Friday, December 4, 2009

Cut the Crap

It is the holiday season and the whole world watches to see if the American consumer will rise to her obligation to shop till she drops. Tapped out, frightened that she will lose her job, busted from the market crash and the loss of value of her home, she probably is going to spend less. This probability provoked a spate of articles on the subject. The NYT ran a blog debate in September; "Saving the World Without US Consumers"
Jewel Samad/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Within the above is yet another article that suggests that the measures that we use to determine human and planetary well being are misguided. In other words there is more to the well being of the people of the world than just what they consume. The GNP or rate of growth as just a number belies the costs of the consequences of that activity.

James Surowiecki brings economic issues to the masses with his weekly column in NewYorker. This week his interest is the disparity between Chinese manufacturing and the relatively light consumption of the Chinese people. He makes an argument that they, and the rest of the world, would be a better place if they would just start buying more of what they produce.

He is not alone.The McKinsey Quarterly has published a series of articles on the subject that you can access here.

Neither of these articles address the impacts of increased consumption on the part of the Chinese. They are simply looked upon as a market.

Questions regarding the ethics of counting the economic activity of consumption without consideration of the consequences are not discussed.

Hazel Henderson has been writing about the horror of a system that would calculate the "value added" of say an earthquake from the perspective of the building activity that will follow as opposed to the negative impacts on the people who suffered from the disaster. What she and others want is a true cost accounting of economic activity. If you produce a hybrid car battery for a new Prius then someone is going to pay the cost of cleaning up the pollution created in the manufacturing process. That cost ought to be considered when we "value" the car.

The cost of environmental consequences is never on the books. Nor is the reality of the Limits to Growth.

You have probably read some form of 'how many planets it would take if everyone lived like we do". For balance read the following counter argument.

Behold there is another concept starting to gain some traction. Some economists are indeed considering the limits to unbridled economic activity and call for a Steady State.

It should be obvious that we can't achieve a steady state if we raise the standard of living of some people of the world without a balanced reduction by others. This is where the right has a hissy-fit. "That means we have less", they argue. And right they are.

Here's where Will begins. I want to name the crap we can do without. Stuff on which there is something like a consensus of its valuelessness. I am willing to trade my low value stuff for others ability to have more. I'll start my list with corn sugar. Less for me, more corn for tortillas where they are a staple. I will add fewer clothing garments, wearing what I own longer. I will eat less meat, eschew bottled water, and drop chips. I will not buy my grandson anything in a primary color this season, nor will I replace the aging Big Wheel. That's a start. It has implications for jobs. This is but a topics list of what should be a very long national discussion.

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