Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The Moral Paradox of Consumer Capitalism

The modern economy depends on people living and acting in ways that offend the moralists among us. Unless investors throw money at harebrained schemes and consumers ruin themselves to get more useless trinkets, the system sags into depression. I remember reading once that all of the economic gains that have accrued to poor Americans since WW II have happened in the top year of each business cycle; only when foolish investors are desperately competing for workers to put up another doomed shopping mall and middle class people are spending themselves into bankruptcy does any of our wealth trickle down to maids and laborers. The internet stock boom of the 90s was a completely ludicrous event, a study in crowd psychology equal to the Dutch tulip mania, yet it served the purpose of directing so many billions at technology companies that they were able to quickly create a whole online world.

I have long pondered this wearisome truth, and this week Paul Krugman has a column restating this paradox:
The years leading up to the 2008 crisis were indeed marked by unsustainable borrowing, going far beyond the subprime loans many people still believe, wrongly, were at the heart of the problem. Real estate speculation ran wild in Florida and Nevada, but also in Spain, Ireland and Latvia. And all of it was paid for with borrowed money.

This borrowing made the world as a whole neither richer nor poorer: one person’s debt is another person’s asset. But it made the world vulnerable. When lenders suddenly decided that they had lent too much, that debt levels were excessive, debtors were forced to slash spending. This pushed the world into the deepest recession since the 1930s. And recovery, such as it is, has been weak and uncertain — which is exactly what we should have expected, given the overhang of debt.

The key thing to bear in mind is that for the world as a whole, spending equals income. If one group of people — those with excessive debts — is forced to cut spending to pay down its debts, one of two things must happen: either someone else must spend more, or world income will fall.

The impulse of the moralizers -- tighten our belts, forget about excesses that were bad for our souls anyway, concentrate on spiritual things rather than money -- is, in economic terms, a disaster. The moral impulse is to think that the severe recession is something we deserve for our past profligacy, something we can get through only by buckling down. It is a test of our character that we must pass before we deserve relief. You can see this in particular in comments on the notion that the Federal Reserve could help us out by just printing money. People who don't like the idea are not really arguing about the economics of the money supply, they are just sure in their guts that "tricks" don't work and there is "no easy way out." But both economics and recent history argue that the moralists are wrong. The recession will end when people stop tightening their belts and start spending money again. From what I read it seems quite likely to me that "tricks" like deficit spending and raising the money supply really can help the economy. I have the sense that our whole economy is a trick, in which unsustainable spending and foolish investment somehow keep the machine of growth going.

I write this as a moralist myself. I have always had a jaded view of our consumer paradise, and I am quite certain that always chasing after more stuff and bigger houses does not make anybody happier. There is a part of me that delights to read about ruined speculators in Florida and Las Vegas. I sometimes dream about a world in which people would be content with less, in which finding more time to be with our friends and families would be more important than climbing the corporate ladder, in which people would focus on connection and meaning rather than success. I know, though, that if too many people did this at once the whole system would collapse.

Perhaps it is fortunate that the impulses driving us to spend, to acquire, and to flaunt are so strong, because we don't know how to make the world work without them.

1 comment:

David said...

It has often seemed to me that our entire financial system is essentially a giant pyramid scheme. This seems to me especially true of the stock market, since no one has ever given me a reason why people buy stock, except that they think someone else will pay more for it sometime in the future. Apparently dividends are unimportant. That seems to me nearly the very definition of a pyramid scheme.

I'm not much of a moralist, so none of this bothers me in that sense. But it does make me nervous.