Our factory of need

The beliefs we most need to question are generally the ones we don't notice, because they are so embedded in the drone of daily life. Wars and disasters tend to have unforeseen consequences for this very reason. They disrupt the drone, and so prompt questions that wouldn't arise otherwise.

No beliefs are more entrenched in the United States than those regarding the economy. A couple of weeks ago I saw a banner headline in the local paper. "San Francisco Retailers' Plea: Shop 'Til You Drop," it said. "Economy needs holiday spending."

There was nothing exceptional about those statements. For weeks the media have been in worry mode over laggard consumers. Still, the headline was truly strange. The economy is supposed to meet our needs. And we are supposed to be the best judges of those needs, not the government, not corporations, and not the economic experts whom the media quote so dutifully.

So, if we Americans aren't shopping 'til we drop, it just might mean we don't feel like dropping. Just possibly we don't need a lot of stuff right now. Yet that thought is not permitted. In the reigning system of belief called "economics," we Americans are "consumers" by nature and definition. We are genetically programmed with an insatiable desire to consume. Our closets and garages might be bulging, and our waistlines, too. But still we must be driven like the beast in Dante's Inferno, the one that "when she has fed is hungrier than ever."

The theory says the economy serves us. That belief is embedded in the drone. But in practice we end up serving the economy. Shopping has become a duty, a form of service to the state. In the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, the president urged us onward to the malls, the way previous presidents urged the citizenry to join the military or conserve fuel.

This strange inversion didn't happen overnight. It began about a century ago, when the economic problem began turning upside down. For eons the problem had been a scarcity of things; conventional economics is based entirely on that premise. But now, thanks to technology and mass production, the problem increasingly has been the opposite - a scarcity of desire for things. The then-emergent corporations could turn out so much stuff. Who would buy it all?

Before, the nation needed things. Now, it needs a need for things. Step by step, the economy has become a factory of need; and ordinary Americans have become workers in this new factory, as "consumers."

This became a priority of state after World War II. The government spent billions on a highway program and on subsidized mortgages for suburban homes. It kept oil dirt cheap and did a slew of other things to ramp up the consumption curve. Industry embraced an ethos of shoddy products called "planned obsolescence," which kept people returning to the auto showrooms and appliance stores.

Meanwhile, the nation's mental environment was turning into an amphitheater of commercial importuning. Ads crept into just about every inch of waking space, even into schools. The media began to refer to Americans as "consumers," a term that never would have crossed Jefferson's or Lincoln's mind. It was a radical alteration of life and consciousness. But it was so gradual and pervasive that it went pretty much unnoticed. It was the new normal, the way things were.

People began to suffer illnesses from their new occupation - obesity, stress, nagging children, and the rest. But still the drone continued. These occasioned yet more consumption, in the form of medications and child psychologists. So the experts declared them good.

It takes a jolt to unseat such entrenched beliefs, and the attacks on Sept. 11 provided that. For a few moments at least the spell was broken. We got the rare experience, for example, of television without ads. As the horror unfolded on our screens something else was there as well - a reprieve from the relentless metronome of commercial duty. The lifestyles portrayed in the ads seemed suddenly vacuous; and the efforts of advertisers to cash in on the misfortune - defy Osama bin Laden and buy an SUV - seemed borderline obscene.

In the weeks that followed, there was evidence of a new and chastened attitude. On Wall Street, people asked questions about the meaning and direction of their lives. "It was the biggest wake-up call of my life," said one worker, who decided to go into teaching. There has been a shift in attitudes towards government. Public needs are pressing - defense and homeland security now top the list. Private wants, meanwhile, are so dispensable that people must be cajoled into shopping. Suddenly it does not seem so horrible to meet those public needs.

Yet we are all invested in the old beliefs, dying though they may be. We may deplore the commercial circus that Christmas has become. Still, we depend on the shopping season, one way or another. We don't know how to get off the treadmill, even when we see it heading down.

Economists tell us the medical-care industry is going to help pull the economy out of the recession. That means we "consumers" must be sick so the economy can be well. It's not exactly a cheering thought.

Yet what is the alternative?

No one knows. But we won't find a way off the treadmill until we realize that it is one. We don't find answers until we have a question.

Could it be that the recent horrible attacks, far from scaring or defeating us, have helped us to some questions that we long have needed to ask?

Jonathan Rowe is a fellow at the Tomales Bay Institute, and a former Monitor staff writer.

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