Friday, September 25, 2009

the unseen cost of consumerism

The cost of consumerism is more than just the money wasted on unnecessary gadgets, trinkets, and toys. Perhaps the most egregious cost to bear is the misplaced capital, research, engineering, and production that would otherwise be dedicated to more meaningful products. By consuming "junk" we are signaling to manufacturers (both domestically and abroad) to allocate their production capacity as well as research and development to items of questionable value. For every widget that is conceived, produced, and purchased for consumption, valuable resources were expended that otherwise could have been directed to more meaningful endeavors. Initially this shift in resources may seem benign until one considers the absolute cost of such waste. Literally hundreds of billions of dollars are spent annually on products that provide little to no lasting value, are destined for a landfill, and are frequently toxic.
In addition to the misapplication of production capacity there are additional costs as well. Money aside, the hours and mind power spent accomplishing something of little enduring value has to be acknowledged and accounted for. This energy if redirected and focused on some worthy (I'll let you decide what that might be) cause would pay enormous dividends to current and future generations. What if a significant number of television viewers decided to volunteer their time towards a social cause for just an hour a week? How many man hours would that tally to? At some point in history the quest improve life reached an inflection point shifting from a positive reduction in labor and time to what we have today where even the poorest (at least in the United States) will fritter away valuable time on useless gadgets, games, and television programming. At no other point in recorded history have we had the ability to waste the way we do presently. Perhaps some of it stems from ignorance or even apathy; either way the fact remains that millions of people starve to death each year while the developed world throws away cheap toys from fast food kids meals. No mentally healthy human being would allow another human to die in exchange for a (insert useless item here) yet that is precisely what we are doing. Just today I received a request from World Vision asking for as little as $27 to provide medicine for children who will likely die without it. What have you spent $27 or more on in the last week that had the potential to so profoundly impact a life?

We have the capacity to eliminate much of the suffering throughout the world by simply reallocating how we direct our resources. What's wrong with us?



  1. Thoughtful post from a refreshing perspective. Reading between the lines, you're talking about nothing less than the concept of the good life, and how it bears on economics. We have exchanged a life of numbing labor for...what? Numbing leisure? To some extent human life is a series of dissatisfactions: one strives for something, but then one desires something beyond that. The wealthy are seldom happier than those of modest means (though the truly poor suffer). The myth of Sisyphus will always be with us, but we can still live more or less seriously, more or less meaningfully.

    If I were to quibble with what you have written here I would emphasize humanity's playful nature: human beings are unique in their capacity for pursuing gratuitous activities. Without elaborating too much, I think of this tendency as I think of "knowledge for its own sake." Philosophical speculation and activities such as "pure" research are gratuitous only in their immediate effects. Knowledge is never "for its own sake" in the long run but rather provides a store of potentially useful intellectual matter. Defending play does not equate to defending frivolity or apathy as a way of life. On the contrary, play is a necessary adjunct to a serious life. We need recreation to remain fresh in our vital efforts.

    One last thought: We face a paradox: we work to survive, to escape danger. But once we escape danger, we grow soft. The good life must anticipate this consequence of success, and so must good government. Government that stands between us and survival short-circuits our instincts and saps our motivation. The best life combines the fruits of prudence — keeping the wolf from the door — while incorporating play to engage our instinctual responses. One can live a vibrant life of both work and play.

    -Anthony O'Donnell

  2. Good post Joe.

    Did the distortions in the economy create this beast? It seems to me that without gov't intervention into the economy we would be less inclined to the kind of wastefulness that you mention. The massive inflation that we've experienced since the advent of the federal reserve has led to the huge asset bubbles (nasdaq & housing) recently which made it all way too easy. Inflation and easy credit has also led to massive (and unfunded) growth in gov't- the type of gov't that feeds on promising benefits to Americans without actually talking about where the money is to come from (except in terms of 'taxing the rich'). Doesn't all this 'free' money lead to wasteful living? I would argue that a return to sound money would eliminate a large amount of the waste.

    There's a certain nihilism that exists in an environment where savings is penalized- inflation eats it up. We're forced to take bigger risks just to get ahead- hence all the speculation in the various markets. It's all about stock prices, not fundamentals. Too many people see it as a game- like life is a big casino or something.

    Brian Kashas

  3. Idler-
    I agree with your comments on play and the restorative effects of leisure, my post was not intended as an indictment on play but as one on useless junk we tend to accumulate. Playing is critical and if anything we need more of it, my emphasis however would be on the "experience" of play and leisure rather than the objects we substitute for actual interaction.

  4. BK-
    I think it's less about government coerscion and more about apathy. Most people just don't give enough thought to their actions and while it's convenient to blame the government, isn't it just a reflection of society? I've had enough of people pointing fingers about why they do this and that, it's time to look in the mirror at the imperfect reflection staring back at us and ask some soul searching questions.

  5. Of course, that is true. However, you stick a pile of ez money in front of most people and they're bound to stop soul searching. Apathy feeds gov't expansion which instills more apathy and so on...

    We do get the gov't we deserve. We can't expect the politicos to change without being forced to by the voters. We can hope for a few gifted leaders who may be elected to office and may have a positive impact on waking people from their apathy (Paul and hopefully Schiff to name a couple).

  6. While I enthusiastically agree with much of what Brian says here, I think it is of limited relevance to Joe's discussion.

    Joe, I didn't interpret you as being against play but just thought what you had written could have been misinterpreted in that direction, and that the value of play needed to be emphasized to complement your critique.

    I'm leery of your talk about objects as substitutes, which reminds me of a college reading I did on Theodor Odorno. No doubt there is a certain "idolatry" of objects at the expense of interaction. One thinks about substituting expensive gifts for actual involvement in one's child's or spouse's life. However, I wouldn't want to draw to general a lesson. There are certainly many legitimate forms of play involving objects and lacking interaction. I'm sure we would agree that it is a matter of how one uses one's "toys" in a context of a serious and yet playful life, keeping one's priorities in order.