Who is the economy for?

Good stuff from Tim Wu.  Was going to put this in quick hits, but I’ve been so bad at posting lately, just a quick excerpt of some good stuff:

Europeans often describe the United States as a great place to buy stuff but a terrible place to work. They understand the appeal of our plentiful and affordable consumer goods, but otherwise they just don’t get it: the lack of real vacation, the sending of emails after business hours, the general insensitively to work-life balance.

That may be just a casual observation, but it identifies something deep and problematic about the economy that the United States has built over the past 40 years.

Since the 1980s, American economic policy has insisted on the central importance of two things: cheaper prices for consumers and maximum returns for corporate shareholders. There is some logic to this: We all buy things, after all, and most of us own at least some stock.

But these priorities also generate an internal conflict, for they neglect, repress and even enslave our other selves: our identities as employees, producers, family members, citizens. And in recent years — as jobs become increasingly unpleasant and unstable, as smaller towns and regional economies are gutted, as essential industries like the pharmaceutical and telecommunications sectors engage in outlandish profiteering, and above all, as economic inequality becomes the trademark of our nation — the conflict seems to have reached a breaking point. [emphasis mine]

It wasn’t always this way. For most of American history, it would have been strange to suggest that buying things — as opposed to making them — was deserving of high regard or to suggest that the availability of cheap goods should be a major goal of economic policy. Most Americans were small farmers, craftsmen or merchants, and a person’s economic identity was typically that of a producer or a landowner. Macroeconomic policy, such as it was, consisted of trade policy and the protection of the liberties necessary to do business (such as protections from monopolies).

That changed over the course of the 20th century. Broadly speaking, it was the story of the rise of American consumer culture, the decline of farming, the spread of mass production to household goods and the birth of advertising. But the specific prioritization of consumers and shareholders in economic policy dates from the 1970s and ’80s, in what amounted to a mostly well-intentioned project gone too far.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

One Response to Who is the economy for?

  1. R. Jenrette says:

    Cheap consumer goods are like the gladiators and bread that placated the Roman populace.

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