Get Rich Now

The economy will never be the same. It’s time to rethink our definition of “the good life.”


| January-February 2010



Get Rich

image by REUTERS / Sergei Karpukhin

This article is part of a package on rethinking the economy and how to prosper in the wake of the recession. For more, read Empire of the Stunned , Work Plan , and We Are All Madoffs .

Much of the debate over how to address the economic crisis has focused on a single word: regulation. And it’s easy to understand why. Bad behavior by a variety of businesses landed us in this mess—so it seems rather obvious that the way to avoid future economic meltdowns is to create, and vigorously enforce, new rules proscribing such behavior. But the truth is quite a bit more complicated. The world economy consists of billions of transactions every day. There can never be enough inspectors, accountants, customs officers, and police to ensure that all or even most of these transactions are properly carried out. Moreover, those charged with enforcing regulations are themselves not immune to corruption, and, hence, they too must be supervised and held accountable to others. The upshot is that regulation cannot be the linchpin of attempts to reform our economy. Instead, what needs to be eradicated, or at least greatly tempered, is consumerism: the obsession with acquisition that has become the organizing principle of American life.

This does not require that one reject capitalism, nor is it the same thing as ending consumption. As long as consumption is focused on satisfying basic human needs—safety, shelter, food, clothing, health care, education—it is not consumerism. When the acquisition of goods and services is used to satisfy higher needs, such as self-esteem and self-actualization, however, consumption turns into consumerism—and consumerism becomes a social disease.

A culture in which the urge to consume dominates the psychology of citizens is a culture in which people will do most anything to acquire the means to consume—working slavish hours, behaving rapaciously in their business pursuits, and even bending the rules in order to maximize their earnings. They will buy homes beyond their means and think nothing of running up credit-card debt. It therefore seems safe to say that consumerism is, as much as anything else, responsible for the current economic mess. But it is not enough to establish what people ought not to do, to end the obsession with making and consuming ever more than the next person. Consumerism will not just magically disappear from its central place in our culture. It needs to be supplanted by something.

 

Profound transformations in the definition of “the good life” have occurred throughout human history. Before the spirit of capitalism swept across much of the world, neither work nor commerce was a highly valued pursuit. For centuries in aristocratic Europe and Japan, making war was a highly admired profession. In China, philosophy, poetry, and brush painting were respected during the heyday of the literati. Religion was once the dominant source of normative culture; then, following the Enlightenment, secular humanism was viewed in some parts of the world as the foundation of society. In recent years, there has been a significant increase in the influence of religious values in places like Russia and, of course, the Middle East. It is true that not all these changes have elevated the human condition. The point is merely that such change, especially during times of crisis, is possible.

andrei timoshenko
1/19/2010 8:16:36 AM

The trouble with consumerism is not the pursuit of resources in and of itself, rather it is a pursuit of resources as an end, rather than as means for something else. Consumerism offers no happiness because it is a game in which whoever has the most toys wins. However, having a lot of toys does not itself produce happiness, especially if you neither know how to play with most of them, nor want to do so.