Bob Cropf

The social power of “stuff”

In class stuff, economics, stimulus on February 7, 2009 at 1:37 PM

The recent posts have been on the stimulus plan (on its way to passage in the Senate, see WSJ article here) or corporate executive pay. However, as the NY Times Magazine article from last Sunday suggests, the roots of the problem actually go much deeper than the recent economic downturn and poor corporate judgment. David Leonhardt talks about the importance of social norms and how they are frequently (always?) ignored by economists and policymakers in general. Perhaps the biggest social norm regarding the economy is growth and what fuels it, namely consumer spending. This idea is so firmly entrenched that neither Republicans and Democrats are willing to challenge it. So both sides are arguing over what is the best way to accomplish the same thing: Get consumers spending again to drive up aggregate demand, which in turn will lead to producers producing and creating new jobs, etc. The downside to all this is the overemphasis on consumerism as the engine of economic growth. That leads to the type of rumination found in this essay by the famed computer programmer, Paul Graham (inventor of anti-spam software). The idea that we don’t own stuff, stuff owns us is as old as Thoreau’s Walden and probably goes back to the New Testament. But, in light of our current economic crisis and long-term sustainability, it is useful to reflect on the wisdom of consumerism as the only way to keep our economy humming. The other alternative, as suggested by Galbraith and Krugman, is shifting capital into social investments such as improving our education and health care systems and rebuilding our nation’s infrastructure.

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  1. I noticed both Stiglitz and Feldman were both talking about intervening the housing market in order to give consumers more confidence and more money to spend…
    The bang for the buck question is asked but the answer (spending on infrastructure and social goods) – a real empirical fact – is apparently not the desired answer. The Senate version is case-in-point, they cut all sorts of social goods, including money for higher ed, funding for states, money to rehabilitate wetlands (list goes on and on). It is played off as a liberal wish, but this is what would actually get/keep people employed…

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