Over a long time, and by means of a set of handy prevarications, our economy has become an anti-economy, a financial system without a sound economic basis and without economic virtues. It has inverted the economic order that puts nature first. This economy is based upon consumption, which ultimately serves, not the ordinary consumers, but a tiny class of excessively wealthy people for whose further enrichment the economy is understood (by them) to exist. For the purpose of their further enrichment, these plutocrats and the great corporations that serve them have controlled the economy by the purchase of political power. The purchased governments do not act in the interest of the governed and their country; they act instead as agents for the corporations.
That this economy is, or was, consumption-based is revealed by the remedies now being proposed for its failure: stimulate, spend, create jobs. What is to be stimulated is spending. The government injects into the failing economy money to be spent, or to be loaned to be spent. If people have money to spend and are eager to spend it, demand for products will increase, creating jobs; industry will meet the demand with more products, which will be bought, thus increasing the amount of money in circulation; the greater amount of money in circulation will increase demand, which will increase spending, which will increase production—and so on until the old fantastical economy of limitless economic growth will have “recovered.”
But spending is not an economic virtue. Miserliness is not an economic virtue either. Saving is. Not-wasting is. To encourage spending with no regard at all to what is being purchased may be pro-finance, but it is anti-economic. Finance, as opposed to economy, is always ready and eager to confuse wants with needs. From a financial point of view, it is good, even patriotic, to buy a new car whether you need one or not. From an economic point of view, however, it is wrong to buy anything you do not need. It is unpatriotic too: If you love your country, you don’t want to burden or waste it by frivolous wants. Only in a financial system, an anti-economy, can it seem to make sense to talk about “what the economy needs.” In an authentic economy, we would ask what the land and the people need. People do need jobs, obviously. But they need jobs that serve natural and human communities, not arbitrarily “created” jobs that serve only the economy.
From an economic point of view, a society in which every school-child “needs” a computer, and every sixteen-year-old “needs” an automobile, and every eighteen-year-old “needs” to go to college is already delusional and is well on its way to being broke.
In a so-called economy that is dependent on indiscriminate spending, “job creation” often implies an ability to “create” new “needs.” Until lately this economy has been able to create jobs by creating needs. But this has involved much confusion and a kind of fraud, because it gives no priority to the meeting of needs, and cannot distinguish needs from wants. Our economy, having confused necessities with products or commodities that are merely marketable, deliberately reduces the indispensable service of providing needed goods to “selling” or “marketing” products, some of which have never been and will never be needed by anybody. The gullibility of the public thus becomes an economic resource.
The category of things sold that are not needed now includes even legally marketed foods and drugs. This involves the art (taught and learned in universities) of lying about products. A friend of mine remembers a teacher who said that advertising is “the manufacture of discontent.” And so we have come to live in a world in which every brand of painkiller is better than every other brand, in which we have a “service economy” that does not serve and an “information economy” that does not distinguish good from bad or true from false.
The manufacturing sector of a financial system, which does not or cannot distinguish between needs and induced wants, will come willy-nilly into the service of wants, not needs. So it has happened with us. If in some state of emergency our manufacturers were suddenly called upon to supply us with certain necessities—shoes, for example—we would be out of luck. “Outsourcing” the manufacture of frivolities is at least partly frivolous; outsourcing the manufacture of necessities is entirely foolish.
As for the land economies, the academic and political economists seem mainly to ignore them. For years, as I have read articles on the economy, I have waited in vain for the author to “factor in” farming or ranching or forestry. The expert assumption appears to be that the products of the soil are not included in the economy until after they have been taken at the lowest possible cost from those who did the actual work of production, at which time they enter the economy as raw materials for the food, fiber, timber, and lately the fuel industries. The result is inevitable: The industrial system is disconnected from, is unconcerned about, and takes no responsibility for, its natural and human sources. The further result is that these sources are not maintained but merely used and thus are made as exhaustible as the fossil fuels.
As for nature herself, virtually nobody—not the “environmentalist,” let alone the economist—regards nature as an economic resource. Nature, especially where she has troubled herself to be scenic, is understood to have a recreational and perhaps an aesthetic value that is to some extent economic. But for her accommodation of our needs to eat, drink, breathe, and be clothed and sheltered, our industrial and financial systems grant her no recognition, honor, or care.
Far from assigning an absolute value to those things we absolutely need, the financial system puts a price, though a highly variable price, on everything. We know from much experience that everything that is priced will sooner or later be sold. And from the accumulating statistics of soil loss, land loss, deforestation, overuse of water, various sorts of pollution, etc., we have reason to fear that everything that is sold will be ruined. When everything has a price, and the price is made endlessly variable by an economy without a stable relation to necessity or to real goods, then everything is disconnected from history, knowledge, respect, and affection—from anything at all that might preserve it—and so is implicitly eligible to be ruined.