Tuesday, December 30, 2008

A "consume to live" economy

Imagine a continuum. There. Isn't that fun? No, wait, there's more. Imagine a continuum that has on its left a "live to consume" economy and on its right a "consume to live" economy.

What do I mean by those phrases? Well, a "live to consume" economy is one where people's thoughts and activities are organized around consumption. They are all about getting more stuff. They even get stuff for their stuff (e.g., useless ornaments for their cellphones). Companies are founded and people are hired to produce all this stuff. They grow by finding new types of stuff that people can be convinced they need. Other companies produce the equipment that stuff manufacturers need to produce stuff. Other companies produce the packaging that the stuff manufacturers put their stuff in. Other companies make accessories for the stuff. And yet other companies advise stuff manufacturers on what new types of stuff they can make. Then there are the companies that "help" people who don't have enough cash on hand convince stuff-sellers to let them take some stuff now under the promise (structured in some way) that they will pay later. And so on. The desire for stuff is never satisfied and in fact, it is engineered to never be satisfied. The desire or obsession with stuff creates a constant pressure for ever more and better stuff, without which the entire edifice collapses (sound familiar?).

A "consume to live" economy is not organized this way. It may be organized around many different things but imagine just one. Imagine an economy organized around people living valuable, grounded, wholesome lives in the pursuit of nobility, excellence and wisdom. In this economy, people would consume that which they needed to live their lives in the pursuit of the above goals. They would have basic shelter and adequate nourishment. They would have whatever psychic pleasure and diversionary activities such as would be needed to maintain a state of wellness.

So if we put the "live to consume" economy on the left of our continuum and the "consume to live" economy on the right, where do you think we are today? (Let's focus on the U.S.) It seems to me that we are very far to the left. Nearly all the way. We have our needs well taken care of and have been in this position for quite a long time. So we have the luxury to focus our resources elsewhere. [Note: I am well aware that we have many homeless and poverty stricken people in the U.S. My comments relate to the society in general.]

Now you might be thinking about Maslow's hierarchy now. But we are not behaving as Maslow predicted. We are not spending our resources (time, money, attention, etc.) on self-actualization. We are spending our resources on ever more elaborate means of masturbating. Yeah, I said masturbating. We spend an ungodly amount of effort thinking about stuff, planning to produce stuff, planning to buy stuff, saving up for stuff, talking about stuff... that we have no time to think about what might be important in life. We have no time to pursue wisdom. We have no time to ennoble ourselves and those around us. And we do this because, well, it feels good. OK, maybe masturbating wasn't fair. After all, we do buy stuff for others.

Is this the right way to live? The wizards that run our economy have been intent - for a goodly number of years now - on making sure we have access to capital to buy more stuff. Problem with the economy? Make sure consumers can get credit so they can buy stuff because when they buy more stuff, companies have to produce the stuff and they need workers for that production and the workers will then have jobs which means they'll get paid so they'll have money to buy stuff...

I don't think you need a doctorate in Logic to see the problem with a "live to consume" economy.

I don't know folks. It all seems like such a waste to me.

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