Killing the cult of consumption

By Kieran Madden December 11, 2018

“Our Gross National Product…measures everything, except that which makes life worthwhile.” 

Bobby Kennedy’s famous 1968 speech decried how measures like GDP count the locks on our doors and a nation’s weapons of mass destruction, while ignoring the “health of our children,” the “strength of our marriages,” or “the intelligence of the public debate.” What we measure reflects what we think matters.

Fifty years have passed since then, and it’s fair to say that despite the common refrain that there’s more to life than money, the West has continued with a getting-and-spending consumption culture. Just the other week, for example, we in New Zealand celebrated “the most honest of seasonal celebrations,” as columnist Liam Dann put it, the “Festival of Consumer Greed” that is Black Friday.

What we measure reflects what we think matters.

Meanwhile, the Government is taking steps to put consumption in its rightful place alongside the “worthwhile” things that Kennedy espoused. Treasury is pulling together a living standards framework that adds social and environmental indicators alongside the economic, set to inform the Government’s “Wellbeing Budget.” But will this be a waste of time if we aren’t honest about our obsession with consumption?

Oren Cass of the Manhattan Institute thinks so, and is the latest to take a shot at the economic status quo in his book The Once and Future Worker. Cass’ critique focuses squarely on the role of work, and asks the question, “what if people’s ability to produce matters more than how much they can consume?” Prioritising production—work—should be our focus.

He calls the current system “Economic Piety,” the immovable belief that society is here to grow the economic “pie” so bigger slices can be distributed and people can consume more stuff. The natural end point, he reckons, is “unconstrained growth paired with unconstrained redistribution, maximizing consumption without reference to work.”

“Economic Piety,” the immovable belief that society is here to grow the economic “pie” so bigger slices can be distributed and people can consume more stuff.

Cass offers what he calls the Working Hypothesis as an alternative, arguing that a “labor market in which workers can support strong families and communities is the central determinant of long-term prosperity and should be the central focus of public policy.” By focusing on the pie we’ve improved living standards, but lost the dignity and value of work, creativity and obligation for others, he says. We count the cost of things like pollution and limit economic activity, and we should do the same when jobs are at stake. Cass isn’t aiming for a socialist paradise, more rebalancing for a sustainable future.

Perhaps the ascendency of “economic piety” is the reason that policy ideas like the Universal Basic Income—money for all regardless of work—are so in vogue right now. But ideas like this miss Cass’ point. The Living Wage movement, despite its shortcomings, is at least all about importance of a job that can support a family.

A society where work is both meaningful and able to put food on the table is worthwhile. Going beyond consumption for our measures of well-being is a good thing, but we need to change our culture too—one where producing, not consuming, is our goal.

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