Creating the New Economy
If the events of the past year have taught us anything, we should have now learned we cannot rely on our governments, banking institutions or multinational corporations to take it upon themselves to fix what is broken with the global economy. As Wall Street was gambling with our futures, our government stood by and did nothing to regulate or stop them. As countless families lost their livelihoods, taxpayers were forced to bail out those same multibillion dollar institutions that got us all into this disaster in the first place. Meanwhile, hedge fund managers and banking CEO’s are still taking home extortionate salaries and bonuses, and we the taxpayers, in a large part are paying for them. The promise of “change” has turned out to be more of the same.
Needless to say, if we the people expect to effect any change in the status quo, it is up to us. Fortunately, we have the power. For all the governmental control, psychopathic greed, manipulation of public policy and ambivalent destruction of the environment that corporations exercise on a global scale, they cannot operate or survive without our complicity. They need us, the consumers, to choose to purchase the goods or services they are pedaling. They need our money. Without our purchases, their profit margins shrink, their share prices fall, and they go bankrupt. Since we obviously can’t beat the market, we need to join it in order to change it.
The history of the organic foods movement is case in point. The organic movement began in the 1970’s as a response to industrial farming. As conscious individuals became aware of the environmental and health implications of pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilizers, they began to demand food that was grown naturally. In the 1990’s the movement had grown large enough that the USDA was obliged to create official organic certification standards. Today, the organic foods industry is the fastest growing sector in the food market expanding at a whopping 20% per year, and this growth is entirely driven by consumer demand. When consumers speak with their dollars, the market listens. The individual can effect great change by simply living the life they want to see in the world.
Step 1 – Don’t buy anything you don’t need
Our dysfunctional economy is based on the delusion of perpetual growth. As most American consumers are fortunate enough to have access to the basic necessities of life, corporate entities must grow by creating limitless wants in the consumer population. Through advertising, we are led to believe that miracle products hold the key to our happiness, so we go to the mall, ever hopeful and often at the expense of incurring debt, to purchase the latest and greatest gadget, diet product, beauty cream or wide screen TV only to find ourselves even more miserable (now laden with debt) than we were before. The truth is that having more stuff does not solve any of our problems and usually creates more problems. All of the scientific research conducted on the elusive state of happiness concludes that once a person has the stuff for basic subsistence, having more does not increase one’s happiness at all.
Furthermore, every item purchased represents spent resources in terms of the energy and materials used to create it. Once the product outlives its usefulness, it becomes waste and pollution. Every time we make a superficial impulse purchase, we reinforce the wasteful consumerism inherent in our deeply flawed and unsustainable economy. By buying only what we need, we encourage the market to return to a more sustainable modality based on utility rather than frivolity.
Step 2 - If It’s Broken, Fix It
Once upon a time in America, people bought goods and expected to keep them for a lifetime or even longer. Everything from televisions to toasters and automobiles were lovingly maintained and kept for years or even decades. When something broke, a person took the item to a repair shop or a service person came to the home to fix it. Entire businesses were built around maintenance and service. Today vacuum cleaner repair shops and TV repair man are the stuff of legends. Consumer goods are intended to be thrown away when they malfunction, as the manufacturer can then sell you another and make more profit. People who once owned service related businesses have gone out of business. To make matters worse, the increase in manufacturing resulting from our disposable consumer culture has not resulted in more blue collar jobs because those jobs are all now overseas where labor is cheap. Contrary to neoliberal economic mythology, buying consumer goods over and over again is good for someone’s economy but not ours. If we replaced the ‘consume and throw away’ paradigm with a ‘keep and repair’ model, we would actually create service jobs locally that could not be outsourced overseas. We would save our landfills mountains of waste, preserve precious resources and improve our local economies if only we would learn again how to take care of our toys.
Step 3 – Eliminate Debt
Now that we are only buying what we need and taking care of what we have, we will notice our credit card balances starting to creep slowly in the downward motion. Perhaps we have a few extra dollars at the end of the month that can go to pay down the mortgage. Being debt free has value beyond the obvious. After all, debt based securities are the financial instruments of doom that caused the great recession. With debt hanging over our heads, we end up going to work just to pay off debt and hopefully break even. With less debt, one could work less hours and spend time enjoying life instead with the added bonus of restricting the market for the predatory lending on Wall Street.
Step 4 – Be a Conscious Consumer
Let’s face it we all need some retail therapy from time to time, appliances break down, clothes wear thin, and we get hungry. Inevitably, we must make purchases from time to time, but we can shop without contributing to environmental degradation or corporate excess. Properly placed purchases can effect real positive change in the world. Purchasing clothing, furniture and odds and ends at antique, consignment and thrift stores is a form of recycling. Certified fair trade products ensure farmers and laborers have been offered a safe work environment and a fair living wage for their efforts. Certified organic foods and textiles save the environment from toxic chemicals, and buying from small, local businesses keeps revenue in local economies.
Step 5 – Invest in a Better Future
Remember how Leeman Brothers and Merrill Lynch lost all of their clients’ money while the companies’ CEOs retired to affluence? After making some really bad investments, the culprits got bonuses while grandma and grandpa had to come out of retirement and work as greeters at WalMart just to make ends meet. Why do we continue to trust these people to make our investment decisions? In the modern era, the wise investor needs to take control of their investment capital.
Not all corporations are entirely evil, and the savvy investor should choose securities based on a company’s social and environmental record as well as its potential for profit. Starbucks offers all of their employees a living wage and health insurance. Google headquarters run on solar energy, and numerous international and startup companies are doing outstanding work researching and developing alternative technologies that will help to create a sustainable future. Instead of lining some fat cat’s pockets with your hard earned dollars, do your own research, and then invest in companies you believe in.
As we approach a new year and a new decade, we can make the world we want to live in. While we don’t have the power to change laws or equitably distribute wealth across the planet, we can make the world a better place with the financial decisions we make. The global economy is all based on money, and we hold the money in our pockets.