and should not, get the SUV assembly lines back up and running.
This doesn’t mean we forget about auto workers and the millions of other people who have lost their jobs recently. A sane response to the current crisis would be a New Deal type jobs program that puts people to work—not back to work building gas guzzlers for a publically bailed out private equity firm, but building a sustainable, modern transportation and energy infrastructure. The recent stimulus bill contains some of these provisions, but it also funds new highway construction, which is an old school response, and the Senate almost added funding for new nuclear power plants, which would be a just plain insane handout to one of the most irresponsible industries the last century produced.
Putting people back to work building a 21st-century infrastructure isn’t going to be done with tax cuts. Tax cuts are designed to get people—historically the wealthiest among us—back into the malls and auto showrooms. That’s what got us into this mess. Getting people back into the SUV showrooms at this time, when they’ve finally gotten out of the showrooms and have finally stopped buying an endless stream of new cars, is not a good thing. We can no longer afford the “me me me,” only-baby-in-the-crib, gotta-have-it-all mentality. No. To hell with tax cuts. I’m very thankful that I have a job, and as part of an interconnected society where my well-being is tied to that of my neighbors, I think those of us who still have jobs should be happy to pay more taxes to hopefully put those who don’t back to work—so they too can one day pay taxes and ultimately help pay down the national debt.
Of course we need to be vigilant about how our tax money is spent. For starters, we shouldn’t just bag it up and hand it over to the same bankers and CEOs who got us into this financial and environmental mess. And we shouldn’t incinerate it along with hundreds of thousands of people in Bush’s still simmering zombie wars.
The current economic strategy, which the Obama administration inherited, is indeed a bailout. It squanders badly needed public funds in an attempt to prop up otherwise insolvent megabanks that have so far used bailout funds to gobble up smaller, healthier banks that subsequently become infected by the toxic debts and strategies of their new owners.
I understand the strategy here is to prop up financial markets and protect people’s investments. But let’s talk a bit here about personal responsibility. People invested irresponsibly, both with regard to their own finances and with regard to the social impacts of their investments. Investors got used to expecting double-digit returns, acting as if they actually earned this money or otherwise had it coming to them through some lineup of the stars. They avoided any questions as to where the money was coming from, and the human, social, and environmental costs related to this mysterious transfer of wealth. Such irresponsibility is what brought us to this juncture. The free market worshiped by so many investors is now making a u-turn and punishing its most devoted adherents. Perhaps, if we let people take responsibility for their own mistakes, they’ll invest more responsibly in the future.
I am concerned about people who have lost their pensions through irresponsible decisions to which they were not a party. Protecting the retirement savings of hard-working innocents and preventing the ensuing social meltdown that the loss of such pensions would cause is one of the most important functions of government. Bailing out rich greedy bankers is not.
Yes, we can put everyone back to work. The wealth is still here. But let’s not put them back to work in offices selling and collecting debt to and from each other, building useless and destructive products, or figuring out how to break unions and temporarily fatten Wall Street. Let’s put people back to work building the infrastructure we need to save us, rather than the one that is killing us.
Then, once everyone is working once again, we can get down to the serious business of figuring out an equitable way to reinvent our society so we can ultimately work less, produce less, consume less, live better, and maybe leave a sustainable planet for future generations.
Dr. Michael I. Niman is a professor of Journalism and Media Studies at Buffalo State College. His previous columns are available at www.artvoice.com, archived at www.mediastudy.com, and available globally through syndication.
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