As a high school English teacher, language is my currency. And right now, I’m feeling a bit bankrupt. Not because I’ve had to endure a whole new onslaught of financialese like “sub-prime derivatives,” “capitulation,” “collateralized debt obligation” and “toxic assets.” No, as Shakespeareanly dramatic as these terms sound, my sense of worth has not been devalued by the crash of my retirement funds, but by the fact that in this economic crisis our leaders do not refer to us as Americans, countrymen or citizens, but as “consumers.” Seemingly, in the 21st Century that is our most important role. We must spend, buy, layaway, mortgage, run up a tab in order to restore America to its former prosperity. We must go graze in electronic stores, feed at automobile showrooms, nibble on the delirious immensity of a 5,000 square foot brand new home. In short, we are being encouraged to consume our way out of crisis created by over-consumption.
It’s paradoxical, and that is why this call to consumerism seems necessary and ill-advised at the same time. An economy must have both producers and consumers to function in balance. Our problem is that America has been living beyond its means for decades. Our sense of wealth this past decade came from borrowing excessively and irresponsibly. That over-borrowing drove our over-consumption which of course led to more and more consumption, until someone shouted that the emperor had no clothes. And like a Ponzi scheme the great pyramid fell to reveal people like Bernie Madoff, Allen Stanford and a host of other opportunists. Remember, we were loyal consumers then, and we are paying a heavy price because of it. Now, we are being called upon to be loyal consumers once again to restore America’s economic supremacy.
I, for one, will not buy into this type of patriotic consumerism. It smacks of Huxley, Orwell and Gibson. Just place the barcodes on our foreheads or RFID chips in our spines if you want a nation of consumers. I’d like to see all of us—not just our leaders—change the language of this crisis so that more Americans start thinking of themselves as producers again. Producers of not only useful physical commodities, but also of ideas, innovations and good will—both at home and abroad.
We cannot ignore the basic fact that we must consume in order to thrive, but let’s be sensible about it. Let’s live within our means with an eye to future sustainability. Maybe we need a new term to combine American inventiveness with making proactive choices in what, why and how we consume. If one of our leaders started asking me to be a “prosumer”, meaning a producer of valuable goods and ideas as well as a thoughtful, sustainable consumer living with my means, well, then, that’s an American manufactured label I would buy. This I believe.