Shopping and Stimuli: On Economic Citizenship

Now that tax season is well behind us, I was wondering what had become of a certain messianic stimulus package. Its mysterious disappearance from collective memory may be due to more than the nation’s short attention span. Our failure to analyze its impact, in fact, may merely reveal a hesitance behind our transition to a “newer” standard of national excellence. Setting aside cultural achievement, for instance, we apparently strive for nothing beyond the growth of the Market.

Historian Robert H. Zieger describes the effects of Cold War paranoia at mid-century: an overriding U.S. concern that those brainy Soviets would out-culture us, make us look stupid, and, well, blow us up. Amidst “an orgy of self-doubt and internal agonizing,” Zieger states, Americans wondered if their lives of plenty were causing them to suffer from “popular complacency and self-indulgence,” while the Commies soared to world dominance on Sputnik’s antennae.1 With such scenes before their eyes, many a public figure demanded that the nation shake itself out of its prosperous ease and focus on education and self-restraint. “Economic abundance, charged [John F.] Kennedy, had “˜so undermined our strength of character that we are now unprepared to deal with the problems that face us… Disaster is our destiny. Unless we reinstall the toughness, the moral idealism which has guided this nation during its history.'”2 Policies emerging before and after Kennedy’s tenure, such as 1958’s National Defense Education Act and 1964’s Civil Rights Act, says Zieger, “indicated a broad pattern of public support for active government,”3 even if it meddled with the financially robust status quo.

I’m not sanctioning much of the John-Waynesian ideology inherent in such “toughness,” and I don’t want to portray the Kennedy administration, so steeped in its own inimitable gaffes, as the height of governmental nobility. After all, much of Kennedy’s own New Frontier was aimed at staving off the Soviets-not at national self-actualization. The attitudes that Zieger describes, however, contrast conspicuously with our current beliefs about the market, and the individual’s place within it.

Facing its own crisis, the Bush administration had a unique plan for meeting the new century’s challenges. Shore up our educational institutions? Encourage public service? Nope. The best way to help our ailing States, apparently, was to shop. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the president “insisted that “˜Americans must get back to work, to go shopping, going to the theatre [sic], to help get the country back on a sounder financial footing.'”4 The nation would not stand or fall on the strength of its people or its government-but on the resilience of its markets. Under such an assumption, closing our eyes and spending is just as upstanding as voting and volunteering for jury duty.

Obviously, our ability to feed, clothe, shelter ourselves, and so on, is linked to the health of the economy. But its continual growth? The perpetual increase of production and consumption, an ever-greater deluge of toys and toasters and Toyotas? As Barbara Ehrenreich asks,

What is this fixation on growth anyway? … the “cult of  growth” has led to global warming, ghastly levels of  pollution, and diminishing resources. Tumors grow, at  least until they kill their hosts; economies ought to be  sustainable.5

This rampant growth means, among other things, that we’re drowning in our own mass-produced waste, even as our perceived need to consume it becomes ever more ravenous and increasingly difficult to satisfy.

Think about this addiction-and note how the stimulus package feeds it. The handout was, remember, going to shake us out of our appalling newfangled failure to shop 24/7, for all kinds of necessities such as Webkinz, the latest iPhone, or that second DVD player for both cars. This care package was to have been a beneficent boost for a nation suddenly unable to support its habit of turning frills into essentials. (Life without cable? Unthinkable.)

This plan may have contained a sliver of sense- at least to those for whom six hundred dollars might really have constituted the final bit of cash necessary to buy a little something special. Not only alleviating the pangs of our dispirited economy, these lucky few would attain temporary release from the drudgery of increasingly lengthy work hours and commutes, the frustration of microwaved lunches, and the disappointing reality of a weirdly-lit cubicle.

Whether or not such purchases really propel anyone into a happier or less stressful life, this much-touted blessing turned out to be an insultingly empty symbol, a reminder of what we could accomplish if our priorities lay elsewhere. For instance, in forcing American-style democracy upon others, we’re frittering away a sum strikingly close to that of the stimulus package. The Nation estimates that war spending this year “will easily top $160 billion”6 -a little over 95% of the total taken from government coffers in order to maintain our shopping habits.7 If we weren’t throwing down this bundle on the war, we might not be in a situation that some feel requires a stimulus. Again, The Nation:  “Redirecting Iraq War funds to education, healthcare, renewable energy and infrastructure would create up to twice as many jobs [as military spending does.]”8  If you feel like depressing and amazing yourself with the contrast between Is and Could Be, you can easily extend this thought experiment.

I’ll return to reality, though, and reveal the striking impact that the stimulus had on this writer’s life. Declining the instantly gratifying purchase of a flat-screen TV, I guiltily, grudgingly-and after an angry glare at the envelope that contained a fraction of governmental folly-deposited my bribe in the bank. Not destined for any special purpose, it essentially shored up that poor little account with a fleeting bit of reserve. Sure, I undermined the administration’s big plan, but how could I set aside reality and treat a few friends to dinner? See, I’ll need to have some cash in hand when my next health care premium comes due. Given, my check won’t cover that expense, or take a minimal crack at the bills that my insurers won’t reimburse, since I sneezed once in the “˜80s and ended up with a pre-existing condition.

But even when it is time to shell out for my useless health care plan, that government assistance will already have disappeared, because I will in the interim have had to buy groceries, pay rent, and keep the electricity flowing, all before my farcical insurers have determined that forking out for an exam would only encourage me in selfish profligacy. Indulge in a spree at the mall? I chuckle at the suggestion.

Poor as I am, though, in the grand scheme of things, I never really would have missed that government handout. Being one of the more fortunate members of the lower income brackets, I realize that, if my financial situation were to become even more of a joke, I could cut out visits to the coffee shop or disconnect Internet access. Of course, I’m also aware that this sort of economizing isn’t possible for everyone; the more than 36 million Americans who lurk beneath the poverty line, after all, would love to be able to buy a cup of tea every day from the nice people down the street.9

Even $600, though, won’t heal financially dire circumstances. If, on the other hand, the total of the government’s gift packages were used to provide everyone with health care worth its name, functional public transportation, or affordable and safe housing for citizens of every income level, most people’s lives would certainly take a turn for the better. By “better” I mean increased ease in managing our daily lives. “Better,” though, also refers to the state of living more responsibly, an example of which our leaders are not providing us.

Ignoring their own cries for balanced budgets and fiscal accountability, our lawmakers have bestowed upon taxpayers, not only the cash equivalent of a Greyhound ticket, but counsel to run, not walk-or think before rushing out-to spend it. In other words, our leaders would have us go out and shop, even if we can’t really afford to do it. In taking their advice, we might end up with a few neat toys-but still won’t consider what our actions say about our place in and responsibility to the world.

There are, of course, different opinions regarding what social wellbeing means, and the ways in which we best achieve it. Near-exclusive focus on individual material comfort, however, distracts us from considering such questions, from understanding the implications of individual lifestyles upon the whole. Encased in our comfortable domestic cocoons, we fail to look critically at the wide world out there-and by this sin of omission, often wind up harming it. We go on, unthinkingly guzzling about 23% of global resources, even though we only comprise 5% of world population.10 We gobble up clothes and iPods, refusing to recognize how such consumption supports growing landfills and poor working conditions for sweatshop workers and underpaid cashiers.

And what real good, after all, will our baubles do us? Even if this stimulus works, and we all end up with new TV’s and a resilient economy, what, to be irritatingly “moral,” will such developments mean for our character? What sort of person is our government attempting to create with so much “free” cash? I would love to see the administration square its encouragement of a national shopping spree with the biblical principles it so often claims to espouse. How, for instance, would Free Market Jesus proclaim, “For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their soul?”11

Clearly, I’d like the government to rethink its slavish devotion to the growth of the market. But then the question becomes: What is the role of government? Merely to keep us from killing each other, in which case it constitutes nothing more than a police force? To provide an arena in which all can realize “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” as our own Declaration of Independence suggests?

Lately, the role of government seems merely to involve protection of the market, or really, of its biggest players (think oil, defense contractors, and telecoms, for example). Safeguarding its citizens-from each other, from “terrorists”-may also come into play, as long as this task doesn’t interfere with the first responsibility. So, big spenders such as Blackwater can ignore allegations of criminal activity at home and abroad; Chevron can apparently destroy entire chunks of Ecuador and expect the government to stand up for it.12 Etcetera and etcetera. The administration limits itself these days to fund manager (for itself and its friends) and constable (to keep everyone else docile). Its aspirations for the general public become restricted to turning out good deaf-mutes, while guaranteeing civil liberties and exemplary education for each citizen remains unimportant. Of course, to grant such provisions-the tools necessary to live that life of liberty in pursuit of happiness-would be extremely dangerous, lest a vigorous, critically conscious, and articulate horde realize its own power and decide to live as if it resided in a democracy.

I’ll leave you, finally, with a question: Why not abandon this faith in the ultimate value of economic growth? Before encouraging everyone to go buy another TV, we should revamp and recreate those institutions that help those people least able to participate fully in public-and private-life to get back on their feet. If we allow these services to be successful, this demographic will probably cease to need them-and end up serving the economy even   better than before! And with a healthier, more critically aware nation, we would not only be more   “competitive”-if we insist upon using that characteristic as a measure of vigor-we might also be more interesting.

In the unlikely event that we could return our checks and make it happen, we would have gotten away with a pretty good deal-even if it deprived the kids of that second pair of Nikes. Let’s roll, then, if roll we must-but down a different road, towards a new destination.

Creative Commons License photo credit: iChaz

• Footnotes
  1. Robert H. Zieger, “Uncle Sam Wants You… to Go Shopping,” Canadian Review of American Studies 34 (2004), 92. []
  2. Zieger, 94. []
  3. Zieger, 97. []
  4. Zieger, 94. []
  5. Barbara Ehrenreich, “RecessionWho Cares?” The Huffington Post; Internet; available from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/barbara-ehrenreich/recession-who-cares_b_80748.html; accessed 6 August 2008. []
  6. Editors of The Nation. “It’s the War Economy, Stupid!” in The Nation; Internet; available from http://www.thenation.com/doc/20080331/editors; accessed 6 August 2008. []
  7. Mark Silva, “Bush signs tax rebates, modest economic boost,” in The Swamp; Internet; available from http://www.swamppolitics.com/news/politics/blog/2008/02/bush_signs_tax_rebates_modest.html; accessed 6 August 2008. The stimulus package totaled $168 billion. []
  8. War Economy. []
  9. The CIA’s World Factbook estimates that twelve percent of the U.S. populationwhich totaled over 303 million in 2007falls beneath the poverty line. See Central Intelligence Agency, The World Factbook, Internet; available from https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/us.html# People; accessed 6 August 2008. This number, of course, fails to represent those who earn enough to find a place somewhere “above” this categorybut who also don’t have incomes great enough to grant them access to the realm of financial security, much less existence within the middle class. []
  10. World Population Balance, “Population and Energy Consumption,” Internet; available from http://www.worldpopulationbalance.org/pop/energy/; accessed 6 August 2008. The U.S. “consumes far more energy than any other country¦ the combined energy consumption of the other five largest added together doesn’t match U.S. energy consumption! In other words, the 5% of the world’s population that lives in the U.S. has more environmental impact than the 51% that live in the other five largest countries. []
  11. Matthew 8:36. []
  12. See, for example, P.W. Singer, “The Dark Truth About Blackwater,” Salon.com, Internet; available from http://www.salon.com/news/feature/2007/10/02/blackwater/index.html; accessed 6 August 2008. See also Democracy Now!, “Chevron Lobbies White House to Pressure Ecuador to Stop $12 Billion Amazon Pollution Lawsuit; Internet; available from http://www.democracynow.org/2008/8/5/chevron_lobbies_white_house_to_pressure; accessed 6 August 2008. Considering, too, negative perceptions of the United States, it would appear that the government is doing more to endanger its citizens than to protect them, where foreign hostility is concerned. []
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