Measuring economic growth: Consumption or Community


Sign at Occupy Wall Street, NY

I am re-reading a book by David H. Jenson entitled Responsive Labor in light of our current economic conditions here in the U.S. (and throughout the world). It helps give perspective the economic proposals by the Republicans as well as protests like Occupy Wall Street. It seems that while not all the Occupy Wall Street crowd has valid claims, we shouldn’t summarily dismiss them all as lazy brats, jealous of the rich. There is a road that America has traveled bringing us to this point. We are drunk with the myth that consumption will cure all woes. Jenson says it this way:

The problem with current reigning measurements of growth, then, is that they are fixed too firmly to consumption, the using up of resources and gifts. As a result, work and gifts that cannot be consumed fall by the wayside—the unpaid work that sustains health, friendship, the pursuit of knowledge, family, and the daily tasks of homemaking. A society that cared about abundance and growth would draw this immeasurable work into its account of economic life (110).

John Cobb has dubbed this paradigm of growth “economism”—“the belief that society should be organized for the sake of economic growth. Those who hold this belief assume that economic growth is good for human beings
” Economism has the ring of a truism: of course, growth is good! But has economic growth led to the flourishing of human community? Glancing at the last thirty years of American life, it is not evident at growth has been only the bearer of good news. The phenomenal expansion of the U.S. economy the end of World War II, especially in the past few decades, has not resulted in increased prosperity for all; in fact, it seems to have accelerated rates of poverty. Growth, moreover, has not led to an increase in meaningful work. Cobb and Daly point to the surges in part-time work and rates of unemployment that have accompanied the rise in national GDP (111).

Those who believe that the politicians are going to fix our problems economically have misplaced their trust. Our success is not anchored in more jobs, taxes (or reduction) all which suggest a restoration of consumption, ergo restoration of our economy. We find ourselves here because of what we sacrificed for the “American dream.” Our true economic woes began when the U.S. capitalism jettisoned its Judea-Christian ethic that would, as Jenson suggests, value non-consumable gifts such as pursuit of knowledge and one wage income families. Companies are now unfettered to focus on Wall St. success measurements, gone are decreased earnings in favor of enhanced community (i.e. family, education, healthcare, etc). The frustration of the Occupy Wall Street crowd is, in many ways, society screaming for what Jenson claims as important, although in a muffled and less succinct manner: The right to earn a wage without consuming all of your time and the ability to earn an education without it costing all of your parent’s savings or putting the student in debt for half of their adult life. With the departure of the Judea-Christian ethic, financial, government, and educational institutions can do what is best for them and not the community, manufacturers can up production, while sharing less profits with workers and requiring more hours. Before you expect to hear my voice mail recording changed to “Gone to join the occupy protest,” we all should be reminded that consumerism begins with the individual choices. Our greatest protest power is found in the very thing that got us to this point of economic messianic expectations of our politicians and pervasive protests: the choice of our spending power and the choice of what we are going to value most. The question is will we trim our consumption on principle, choosing not to purchase from those who exploit, and those who value consumption over community?

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