America's Post-consumer Culture?

David Segal has a piece in today's New York Times on America's troubled love affair with shopping malls that is well worth reading--well, at least the first page. The article is notable because it touches on an aspect of the current economic crisis so fundamental yet virtually ignored by the mainstream press.

How, Segal wonders, do we at once prime the economy with spending, as the rules of our consumer economy dictate, while at the same time laying the foundations for a future built on saving more and spending less? And even more confounding: How can a dollar saved be deployed as, or even more productively, than a dollar spent?

From the article:

"Here, ladies and gentlemen, is the crux of the problem: We are reliably informed that whatever part of the economic crisis can't be pinned on Wall Street — or on mortgage-related financial insanity — can be pinned on consumers who overspent. But personal consumption amounts to some 70 percent of the American economy. So if we don't spend, we don't recover. Fiscal health isn't possible until money is again sloshing into cash registers, including those at this mall and every other retailer.

In other words, shopping was part of the problem and now it's part of the cure. And once we're cured, economists report, we really need to learn how to save, which suggests that we will need to quit shopping again."

After establishing the dilemma in clear terms, Segal then devotes the balance of the four page article to detailing the absurd extremes of consumerism, as manifested in its sacred temple -- The American shopping mall.  Segal's anecdotes speak to a vital subtext — is this really the best way to grow our economy?  Just what real value is there in the various treasures for sale at the mall. Is it the $13 baseball hat that looks as though it's made of cheddar cheese -- or the unique set of life experiences to be had there -- among them 'nibbling on a carton of Long John Silver's buttered lobster bites, then [riding] the SpongeBob SquarePants roller coaster'?  This is to say nothing of the more apparent ills of our binge consumption — from bulging waistlines weighing on healthcare budgets to a culture of entitlement that drives everything from deadly Wal-Mart stampedes to Wall Street's claim to billions in bonuses regardless of the value it creates or destroys.

There would seem to be a better way. Perhaps it's one that dials down the excesses of our consumption and directs those savings more immediately to key sources of growth, like innovation, education, infrastructure, instead of diverting them first through the Mall of America. This is the $1 trillion question and the answer represents the greatest challenge to America. And it's one that requires far more than a government stimulus package. It will require a huge cultural shift, and one that totally re-conceives the role of the consumer into a vital social investor who carefully considers a dollar spent today as one not invested in tomorrow.

While this seems like a radical notion now, our future may depend on pushing society toward a place where thinking of ourselves as 'social investors' seems perfectly sensible reality.  Stay tuned to Big Think as we explore this new idea of a post-consumer culture and what it might take to develop it. As a start, check out Matthew Taylor's rather smart primer on post-consumerism in which he forecasts a coming rebellion against conspicuous consumption.

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