Ask pretty much anyone if people are too materialistic and too focused on consumption and most people will agree. Most people will agree that the amount of consumption and the drive to buy in this country (and most highly-developed countries for that matter) is too high and in the end, unsustainable.

Paul Wong
Jess Piskor

Ask an economics major or someone from our world-renowned business school and you are more likely to get a different answer: that consumer spending drives our economy and any negative change in spending habits will send our economy into a spiral of destruction. According to a letter to the editor in yesterday’s Daily by Adam Southard, an Econ major, “economic analysis illustrates the United States is not at its optimal (or maximum) level of consumption.” In other words, people in the United States should be getting even more stuff.

Not at optimal consumption? You mean we can buy more? Why? What more do we possibly need? Last Friday we all set a new record by spending $1.26 billion at Wal-Mart. Optimal for whom? Could we be buying more? Maybe. Should we be? No. See, that’s the problem with the economic thought spouted out from too many people. Sure, maybe economic theory suggests that people could buy more. But ask any real person in the real world and they are quite certain that the focus on consumption is too great.

Why is there this dichotomy between what real people think and what economics teaches? Partly it is a because economics thought is by no means the absolute science some people seem to think it is. It is a tool used by those in power to justify their policies. Its theories are not as definite as real scientific theories like gravity and relativity. The economics of liberal, free-market ideology too often ignore reality and factors other than money in pursuit of smooth graphs and convincing arguments.

Our society as a whole feels we consume too much, but our best economic data suggests that we need to consume at this level or greater in order to maintain our economic system. Does anyone else see a problem with that? It seems people try to trick us with statistics to prove that we should buy more when we already consume too much.

Regardless of where people draw the line, I think everyone and I do mean everyone, would agree that their will come a point where people consume too much. Somewhere, that line exists.

Maybe, just maybe, our consumption is within the bounds of acceptability. But the problem is, next year these economists will tell us we need to consume more than last year and more the year after that. We will be flooded with more and more stuff and rest assured people will buy it in record numbers, again and again. The demands of growth and economic expansion will require we keep buying more and more. It will never stop.

From this it follows that we will eventually (if we are not there already) come up to one of two barriers: Either we will definitely exceed the limits of responsible buying and move into over-consumption or before we get there, the U.S. consumer will be tapped out and will be forced to stop consuming out of personal economic necessity. Both outcomes are by definition bad. The former will promote an unsustainable, overly materialistic world and the latter will violently and suddenly halt the U.S. economy and bankrupt corporations and individuals alike.

So even people who don’t agree with me that we are already over-consuming should be worried. Why not head this coming problem off at the pass? We need to search for alternatives that won’t force consumers to buy more each year. We need to start slowly weaning the economy from it’s dependence on excessive consumer spending.

Last Friday was Buy Nothing Day. Held on that day after Thanksgiving that sends herds of shoppers to kick off the holiday buying season, Buy Nothing Day is day designed to provide a counter to the glorification of shopping. Maybe that’s a start. I always thought it was a pretty benign idea: Take one day to glorify not buying; spread the idea that enjoyment can be found without purchasing something new. But I was quite surprised by the way people responded to the premise of Buy Nothing Day. People seemed threatened, as though their very lives depended on buying every day. Stop buying? “Nonsense,” they said, “What about the sales? What about the economy?”

The vast majority of history, even the vast majority of U.S. history, was a time where consumption wasn’t glorified, where people didn’t buy stuff every day. Now people and society itself feels threatened by one day, one day only, out of the year when we don’t consume. It’s pathetic.

Jess Piskor can be reached at jpiskor@umich.edu.

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