by Michael I. Niman, ArtVoice, Buffalo, NY
A local income tax prep company has ads on TV showing a family wearing sweaters and cozying up around the fireplace to stay warm, and a man dressed up in a business suit grabbing his briefcase and mounting his bike to head off to work. The narrator reassures us that no, we wouldn't have to "go to extremes" to save money, like wearing sweaters in the winter or riding a bike to work. We could instead save cash by letting them prepare our tax returns. My spouse called my attention to the ad, saying, "Hey, that's us"—minus the suit, of course.
So here's my question: Are we really an aberration? Are we freaks for riding our bikes to work and keeping our house comfortably cool in the winter? What's normal, really? Should we bring our 3,000-pound machines to work and struggle for a place to park them when we'd just as soon spend the same time riding our bikes? Should we heat our house to feel like we live in Miami, just so we can wear summer clothing in the winter? Are we freaks for not buying in to this weirdness? Are we really an aberration? I don't think so. Not anymore, at least.
The new economy is ushering in a new reality. Factory output is down. Consumption is down. This means resource depletion and waste production are consequently down as well. Big boxes are closing their doors and, get this, the national savings rate has moved from the negative numbers (meaning the average American was falling deeper into debt spending more than she or he was earning) to a more sane five percent of household income. It turns out we really didn't need all that shit after all.
Deep ecologists and credit counselors have been trying for quite some time to get us to stop buying our way into ecocide and bankruptcy. It seems that both the planet and our wallets couldn't take it. It sucks that it took a depression to get us here, but historians might just look back on this depression as the event that saved the ecosystem just when we were on the brink of flopping over a climatic tipping point. Maybe there's a silver lining to a plummeting Dow. Maybe it's not just our environment that may have gotten a reprieve. Perhaps our collective soul as a culture may have gotten a breather as well. Enough was enough. We clearly weren’t shopping our way into happiness.
I've seen the aftermath of a consumerist apocalypse. That was Havana. By the time I showed up on the scene, first as a grad student in the late 1980s and later in 1999 and 2000 after the collapse of Cuba's Soviet benefactor, the skeletons of the hedonistic 1950s were lying as well preserved but lifeless ruins.
Havana's downtown shopping district was eerie on one level, yet bizarrely normal and even healthy on another. The department stores were still there, with their stainless steel and marble facades, but the goods were gone and the stores mostly boarded up and abandoned to the elements, with an old Rex store appearing to bleed some sort of fluid from its long sealed entranceway. The old Woolworth was still open last I was there, but it's shelves were all but bare, with an odd array of automotive gaskets and hairclips filling an old glass display case. People still came, as if exercising ancestral muscle memory. But there really wasn't anything to buy. Clearly they miss all the bling and, almost to a person, want to tell you about how difficult life is and how they long for stuff to buy. Middle-class Cubans even reduce themselves to pining for the half-empty bottles of shampoo their gringo friends leave behind. But oddly, they seem for the most part to be happy.
Last week, with reports of collapsing consumer confidence and freefalling housing and stock markets here in the US, I dove into the task of scanning my old Cuba negatives into digital files. As I manipulated the newborn digits on these photos, I looked once again at the faces of the Cubans navigating through post-consumerist ruins. Their world appears crazy, but there's laughter, smiles, and healthy human interaction. They're sitting on benches talking, playing chess and dominos, and watching their kids run about. Their conversation isn't dominated by "things."
I recall how goods would occasionally trickle into the stores, and folks would line up for a chance to spend worthless pesos on the item du jour. When I was there, it was colorful striped spandex stretch pants—worthless to us, but cherished by Cuban consumers with little else to buy. This is old-time consumerism: You don't have much, but you value the little that you do have. And you enjoy and appreciate having it. Think of a poor kid whose family saves for a year to buy him or her that special Christmas present. And think about the months spent anticipating its arrival. And how it was cherished once it came. Then think about the spoiled rich kid with his or her little warehouse of unused and unappreciated toys. Life is not about the quantity of what you own, but about the quality of your experiences, both with things and without.
Two generations of life without consumerism has given Cuba one of the smallest per capita ecological footprints in the world. The US embargo and Cuba's dearth of hard currency meant that they couldn't afford pesticides and patented genetically modified organisms. The result is that Cuba moved ahead in research on pesticide- and Frankenfood-free agriculture. Today, they are a global leader in sustainable organic farming. On the road, Cubans are still driving around in 60- and 70-year-old cars. The inability to afford new ones forced them to figure out how to keep the old ones on the road forever. It turns out that junkyards, which, like massive garbage dumps, are among the topographic blisters of consumerism, are actually just culture-bound syndromes. We don't need to replace everything all the time. Things can be fixed. People can be employed fixing things.
This is not to say that poverty is fun. And as a well-off American I don't want to romanticize a poverty I'm not forced to experience. And as someone with the freedom to criticize my own government and culture, I certainly don't want to romanticize life in a one-party state without a free press. But we can learn from the Cuban experience in that life is indeed possible after consumerism. And it appears to be much more sustainable on both an ecological and a social level.
Depressions, including those that can last for generations, aren't fun. But they are survivable. They can be learning moments—chances to reboot society and get our priorities and values back in order. Perhaps we can once again value quality time with our friends, lovers, and families. Maybe we can appreciate leaving a healthy planet to our kids more than racing to the mall in a new Lexus. Maybe.
The challenge to maintaining social cohesion in a depression is the equitable distribution of pain. The Cubans can weather living with almost nothing, on a material level, because what they do have, are the essentials. Everyone has some sort of housing, food, access to education, and a baseline of medical care. What a deepening depression will look like here, however, threatens to be much worse, with some folks not being able to afford their chemotherapy, while others continue to day trade. We can have social cohesion, but not with Maseratis speeding past homeless encampments.
Our growing poverty is also quite different from Cuba's. Ours began as conceptual poverty. The rich material wealth and infrastructural assets of our society are still here. Our buildings, roads, and machines haven’t disappeared. Our depression, like my scanned photos, is digital: Digital concepts of wealth, such as stock indexes and home equity, have evaporated. Conceptual wealth flipped to conceptual poverty. High stock and housing market indexes are like fiat currencies—worth only what people are willing to pay for them, which ain't much right now. Digital wealth has been looted by hedge funds and driven into chaos by derivative markets. This caused a real poverty, with unemployment soaring and the very people whose real-life work buoyed the economy for so long, feeling most of the pain. With digital poverty now causing real life poverty, it's time to reboot the system.
First we need to get real and understand how we got here. When the Berlin Wall fell, and the Reagan crowd cheered the "death of communism," I feared that something entirely different was happening. There was just too much hubris and greed in the air. Back then, I argued that it wasn't communism that was in peril—it was capitalism that now would be left to its own self-destructive hand. And sure enough, we took the deregulation and upward wealth redistribution balls put into play by the Reagan administration, snorted some coke, and throughout the next two decades let the roulette wheel spin, finally removing the last safeguards on the banking system during the George W. Bush presidency.
Ultimately it was the short-sighted, greed-based policies of the Republican party that put us into two depressions. Now, once again, the nasty task of pulling us out of a depression falls on the shoulders of Democrats who inherited another soiled economy. The only way to get us out of this mess is to reverse the upward redistribution of wealth that got us into this quagmire. The fix is going to take much more than a stimulus package. It will require a total reboot of our national priorities and personal values. Economic recovery and sustainability will require fixing things like our health care system, where private monopolistic control of life-saving technologies enabled a debilitating inflationary cycle that put health care out of the reach of the working poor. It also fueled the bankruptcy crisis, and ultimately, with the cost of providing healthcare to workers falling on manufacturers, made our industrial products uncompetitive in the global marketplace. Fixing the economy starts with fixing healthcare—not because it’s the right thing to do but because we have to do it. The same goes for building a 21st-century, sustainable power grid, transportation infrastructure, and public education system.
And yes, the only way to pay for this is to tax those who can pay, who happen to be the same people who benefitted from the generation-long looting that brought our economy down. The simple sociology here is that the rich can only be rich because governments exist to protect their privilege to be rich—to maintain their islands of luxury in the middle of a sea of comparative poverty.
The Obama administration seems to understand much of this, but they're pissing on a forest fire. Their actions thus far have been dwarfed by the problems they're combating. Letting the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy expire, for example, adds up to less than a four percent increase on their tax rate. To put this into perspective, if we doubled their taxes, people in the top brackets would still be paying 20% less than they did during the Republican Eisenhower administration. Likewise, by simply saving failed banks and insurance companies, we're bailing out failed polices and reinforcing an out of control digital economy. Our problems are big. Our solutions have to be equally big and brilliantly creative. We're America. We can do this.
Dr. Michael I. Niman is a professor of Journalism and Media Studies at Buffalo State College. His previous columns are archived at MediaStudy.com.
This story first appeared March 10 in ArtVoice, Buffalo, NY
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