Monday, August 1, 2011

Consumerism: By-product of international finance? (21 Sept 2009)

It's easy to moralize about consumerism, assume it has grown up somehow out of the malfeasance of marketers and the laziness and gullibility of consumers, who are eager to replace other fulfilling ways to occupy themselves with shopping, a seemingly derivative activity that replaces the joy of developing our capabilities with the pleasures of passive ownership. This wish to moralize stems from a desire to individualize things far beyond our control and make it seem as though we are ultimately responsible for the sort of world we live in and that ultimately it suits us; it is the product of the sorts of choices we can imagine people making. Nobody, for instance, might have seemed to want that condo building that went up on the corner, or that brand new shopping center down the street from a nearly identical one, but it doesn't seem so crazy once you see the people living or shopping there. And you can think to yourself, if we can only stop that guy, the guy walking into that new Dick's Sporting Goods, or the guy who just leased that new condo, or who took out the mortgage on that townhouse in the new development where the horse farm used to be, we can restore some sanity and balance to our lives and the rate at which the familiar is changing all around us.

But what if the choices for them (and for us) are stacked, are pre-decided to a far greater degree than we are willing to recognize? What if the matrix in which we are making our decisions is shaped by things that our puny politics can't touch, that our individual choices are grains of sand in a vast socioeconomic combine -- we might have chosen to stick to some contiguous grain to form a minute little cluster, yet some much larger force has decided to shape up into a sand castle built too close to the incoming tide. (That was a little fanciful, but you see what I am getting at.)

The point is, it may be that international capital flows have driven our consumerist microbehaviors much more than we know; that it wasn't just personal ignorance, irresponsibility, cupidity, greed and covetousness that drove the housing bubble and the boom in consumer debt; but instead those moral motives came after the fact, after our fate was sealed by the wash of investment coming in from overseas. We didn't want consumerism, but someone had to sop up all those Chinese exports. We didn't want to be in debt, but there were so many foreigners buying dollars, that the banks basically had to give money away to anybody, and who will turn down money when it seems to be offered to them for free? And if they think it sounds too good to be true, well, that's precisely what marketing is for.

Liaquat Ahamed suggests took something like this took place in the past decade in an essay in the New York Times Book Review, of all places. He taps into a sort of historical reasoning that is far removed from finger-pointing and shaming people for wanting stuff and behaving irresponsibly:
In the wake of the 1997 financial crisis there, countries in East Asia set out to build up war chests of dollars as insurance against domestic banking runs or downturns in the global economy. At about the same time, China embarked on a program of export-led growth, engineered by keeping its currency artificially low.
Interpretations of what happened next differ. Some argue that to absorb these goods from abroad while avoiding unemployment at home, the United States very consciously stimulated consumer demand. The country, in effect, was forced to live beyond its means. Others believe that the Fed misread the fall in prices as a symptom of inadequate demand rather than for what it was — an astounding, once-in-a-generation expansion in the supply of low-cost goods — and kept interest rates low for an unusually long time, which provoked the real estate bubble.
The flood of money was coming in and it had to go somewhere. If you accept this logic, the question becomes, how does a nation "very consciously stimulate consumer demand"? Is it simply a matter of sending out checks -- metaphorically dropping cash from helicopters, Bernanke style? Is it the president telling everyone to return to business as usual and start shopping, as Bush did after 9/11? Is it working ideological visions of what the good life is supposed to consist of in speeches and political campaigns? Or is it something that plays out more indirectly: Banks increase their marketing, which contributes to the promulgation of a certain view of a successful life, one that hinges on consumption rather than savings. Luxury goods makers begin trying to reach aspirational consumers, i.e. turn us into aspirational consumers. People begin to evaluate their wealth not in dollar figures but in belongings, in house size, in car size, in the extent of their credit line. I don't know what the answer is, but it seems that if there is such a throttle that can be controlled for consumer demand, we would want to seize control of it for ourselves. I never got the memo from the "Untied States" that I was now expected to consume more and like it. Instead, I ended up consuming more and felt out of control about it; I found myself spending more time in stores without knowing why and without a clue about how to reverse the trend. (This was before the government started sending out tax rebate checks to "stimulate" us all.)

Ahamed argues that the U.S. "found itself literally operating as a gigantic bank, taking short-term liquid deposits from countries with surpluses and investing the money in long-term, risky assets at home and abroad." -- I don't know if that "literally" belongs there, but the upshot is that the U.S. basically imported risk from abroad and distributed it among its citizens -- with a little creativity one could probably reconstitute this process as what Jacob Hacker has dubbed the Great Risk Shift -- the way in which middle-class people in America now have less of a social safety net. If we wouldn't take on debt and risk voluntarily, we could be forced to by the slow and steady withdrawal of social services. Goodbye Social Security, hello 401K loaded with all sorts of investments that turn out to be surprisingly dicey, like those money market accounts that teetered on the edge of buck-breaking last fall. Ahamed cites FT columnist Martin Wolf:
As Wolf traces out so well in his 2008 book “Fixing Global Finance,” the United States was able to absorb all the goods coming out of Asia only by letting its consumers go progressively deeper into debt — a process that had its own limits. Moreover, the flood of money simply overwhelmed the capacity of financial institutions to handle it. A lot, for example, ended up in the most unregulated segments of the global banking system, like off-shore deposits on the books of non-American banks. These banks, now awash with cash and desperate for places to put the money, became easy marks for American investment banks seeking to peddle securitized mortgages. When a large percentage of these loans went bad, instead of a dollar panic we had a global banking crisis.
It's hard to grasp the idea that a "flood of money" can be a problem, but that is what happens when we confuse money with prosperity -- money has to be moving to ahve value, and there can be too much of it around to keep it moving. Too much money means that the economy has become too imbalanced, that we have exceeded inherent limits, that socially useful labor has become detached from the society it was supposed to be useful for (i.e. impoverished Chinese making junk for underemployed America).

It's not clear what causes these global financial imbalances -- governmental trade policies are part of it. But individual citizen choice doesn't seem to factor in. Still, there must be reliable mechanisms by which the requisite consumer behavior is extracted from given populations. Is it some inborn greed in human nature that gets tapped into or sublimated as the situation requires? Or is it the existing class structures around the world, and the endless struggle for mobility within them (and over the signals that represent belonging) that plays the integral role? Is this the essence of the class struggle, a means of balancing international capital flows?

Anyway, if global money flows have reversed, American consumers will find the field in which they make choices suddenly changed. Suddenly they will seem thrifty and moral again, especially in the aggregate, and we can begin to generalize about what the consumption data means morally, what it tells us about how people really are. This is where a recent post by Anton Steinpilz at Generation Bubble picks up the story:Taking off from one of the dime-a-dozen "recessionista" stories about the New Thrift, Steinpilz claims that the middle classes are now "worried that their children and their children’s children will have snatched from them the exorbitant privilege of indulging their ephemeral pleasures with made-to-break trifles of sweated and immiserated workers throughout the developing world." To replace that lost privilege, they will start to loot the lifestyles of the local poor, raid their T.J. Maxxes and Aldis, and co-opt what constraints the poor have always found inescapable and make them into accoutrements and gestures, apparent trends in the hands of those classes that still might have chosen differently. When the middle class could afford to, because of international financial trends, it emulates the rich; trends have reversed, they emulate the poor; either way they remain class-signifier parasites. The rich could always contrive more positional goods to keep themselves differentiated; the poor instead (if I am reading Steinpilz correctly) find the meaning of their lives seized from them and injected into an alien lifestyle.

So, a theory: Destabilization along the boundaries of social class allows for the calibration of individual behavior with the larger demands of international capital flows, without ever allowing individuals to recognize the connection or opt out of the game without giving up the principles of personal identity altogether.

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