As daily reports on the economic downturn flood the media, so do calls for more consumer confidence and spending. Politicians right and left urge Americans to spend their tax refund checks to help bolster the economy and return to pre-Sept. 11 highs.
What we rarely consider, however, are the panoply of factors behind the decrease in spending, as well as the alternatives to unchecked consumption as an economic cure.
The traditional signs of an ailing economy are clear: falling demand for goods, crippled supply chains, layoffs, and a freeze on new hires. In the traditional worldview, the reasons behind the creeping recession are seemingly evident. The remedy is thought to be easily available: inject even greater amounts of money into the virtuous circle of unsustainable consumption.
The uncertainty triggered by the terrorist attacks is blamed for the nationwide plunge in sales and air travel. With life set to return to normal one of these days, however, human behavior is soon expected to return to the statistical variations of usual projections.
Indeed, five months ago it seemed the world had inextricably changed and was holding us to a higher standard.
An appeal to the highest of American values moved the hearts of thousands to labor in the ruins, hauling debris, giving blood, or sending a check or just a note of condolences and of reassurance.
What if the shock truly has shifted our thinking? Airplanes may be grounded because we would rather be at home than jet-setting across the globe. Store shelves might be stocked because we realize we have enough. Restaurants could be empty because we prefer to dine around the family table and movies may go unseen because we would rather talk with a friend.
What if we have realized this is not just a material world?
Then the traditional economic cure of consumption frenzy would not provide the necessary potency. What is needed instead is a comprehensive reexamination of the needs of society as a whole, and not just of certain industrial sectors.
The government, rather than the taxpayers, should spend the money necessary to boost the economy in ways that would increase living standards across the board. It can do so in at least three respects.
First, we should augment revenue for “front-line” services such as hospitals, schools, and child and elderly care. Increased construction of social facilities and higher salaries for trained nurses, doctors, and teachers will spur the economy and benefit society. In fact, in one of its last sessions before adjourning in 2001, Congress earmarked more than 600 health care projects to receive federal funding. More recently, Sen. Edward Kennedy called for postponing $300 billion worth of last year’s tax cuts so the nation could afford a prescription drug program and better early childhood education and health care.
Second, we should develop physical infrastructure. The United States is one of the few countries in the world without a properly functioning public transportation system. Better and faster railroads would shift the demand for cheap gasoline. It would also alleviate dependence on foreign oil. More bus routes would connect more people to working places, increasing fuel efficiency, diminishing commutes, and alleviating stress. Rather than asking the rich to buy more cars and bigger houses to revitalize the economy, the government should spend more on housing.
Third, we should invest in beauty and sustainable livelihoods. Construction and improvement of parks might not seem a conventional economic remedy. Nonetheless, it would create jobs while leaving a long-term mark on the national social fabric.
In disciplines ranging from architecture to psychology, it is now conventional wisdom that a beautiful environment contributes to peoples’ emotional well being. Investment in environmental enhancement raises the standard of living not only for the privileged but for all of society.
We need not solely look to government to solve our economic problems. By investing in improving our natural environment, businesses can create demand for new technologies and innovations. By exercising their market power, consumers can increase the supply of cleaner, longer-lasting, more efficient products.
Instead of craving more material goods and larger storage spaces, we might consider spending our money on things that bring us spiritual — as opposed to material — enrichment. Learning a new skill or language, joining a yoga studio or a marshal arts class are all pathways for personal as well as economic growth.
It has long been recognized that poverty, unsustainable consumption, and environmental degradation are multiple faces of the same problem.
Yet, little could be done to bridle the unrestrained consumerism bolstering the largest economy in the world. Maybe Sept. 11 and the ensuing economic downturn have deeper meaning than we have been able to fathom.
It is time we reexamine the values and belief systems underpinning the American economic model. Sustainable development might indeed be worth thinking about.
Maria Ivanova is a doctoral student at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.