All throughout my twenty-five years of teaching English to Business students, I raged against their cemented-in, almost purely economic world view. No matter what social issue we discussed, the sighing conclusion was that it all came down to money in the end. Keynes was out and Smith’s invisible hand back in. All those ideas for improving the world sounded well and good, but . . . who was going to pay for them? The purpose of a corporation was not to pool resources of funds, talent and know-how in order to provide necessary goods and services for the people – no, the purpose of a corporation was to make money for shareholders. Built-in-obsolescence was genius because it ensured future customers. Why produce a pot that can be used for 50 years? You will only be able to make one sale per person per lifetime! So now we can wear our jeans for a year before they start tearing and dissolving and we can replace our toasters every five years, our coffeemakers every two. The government, as well, should shift their focus from quality (of life) to the bottom line. No more reckless investing in people or the future – the number one priority must be to balance the budget while reducing taxes. Deficits are the root of all evil.
Donald Trump’s (very presidential! believe me!!) foreign policy speech got me thinking about all this. Almost all of it was economics over diplomacy. Goodbye foreign aid – from now on it is “America First”. Mexico has to fork over cash (because we have had such good experience with countries who build walls to keep their people in.) NATO countries and Allies should pay up, and, if not, they can just go build their own nukes, thank you. And China will have a price to pay for all those jobs they stole. Pay up, dudes, or we might just get . . . unpredictable. So “Let’s Make a Deal!”
How have we allowed money to become such an all-powerful dictator? To become the one element of life, the one concept we shape our world views around. I understand the idea of “It’s the economy, stupid” and that voters care most about economics. Most of us want a job with decent enough pay to get by on 40 hours of work a week – leaving us the rest of the time for our families, entertainment, travel and other interests. But a lot of us are also sitting around and waiting for those jobs to be “created”, voting Democrat if we believe the government can do it and Republican if we think businesses can. I don’t believe either of them has this magical power of giving the people something to do from nine to five, or that this should be either’s ultimate purpose. Businesses provide necessary stuff that can be sold for profit. Governments provide necessary stuff that can’t be sold for a profit. Forcing the straightjacket of purely economic thinking onto the government is a bad idea. It’s the complementary manifestation of stifling over-regulation or expecting corporations to solve the world’s problems. As nice as it sounds, we cannot simply shop our way to a better world.
In my own personal experience, I think I have managed to hold money at bay so far, by which I mean not allowing it to become all-powerful in defining the quality of my life. I have never had a lot, relatively speaking. (Of course, there are about 90 million Ethiopians who would laugh out loud at that last sentence.) But I have always had enough. I find it easy to adjust my consumption to my bank balance rather than working my butt off to get my income up to the level of my desires. I learned to appreciate keeping old possessions in working order rather than replacing them with something shiny and new. I dampen my own shopping spree delight with the question of where I will find room for this new thing in my already overstuffed house – this premature buyer’s remorse often diverts my path away from the checkout line and toward the exit with empty hands. I procrastinate on purchases until they become no longer needed. I buy unflashy economical cars and drive them until they die. A new pair of jeans will never feel as good as the 38 year old ones in my closet that I have had since high school – and they are still in good shape(!), though, maybe, not particularly stylish.
Yesterday, my younger daughter and I were discussing renovating plans for our first floor (which we really have neglected for too long and is getting sort of dingy.) She pointed to an old wooden hutch in the kitchen and said we should get rid of that. She pointed out how the drawers stick and one of the doors doesn’t close properly anymore.
“That hutch is almost 200 years old, honey. And it is still useful!”
That surprised her and we started touring the furniture and estimating the ages of various pieces. I also pointed out the three pots in our kitchen cabinet that we had gotten as (costly!) wedding gifts. Over a quarter of a century old and used daily, they were still in perfect shape and looked better than the more recent additions to the cabinet. Things my daughter had simply seen as sort of ugly or marred started to appear to her in a new light. Born into a consumer’s world where everything is replaceable and the newest thing is always the best, I think it was the first time she started to understand my attachments to my aging possessions. I hope I could plant the idea in her head that we are not only consumers, but also caretakers.
I once wrote a comment on a friend’s blog that Americans now “consume” elections. We look for entertainment value rather than useful information. So it is really no wonder if we end up with representatives who are looking only as far as the next quarter’s returns rather than the longer term good of the country and world. We aren’t interested in holding on to the aging piece of Washington furniture that has been doing its job reliably forever. We are looking for the shiny new object with a flashy brand name and grand promises of a better, more fulfilling life. Let’s chop up all those old things into firewood and burn them. Forget “a chicken in every pot” – let there be a new pot for every chicken! Making a better deal is the way to a better world.
At least until the handle breaks off after just a few months and the buyer’s remorse sets in. Now our only choices are to keep burning our fingers or take that regrettable, yet somehow pre-ordained and long overdue trip to the dump.