National Commentary

Consumerism Vs. Human Capitalism

bentonmugAs the official U.S. unemployment number approaches 10 percent, the ravaged economy is veering toward its much-feared “second dip” associated with credit card debt, rising commercial real estate vacancy rates and a major up-tick of unaffordable residential adjustable rate mortgage re-sets.

Recent months’ nominal improvements in the earnings reports of much of corporate America are solely due to massive cost cuts, including layoffs, but as raw revenue numbers, apart from cost reductions, are evaluated in and through the coming holiday shopping season, the proverbial excrement can be expected to really “hit the fan” shortly after the beginning of 2010, at the latest.

In this context, calls for more government stimulus, far more than Washington currently appears to have the appetite for, should be seriously heeded.

But to set the nation, and the world, on the right course to sustainable recovery, a process that will at best be slow and painful over the course of a decade, at least, there needs to be clarity about, and a focus on, what has caused the current crisis, and what is needed to correct that cause. Mere tinkering with the current economic system will not work. Bailouts and re-regulation may slow the bleeding, but will not cure the patient.

One problem to identify at the outset is myopia. Policy makers, including investors and forecasters, tend to be very shortsighted, and evaluate trends in very short time cycles. But in the world of invisible electromagnetic, light, sound, gravitational and other waves, which by and large define our existence, there are shorter and longer waves, and very long waves. What is confounding the global economy now is the product of a much longer wave than is readily perceptible, the kind that causes golden ages to descend into dark ages, and vice versa.

This latest long wave can be identified from the immediate post-World War II period to the present. It involves a highly-unfortunate divergence from a positive economic growth path that was dominant immediately following that war, resulting in the reconstruction of Japan and the Marshall Plan for Europe.

The shift away first manifested itself in a major way in the decision by the Eisenhower administration in the early 1950s to invest in a major new national interstate transportation grid based on automobiles rather than rail. This was a coup for the proverbial “Big Oil,” which was subsequently able to follow it on, with much help from Wall Street, by shifting the U.S. economy from a production and infrastructure-development based economy to the unseemly, current consumer-oriented one.

It was the rise of the 1950s suburbia in the U.S., provided by the wider use of the automobile and road construction, that whetted the nation’s appetite for outfitting the individual, free-standing household with all the frills need to outdo “the Joneses.” Consumer credit evolved to cause households to feel there was virtually no limit to what they could accumulate in the form of prestige-enhancing goods, and of course Madison Avenue boomed to accelerate this process.

Americans went from being citizens to being “consumers,” an ugly vision of a gaping mouth sucking in “stuff” while plastic in purses or wallets rang up debt.

Running this model to its logical extreme has been what’s happened since the 1950s to cause the current global economic crisis, as profit from debt, under this system, grew exponentially to feed off this over-chewed teat, creating an unfathomable house of cards that suddenly began to cascade out of control. The entire globe became dependent on the spending habits of bored American housewives meandering through shopping malls with credit cards, and their male counterparts lusting after the latest toys.

What’s the alternative, the only real way out of the current crisis? It’s to shift away from this consumer-based economy to one based on the development of “human capital.” Had America continued along the path of post-World War II reconstruction in Asia and Europe, and invested its resources into the large-scale infrastructures, including water diversion, rails, irrigation, city-building, schools, hospitals, science and technology development and housing, of the entire “free world,” then the world would be unrecognizable by today’s standards, and incredibly much for the better.

Jumping off the consumerism wave and back onto the “human capital” wave is the only way to avert the imminent catastrophe that’s been sewn by the former.