Men and boys are learning all kinds of trades but how to make men of themselves. They learn to make houses; but they are not so well housed, they are not so contented in their houses, as the woodchucks in their holes. What is the use of a house if you haven’t got a tolerable planet to put it on? — If you cannot tolerate the planet that it is on? Grade the ground first. If a man believes and expects great things of himself, it makes no odds where you put him, or what you show him … he will be surrounded by grandeur. He is in the condition of a healthy and hungry man, who says to himself, — How sweet this crust is!
— Henry David Thoreau
When talk began of the trillion-dollar stimulus package and zeroes began to swim before my eyes, along with visions of my impoverished grandchildren and great-grandchildren, I began to wonder about the idea of a consumer economy. I’m no economist and not a professional historian so I honestly don’t know some of the answers: what exactly is a consumer economy? is it better than the alternatives? what are the alternatives? is there such thing as a producer economy? did we once have one and was it replaced? And then, with some doubt, do we want to continue with a consumer economy by propping it up with a stimulus package? Do we want to continue down this same road?
If we do decide that the sort of economy to have is a consumer economy, then we probably do need to get people shopping for more stuff. Then again, that striving for ever more stuff in the wake of the astonishing prosperity of the postwar years, has led us toward suburbs and urban sprawl, instant mashed potatoes, Jell-o salad, Wal-Mart, McDonalds, Diners Club, and Ron Popeil’s Ronco empire of things we never knew we needed.
Yesterday in The New York Times economist Thomas Friedman asked “a radical question”:
Let’s today step out of the normal boundaries of analysis of our economic crisis and ask a radical question: What if the crisis of 2008 represents something much more fundamental than a deep recession? What if it’s telling us that the whole growth model we created over the last 50 years is simply unsustainable economically and ecologically and that 2008 was when we hit the wall — when Mother Nature and the market both said: “No more.”
We have created a system for growth that depended on our building more and more stores to sell more and more stuff made in more and more factories in China, powered by more and more coal that would cause more and more climate change but earn China more and more dollars to buy more and more U.S. T-bills so America would have more and more money to build more and more stores and sell more and more stuff that would employ more and more Chinese …
We can’t do this anymore.
Read the rest here; it’s not very long but offers plenty to think about.
It makes me feel less loopy, as a home educating farm wife on the prairie who steered clear from any economics courses, reads more than she remembers, and has to keep looking up exactly how many zeroes are in a trillion, to know I’m not the only one asking away and wondering and that some of the others who are asking and wondering do in fact know what they’re talking about. The connection between Mother Nature and the economy occurred to me the other day as I was getting together a list of resources for the kids on the present situation and the Great Depression, and, to a lesser extent, the Panic of 1893. Their recent questions — including “when does a recession turn into a depression” — made me realize we need to do more than just discuss the news they read and hear about. And there’s no separating Mother Nature and her Dust Bowl from the Great Depression.
As I’ve been thinking about this for the past month or so, I also remembered reading in the 1986 E.B. White biography by Scott Elledge that in 1933 Andy White had written a three-piece satirical essay on the Depression, though I couldn’t recall any of the particulars. I looked it up in the book and found the series was called “Alice Through the Cellophane”. Here’s what Mr. Elledge wrote,
In [the series White] took issue with various theories advanced for remedying the Depression. To the economists who held that prosperity could be regained only by restoring the consumers’ buying power, he said that “man’s buying power is one of the least noble of his powers and should not be the arch that supports his peace and well-being.” Efforts to stimulate production too, he believed, were misguided. Pointing to the excess of unnecessary goods already being manufactured, and to their consumption by people whose demand for them had been artificially stimulated, he advocated buying nothing — or at least no more than absolutely needed. He proposed, on the contrary, to decrease production, and to do that by means of a paradoxical scheme: by paying the highest executives the lowest wages and the lowest-ranking employees the highest salaries. Such a pay scale would provide no incentive to climb the ladder, and those finding themselves by mischance at its top would have no desire to stay there and produce more goods.
White concluded the essay by calling up the memory of Henry David Thoreau, who “had rejected the complexity of life,” and by urging his fellow men to imitate Thoreau. His final words were:
“The hope I see for the world, even today, is to simplify life . . . . Nature (whose course we are about to prevent her from taking) is, I grant, complicated; but it is only on the surface that her variety is baffling. At the core it is a simple ideal. You feel it when lying stretched on warm rocks, letting the sun in. It is just possible that in our zeal to manufacture sunlamps at a profit, we have lost forever the privilege of sitting in the sun.”
(I’d like to request, please, that The New Yorker consider making E.B. White’s three-part series, “Alice through the Cellophane”, 1933, available online for free to all readers as a public service. Many thanks.)