We have many jobs and roles as parents, too many to note. But all of these things happen to only one purpose – to raise the kids to make their way in the adult world; successfully, we hope. Much of their success will be dependent upon their own efforts but it’s the simple truth that their efforts will be built upon the foundation that we give them. If it’s crucial that we teach them about the great, wide world then we have to understand that the world in which we were ourselves raised has changed and that particularly goes to our economic system. We must now purposefully buck the long-prevailing consumer-model – in which the lion’s share of American economic activity is predicated upon the typical American’s willingness to spend – as that is functionally dead. We have to now raise our kids to both survive and live within a post-consumer system.
Post-consumer is a term typically tied to ecology and sustainability. We see the term posted on the park benches made from recycled plastic products and on cereal boxes touting that they’ve been made from 30% recycled paper and cardboard materials. It has come about because of the earth-friendly ecology movement that launched in the latter part of the twentieth century and the whole movement has a new-age, California, touchy-feely vibe to it. Yet post-consumer also has a much more hard-nosed aspect to it that is intimately tied to what we’re seeing in both America and the world around us. Remember that the words ecology and economics are at their heart related to the same thing, albeit from different angles. Each is based upon the prefix eco-, derived ultimately from the greek oikos-, meaning household or habitat.
Ecology literally translates as the study (-ology) of our household or habitat but became synonymous with the environment in the wake of a series of widely covered environmental disasters such as the infamous incident in which an Ohio river, the Cuyahoga, caught fire in the late 1960s. It was inconceivable to even the most common person that water could be so utterly polluted and fouled that it lost the most basic property of being able to extinguish burning debris floating upon it. Coupled with a multitude of images of dead and befouled wildlife and adopted as a cause by the then-young and hip Boomer generation and it took on today’s evocation. Economy is a word likewise coupled with the root of household and habitat but from a different aspect, that of how it is numbered (-nomics). Step back from the hard-math financial aspects promoted by many economists, economics is at its heart a matter of how our resources are not only numbered but allocated and – boy howdy! – are we looking at the America of today. Wealth gap, anyone?
Ours is at least the third generation to be raised under the consumer-driven model of the economy. This model conceives of the average American – the consumer – as a driver for economic growth and was first proposed by macro-economists in the early twentieth century but didn’t become an economic reality until it was pushed in the years immediately following the Second World War. The principal economic driver beforehand had been Business and Capital Investment but its collapse in the Great Depression meant that American political and economic leaders began to look elsewhere for a driver to supplement that if not outright replace it. What made the consumer-model possible was more than just the growth of personal income via well-paying jobs; it was also that many costs previously borne by the individual were now partially borne by other sectors of the economy. Insurance for health-care costs was becoming a standard benefit for corporations that hired many Americans. Educational costs for the youngsters was subsidized by the state first via the GI Bill of 1944 and then subsequently through public funding of state supported colleges and universities. Old age was no longer feared economically as there were corporate and public-sector pensions and the government now guaranteed a base minimum via Social Security. There was now not only income, but disposable income that allowed for the things – the niceties – that were previously unaffordable to previous generations. The wants that we’ve now been ably taught to accept as needs.
The truth is that the consumer-driven model is now functionally dead, an economic zombie shambling along and awaiting the merciful head shot that drops it, allowing it to be kicked into the gutter and out of the way. The very factors that made it possible are either falling away as we watch or gone completely. We’ve now seen almost an entire decade of falling family incomes and the wealth gap is increasing to levels unseen since the Gilded Age of the late 19th century. Health insurance? Increasingly unaffordable and shifted back to the family and individual. Educational costs? Disproportionately expensive and with public funding cut back, costs borne more and more by the family and youth. Retirement? Likewise shifted back to the individual with an increasing reliance upon self-funding via the IRA/401k. The you can have it all mantra with which we were incubated in the consumer-model system is now replaced by a painful and simple reality. You can’t.
This sea-change is the truth with which we have to contend and which we will have to teach our children. It is not, however, a truth that the economic and political establishment wishes to acknowledge. Establishment mouthpieces such as the Wall Street Journal print missives to the American public telling them that they aren’t doing their part as consumers. Economists at the Federal Reserve publish studies about Americans not spending and slant their phrasing phrasing negatively when they state that Americans are hoarding money. When former Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke spoke to a group of high school educators, his choice of terminology was telling. When he referenced teens, he referred to them as students and young people; when he referenced adults however, he predominantly used the term consumer with the implication that our job is to raise our young people to be consumers. In the days immediately following the 9/11 attacks, then-President George W. Bush even spoke to the American people and urged that they shouldn’t let the terrorists win but should instead go back out and shop. Seriously…shop? So obviously, spending money matters. Questioning the consumer model is a threat to the corporate profits that are directed to a smaller and smaller cadre of executives and investors that make up the high tier of the wealthy class. Questioning this model is a threat to the profitable tenure and security of our elected and government officials, many of whom will exit government to cushy sinecures in the private sector. Acknowledging this will require the public will for change that is a threat to the cancerous symbiosis between the corporate and political sectors that is, at its heart, fascism.
The rise of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders as presidential contenders is a clear sign of the public pushback. There are commonalities at the core of each movement that ultimately lead back to renewed opportunity for the individual and most importantly, sustainable, living-wage jobs. There are massive differences in how each candidate would hope to achieve these ends but when you cut through them, the heart of each pertains ultimately to trade, jobs and income.
This consumer-driven economic model that we’ve followed has been around for longer than the lifespan of most Americans and like anything, it will change and be replaced by something else. That is at the heart of our present upset because nobody knows with what it should be replaced and such a real-life process is neither as sterile nor academic as it would seem when written on a page. What the Establishment seems to want is a perpetuation of the model even though they understand that it continues the hemorrhage of the American Middle-Class until the. masses of our countrymen are reduced to a servitude of dead-end jobs and interest payments. It’s what they know and as the saying goes, if you give a monkey a hammer, then that’s what it’s going to use. However, that doesn’t square with the great mass of Americans who understand that something is badly amiss yet can’t precisely enunciate what it is.
So here are the takeaways.
First, the Consumer-Model economic driver of the past six-plus decades is officially dead. It has been killed by a combination of falling incomes on one side and competing demands for that same income on the other side.
Second, the Corporate/Political Establishment has a vested interest in perpetuating this dead model. The Corporate because it allows money to be extracted from someone else – the Consumer – and redirected to them. The Political because of unchecked campaign finance practices and a post-political career revolving door into the lucrative corporate sector.
Third, we cannot assume that whatever replaces the consumer model is already pre-ordained. What we are witnessing with the utterly unexpected rise of Trump and Sanders are early salvos in a contest between this Establishment and the diverse citizenry. If the Gilded Age is any example, it will be a contest that will last for decades. That means that we have to remove our noses from Facebook pages and begin to think in the longer term.
Fourth, parents must begin to purposefully raise their children so that they aren’t herded into a dead economic system that views them solely as prey. We must be overt and direct in our conversations with them and we must likewise model an economic behavior of controlled consumption that is, for many of us, uncomfortably new.
We must become the first generation of Post-Consumer Parents.