The culture of consumer spending

Too few of us realize what scientists call the “stress beginnings” of contemporary society, namely the culture of consumerism.

As a background, we seem to forget that economic growth is vitally important for a majority of our population.

Growth creates new industries and generates the jobs needed to keep unemployment within reasonable limits.

The North American economy must grow by at least three per cent annually for that reason alone.

To achieve that goal, businesses and government, too, operate on the view that people can be programmed to have insatiable desires for goods and services, and along with that, ever-increasing expectations. Where does that lead? Author Thomas Homer-Dixon states that it entails “hyper consumers.”

Banks, automobile com­panies, makers of almost every conceivable product, use advertising to seduce us to buy an array of “things.” We are prompted to believe that we must make Herculean efforts for such purchases.

To aid that process our economic policy makers offer us incentives of all kinds. Then we become like drug addicts needing a fix: buying things that give, at best, momentary enjoyment. Hence, we take on consumer debt that puts us on a treadmill, and we make purchases beyond our means, such as houses or electronic gadgets.

Thus, in place of real pleasures like reading, gardening, playing a sport, family time, or conversation, we engage in consumerism.  

That can only be sustained by ignoring the negative effects of super growth.

It should come as no surprise then that this “system” has caused our present economic turmoil. Now, again proving that governments do not learn from past mistakes, low interest rates are introduced nowadays to get the public to resume borrowing and buying.

That has occurred even though our lives are saturated with “things,” an abundance that provides very little in happiness. In the absence of all those material goods we are feeling discontented.

Our economy is dependent on consumer-induced growth and that, of course, means chronic insecurity. It should be noted that in the United States consumers now account for about 72 per cent of GDP, compared with around 40 per cent in other nations.

It is worth recalling that after the 9/11 attack, President George W. Bush said that we should go out and buy.

In the view of this economist and columnist, one must hope the  population will recognize this culture of consumerism is a trap, resulting in an unsustainable economy bringing little lasting satisfaction.

Perhaps the wrenching economic adjustment underway will be “the light at the end of the tunnel” and put us on a new, more constructive path.





Bruce Whitestone