The Key to Consumption

By George P. Brockway, originally published March 13, 1992

1992-3-9 The Key to Consumption Title









LAST TIME I reported why our present economic muddle should be called a “contained depression.” The term is the coinage of S Jay Levy and David A. Levy of the Jerome Levy Economics Institute of Bard College. It distinguishes our present situation from the five or six recessions we’ve had since World War I, and also from the Great Depression of the 1930s.

The earliest recessions were temporary gluts of unsold consumer goods-relatively easy to slip into and correspondingly easy to recover from. Hence President Bush‘s long mad posture of “What? Me worry? Hence the frigid, almost insolent objections of Chairman Michael J. Boskin of the Council of Economic Advisers to extensions of jobless benefits. Hence the plaintive repetitions of Chairman Alan Greenspan of the Federal Reserve Board that the present recession will be short and shallow, and that recovery will start about six months from the date on which he happens to be speaking.

As the thing drags on, I’m reminded of the Elaine May- Mike Nichols skit in which a patient complains that she has been sick for a couple of weeks with what was diagnosed as 24-hour flu. “Well,” responds the doctor after carefully thinking the matter through, “this may be something of longer duration.”

Indeed it may. What we are now trapped in is not a consumption goods glut but a capital goods glut. We have too many factories, too many warehouses, too many office buildings, too many shopping malls, too many retail chains, too many too expensive apartments, too many too expensive vacation resorts, and especially too many banks and insurance companies and pension funds with too much of the foregoing as collateral for loans.

This sort of glut is not easily worked off in the modern world. Regardless of what the Cassandras say, we’re marvelously productive. If you want more steel, we certainly can turn it out for you. Or more automobiles, refrigerators, escalators, computers. Or more houses and highways. Or more cough medicines and handkerchiefs. Or more magazines and books. Or, when the President’s four new pair wear out, more sweat socks.

We are not oversupplied with any of these things – well, not with many of them. Our inventories are mean and lean and all that, but there’s no danger of serious shortages of anything for very long. What we are oversupplied with is the capacity to make more of almost anything. We have factories and machinery and office equipment and distribution systems and office managers and workers and know-how aplenty. No problem with any of that, except that we have too much and, like the sorcerer’s apprentice, the manic capacity to make more.

An inventory glut can be handled by shutting down the factories for a few weeks or months. But what can be done with a capital goods glut? There are two principal solutions: (1) We can let the unneeded capacity stand idle until it rusts out, or enough currently used capacity wears out, to bring our capacity to produce down to the level of our capacity to consume. Or (2) We can bring our capacity to consume up to the level of our capacity to produce.

The first solution, in its more benign form, is what Joseph Schumpeter called creative destruction. Schumpeter saw the economy driven by a succession of new industries, whose birth and growth led to the destruction of large existing industries. The most familiar example is the automobile industry, with its subsidiary industries of steel, glass and so on, and its ancillary industries of highway construction, petroleum and parking facilities. The new industry gradually overwhelmed industries built on the power of horses.

That did not happen all at once. As late as the 1920s, many cities still had horse-drawn fire engines whose pumps were powered by dramatic coal-fired steam engines. As late as the outbreak of World War II, the Boston Globe discovered to its surprised delight that it had not gotten around to completely dismantling its capability to deliver newspapers by horse-drawn wagon. A few carriage makers were able to convert to the production of automobile bodies. Many livery stables became garages. But manufacturers of buggy whips provided a metaphor for progress and quietly went out of business.

As Schumpeter pointed out, the new industries were bigger and in most ways better than the ones they destroyed. Or as folk wisdom has it, you can’t make an omelet without cracking eggs. The trouble now is that there’s no great new omelet industry on the horizon. The computer industry, which many expected to save us, is itself stumbling[1].

In fact, our situation is dauntingly similar to that of 1930. The unneeded or unwanted capacity is not limited to a single doomed industry. It is universal. Its destruction – if it occurred-would not be creative. It would be merelv destruction: wasted money, wasted resources, blighted hopes. And perhaps most important of all: wasted time. Once again Bessie in Clifford Odets’ Awake and Sing! would be speaking a bitter truth: “On the calendar it’s a different place, but here without a dollar you don’t look the world in the eye. Talk from now to next year – this is life in America.”

It would take a long time for the bright new assets to rust out or the good old assets to wear out. It would take a long time for banks and insurance companies and pension funds to become solid again. It would not be a pleasant time. For millions of citizens it would be a hopeless time, made more bleak by the deterioration of their surroundings both social and physical.

It took World War II, with its enormous stimulation of governmental and then personal demand, to pull us out of the Great Depression. The New Deal had moved painfully slowly, hamstrung by a coalition of Northern Republicans and Southern Democrats, and hampered by its own emotional commitment to classical economics. (A “responsible” effort to reduce the minuscule deficit in 1937 caused an instant recession.) Yet the New Deal was open, eager, hopeful, vigorous, experimental, caring. New Dealers didn’t have to make speeches about how they cared; they showed it. In their place we have Boskin, Brady and Darman and their trickle-down schemes.

So much for the first solution to our troubles. It is no solution at all.

The second solution (bringing our capacity to consume up to the level of our capacity to produce) would seem, on its face, to be easy as pie. Consuming is what we’re supposed to do best. Shopping malls are where we shine. But all the wise men kept telling us not to consume-until Bush bought those socks. Unfortunately, now that they are telling us consuming has become patriotic, we either haven’t any spare money or are afraid we soon won’t have any spare money.

The problem is, the wrong people have what spending money there is. Worse than that, practically nobody in public life says it is the wrong people who have money to spend – except Senator Tom Harkin, and look what happened to him in the Democratic Presidential primaries.

Somehow it has become conventional to believe that the distribution of wealth or income is not the issue. Or that redistribution is not practicable. Or that it wouldn’t make any difference, anyhow.

LET ME INTERPOSE a little story. The other evening I was a dinner guest at the home of some liberal friends. There were eight of us around the table, and none of us was afraid of what the President calls “the ‘L’ word.” We are liberals, possibly even knee-jerk liberals, and proud of it. After all, some injustices are so flagrant, and some events so sudden, that decent people must respond to them semi-automatically. A liberal response is surely more honorable than a reactionary withdrawal.

Anyway, there we were, and we got talking about the very subject of this article. You will not be surprised to learn that I argued in favor of restoring steep progressivity to the income tax. And I was not surprised to be told that Robin Hood was a seductive medieval myth, that taking from the rich and giving to the poor would simply make everyone poor because the rich are so few and the poor are so many, and that soaking the rich would not much improve revenues because tax avoidance would then increase.

We have all heard that line of talk before, very likely first meeting up with it at our father’s knee, if not at our mother’s. The line may actually have been true back then (though I doubt it), but it’s certainly not true today. The average of all family incomes in the United States is somewhere between $70,000 and $80,000.  It’s difficult to be more precise, because it’s hard to agree on exactly what a family is. In any case, it’s obvious that the Robin Hood myth is not impossible today.

I don’t suppose that anyone advocates perfect equality. (Even Engels called equality “a one-sided French idea which was justified as a stage of development in its own time and place but which now should be overcome.”) Nevertheless, it is important to understand that the present distribution of income is not an aspect of the universe that we, like Margaret Fuller, had better accept. It is not the unalterable consequence of some mathematical or psychological or perhaps theological law.

A second point must be made: Any attempt to change the distribution of income will certainly give some people, including those whom Shaw’s Mr. Doolittle called the undeserving poor, some money for nothing. I’ll let you compile your own list of why something for nothing is bad-psychologically, socially, ethically-and I’ll even grant the validity of most of your reasons. But then I’ll ask you to compile a list of the Astors and Morgans and Fords and so on who got something for nothing. A wit on the New York Times a couple of years ago noted that most of the richest people in America got their money the good old fashioned way-they inherited it. Something for nothing is, Nelson Rockefeller might have said, in the mainstream of Republican thinking.

Once we have mastered the message of the two preceding paragraphs, we have earned the right to consider ways of building demand worthy of our productive capacity. We all know the most obvious ways: First, massive public works, massive support for education, comprehensive national health care insurance.

Second, an almost vertically progressive inheritance tax, a steeply progressive income tax, probably a negative income tax at the bottom, and possibly an income limitation tax at the top.

We don’t have to do it all at once. But unless we get started soon, it will be a long time before happy days are here again.

 The New Leader

[1] Ed:  OK, so even this author gets it wrong from time to time….


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