Walter Russell Mead on Production vs Consumption

A terrific piece by Walter Russell Mead on the production economy vs the consumption economy,  accompanied by an equally terrific blog post.  The piece, in the American Interest Magazine, is titled “Liberalism on Life Support” on the cover, but the version in the magazine and on the web is called  “The Once and Future Liberalism.” I like the second title better.

Here is an excerpt from the printed piece:

Many Americans became (and remain) stuff-rich and meaning-poor. Many people classified as “poor” in American society have an historically unprecedented abundance of consumer goods—anything, essentially, that a Fordist factory here or abroad can turn out. But far too many Americans still have lives that are poor in meaning, in part because the blue social model separates production and consumption in ways that are ultimately dehumanizing and demeaning. A rich and rewarding human life neither comes from nor depends on consumption, even lots of consumption; it comes from producing goods and services of value through the integration of technique with a vision of social and personal meaning. Being fully human is about doing good work that means something. Is a blue society with our level of drug and alcohol abuse, and in which the average American watches 151 hours of television a month, really the happiest conceivable human living arrangement?

And from the blog post:

But the real problem with the debt-based, consumption-focused blue social model, the one that bothered many social critics even in the days when the blue model was working and looked sustainable, is one of values. A consumption-centered society is ultimately a hollow society. It makes people rich in stuff but poor in soul. In its worst aspects, consumer society is a society of bored couch potatoes seeking artificial stimulus and excitement. They watch programs on television about adventures they will never have. They try to change their consciousness through the consumption of products (entertainment, consumer goods, drugs) rather than by changing the world and accomplishing things. The massive use of recreational and mood altering drugs reflects and embodies the distortions that a passive, consumption-based society produces in human populations over time.

There is a kind of double consciousness that a consumer society gives people. On the one hand, in the realm of consumption, you are king. Companies bid for your attention and favor. You are a critic and a connoisseur: politicians bid for your votes, networks and film companies for your attention. As long as you are spending your money (earned or borrowed) society feeds your sense of power and worth.

But outside of that realm of consumption, most Americans had very little power under the blue model.





Obama Talks Up the Production Economy

We (and by ‘we’ I mean my friends at the Progressive Policy Institute) have been talking a lot recently about the need for the U.S. to shift from a consumer economy to a production economy. (See for example here, here and here).

We are mighty pleased to see President Obama shifting in that direction. Here’s a quote from one of his latest speeches.

…over the last decade, we became a country that relied too much on what we bought and consumed. We racked up a lot of debt, but we didn’t create many jobs at all.

If we want an economy that’s built to last and built to compete, we have to change that. We have to restore America’s manufacturing might, which is what helped us build the largest middle-class in history. That’s why we chose to pull the auto industry back from the brink, saving hundreds of thousands of jobs in the process. And that’s why we’re investing in the next generation of high-tech, American manufacturing.

That’s a production economy, Mr. President.