Victor Margolin

Illustration by Lucien Stairs

As a remedy to the current economic downturn, economists tell us that we have to spend more money to keep the financial system from collapsing. This advice is on a collision course with the admonition to conserve resources for ecological reasons and save money for future needs. Should spending slow down, we are told, millions of jobs will be lost. But let’s look closer at the situation. Should addicts and recreational drug users continue to buy drugs to keep pushers from seeking unemployment compensation?

Similar to the thousands of parts suppliers who are supported by the automobile industry, think about all the jobs that would be lost if drug users went cold turkey. What about all the luxury industries that drug dealers with fistfuls of cash support? Fancy hotel suites, expensive clothes, limousine services, luxury cars, fine restaurants, gold chains and more. Thousands of people work in these industries and earn their livelihoods indirectly from drug money. And what about the huge industry of drug prevention? Drug counselors, methadone suppliers, and anti-drug campaigns that employ thousands of soldiers, FBI agents, and advertising agencies.

The drug culture is only one of the many sectors of the economy that thrive on the quest for acquisitions. Sixty-inch flat screen televisions are becoming the norm in American homes just as seven-inch screens once were. Computer software, video games, cell phones with their myriad applications, music downloading, and tons of other electronic toys support thousands of jobs. The author of a recent newspaper article expressed concern that the market for iPods was bottoming out. Must Apple have a new iPod killer app to survive? Likewise with the iPhone, the Macbook, etcetera. How different from a drug habit is keeping up with the fast turnover in electronics? In truth, we simply do not require as many things as manufacturers tell us we need. We buy much that isn’t necessary while we are informed that we must spend more to keep the economy from going under. There is surely a paradox here. The question is how to confront it.

When economists and politicians tell us to spend money, they are not addressing all that is wrong with how the economy is structured to begin with. Since the end of World War II, the American economy has been increasingly dominated by large companies that have driven out all the competition. Wal-Mart fostered the decline of small mom and pop stores of many types. Ace Hardware drove all the local hardware stores down. Starbucks killed many small coffee houses. Likewise, Sam’s Club, Costco, Target, Home Depot and other big box stores wiped out all the small suppliers as did Borders and Barnes and Noble in the book market and as large agribusinesses did to small and medium-sized farms. Now many of them are in trouble. Lots of large companies expanded with borrowed money. They depend on huge amounts of credit and, while they do not bilk investors, they extend beyond their means and end up hanging over a cliff when the credit supply dries up and spending slows down.

Those companies that are publicly held are also pressured by their boards to show quick short-term profits and thus they adopt strategies of rapid expansion to feed the next balance sheet. Is it any wonder that Linens ‘n Things, Office Max, Circuit City, and many other such companies that opened thousands of stores are crashing? They all depend on huge amounts of spending, whereas smaller enterprises can survive with more modest returns. The other side of the coin is that massive consumption is not in the interest of planetary survival. Not only does the voluminous oversupply of goods consume valuable resources, it also creates vast amounts of waste that are costly to dispose of. The fact of the matter is not that we do not spend enough but that we spend too much on the wrong things. To fully address the economic problems we face, especially in the United States, we need to rethink the structure of our economy. We do need more manufacturing and we need to make room for many more small enterprises both on the production side and in retail. Smaller stores have a better chance to survive in difficult times and they depend less on massive amounts of credit, thus are less affected if banks pull back on lending. Agribusinesses are useful for producing massive amounts of food, particularly for export, but we need a resurgence of small farms and ways for them to market their products. In the short term, quick fixes like more spending are necessary to prop up an economy on the brink of collapse. But in the long term, a shortsighted strategy of more consumption is not sustainable. We all need to think about how to reorganize our national economies and our lives so that we can live sustainably and sensibly without the threat of having to support an unsustainable economic system by consuming more of what we can easily live without.

Victor Margolin, Professor Emeritus of Design History in the Department of Art History of the University of Illinois at Chicago and a founding editor of DesignIssues, is a regular contributor to Design-Altruism-Project.

One Response to “The Monkey on Our Backs”

  1. Chris Watkins Says:

    I’ve thought about this, and agree with you, in that it’s not about spending less, but choosing what we spend it on.

    Economists tell us to spend more. Environmentalists tell us to use less. Solution? Buy a bike (or a greener car – the biggest impact is the use rather than the embedded energy). Pay for a massage, take a course – use services and greener products..

    Btw, thought about using an open license, so that parts of your very thoughtful blog could be reused, with attribution? By open (or free) I mean dropping the Noncommercial and NoDerivative clauses. This would let us use it on Appropedia (the sustainability / development / appropriate technology / open design wiki), for example.