A few months back, hanging out at a friend’s house with some beers, we engaged in one of those BS sessions that were so common in college but so rare these days. We wandered all over the proverbial map, but a particular interesting and engaging topic was the relationship between capitalism and consumerism.
Those who know me likely realize that I’m pretty liberal and believe we should have more social programs to benefit society as a whole. I basically feel that if my neighbor is better off, so will I be. However, I also think that capitalism is overall a good system that encourages innovation and progress and allows people the best chance to better themselves. Where I have real issues is with consumerism.
I basically think that consumerism — consuming for consuming sake — is bad. And it seems that our economy is so dependent on this. Consumer confidence is a key indicator of the state of the economy and our political leaders are always cajoling us to spend more. The economy will pick up when people buy more, as that will spur manufacturing, and thus hiring. It seems a vicious circle, with us buying stuff just so we can have jobs. If we stop buying, the jobs disappear.
This consumerism also leads to companies producing products solely so we have something to buy. They aren’t always good products and, even when they are, they are developed not because of any need, but just to have some new iteration for us to buy. If Apple didn’t have a new gee-whiz gadget every few months, what would we buy? Would they still be profitable? Would their business model collapse? What does the new iPhone do that the old one didn’t? Do I really need it?
It seems no. It seems like these products are produced almost exclusively so that they have something to sell and we have something to buy. And that leads to more stuff that just gets obsolete and tossed into the land fill. It all seems an engine to generate waste.
And this begs the question, are consumerism and capitalism fundamentally connected? Can capitalism exist without consumers consuming? If not, what is the basis of the capitalist market?
As might be expected, we didn’t answer this question. We did think that maybe the paradigm could be shifted slightly if the full cost of a product, including its disposal, were included in its price. If the cost of disposing of some object were included in the purchase price, rather than in either utility bills from the city or just ignored completely, maybe products would have to be designed that were meant to be durable, to have some lasting power, and thus the market would have to rely on other components rather than just consuming. But, what those would be, I don’t know.