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Wednesday, May 06, 2009

The American Economy: Worshiping God 2.0

Fuck the system.

In Jesus’ name.


“For decades, Americans have been known as epic consumers, but it would be more accurate to call us epic upgraders. During all those years of packing up and moving, we were headed to a bigger house, at a better address, perhaps for a higher-paying job. We were trading up, and that urge — to acquire something bigger or better, preferably something bigger and better — is a quintessentially American urge. It is so neatly woven into the double helix of our DNA that we hardly notice it.

Forget the upgrade. The game now is avoiding the downgrade. This is grim and troubling, in part, because so much of our consumer culture is built around the enticements of the Better....

Entire corporate strategies target the bottomless American appetite for the upgrade.

In the United States, upgrade-mania has bred a sense of entitlement, which has only stoked upgrade demands. In recent years, when anything went wrong in any transaction — the airline misplaced your luggage, Little Caesars sent you a medium with pepperoni and mushroom and you hate mushrooms — you were owed an upgrade. A business class ticket, an order of crazy bread, something.”

From http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/26/weekinreview/26segal.html

The American economy has been in recession. People are losing jobs. Politicians on all sides agree: we must “get the economy going again.”

Oh really. But why? And, is this what we really want? Is this what we want for the long term?

What if the economy is over extended?

What if participating in the American economy is damaging to the oppressed in other nations, the earth, and to our own souls?

A few thoughts in these next few posts of mine, a few thoughts from my reflections on working in accounting, of participating in the American economy, and of contemplating the place of the soul, of the human person, in the midst of the American economic experience.

The theme passage to reflect on will be Jesus’ words, where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

American economics at work
The American economic system is based on profit. Whether it is explicitly stated or not, American businesses and corporations exist to make a profit. What is “profit”? In a highly simplified form, profit is the excess, the excess revenue over expenses. Profit is the excess that exists after all expense obligations have been paid, including paying workers, CEO’s, etc.

Profit provides the basis for corporate/business expansion. With excess profit, a business can expand itself: expand current production, branch out into new markets, get a better grip on their current market share, etc.

Profit is the American expectation. Investors are looking for returns on their investment…..no profit, no return. Profit is the payoff of the risk an investor takes when they invest their money.

At this point, Readers, I actually have no theoretical problem with capitalism. As I understand capitalistic theory in it’s early development, it was based on the premise that businesses exist to provide a needed good or service. Businesses would rise up to meet the demands of the market: if people need warm socks, a business would meet the demand. Harmless, really, in basic theory.

But with the industrial revolution and mass production, meeting the basic American needs was easy. These days, we actually throw away something like half of our food….this despite the hunger and starvation around the world; we dump our food in the trash and then write a check to World Vision or Compassion International….but I digress……As Americans, we have our basic needs met.

But the economy has still kept expanding and expanding. Expanding, that is, until recent days. What is the expansion based on?

Certainly there are some humanitarian aims that are being achieved that go above and beyond our basic life needs: improving treatments for the sick, etc. But most economic expansion is based on comfort, luxury, or entertainment.

In other words, American economic expansion has been based in large part on the fact that we need to have more and more stuff: bigger and better stuff. As the above article states, we live in an American culture where “upgrade” is an entitlement. It is the American Dream.

But this is something we all have to participate in together. American corporations have to sink billions and billions of dollars into convincing us that our lives will be better with more possessions and with stuff that is upgraded. Apple, for example, is a company that has continued to do well, despite the economic downturn. Well run business? Or is it just the ultimate example of an upgrade-obsessed culture. American corporations have to invest heavily in making us discontent, but in the end, we are the suckers who buy the shit, who upgrade to something better, and who either work jobs we don’t enjoy, work long hours at the office, or some combination of both.

As Tyler from Fight Club says: We work jobs we hate to buy shit we don’t need.

To summarize this my first post….the American economic system is inflated and artificial. It is largely based on the perception that we need to participate in the upgrade culture. In short, we must be spiritually discontent.

One might suggest that recession is what we need. And yet I have a lot of compassion for people who lose jobs and homes. There is a sense in which we are all suckers, betting against the house with the odds against us. So, in the short terms, all the politicians agree: we’ve got to get the economy on track.

I’m not so sure. And I want to talk about alternatives.

I want to ask if this American economic system is really what we want, if it is really life-giving to humanity. After all, the system wouldn't work if people didn't keep showing up to work each day, punch the clock, and do their best to look and feel interested.


Andy said...

Those first three lines are worth the whole post...

Seriously, though. In a way, I appreciate disasters in the U.S., largely because it reminds people that they can do so much with what they have for the good of others. Back after 9/11, the Onion ran a headline: "Woman, Not Knowing What Else To Do, Bakes Patriotic Cake." And that was after she had donated time, money, effort, and blood.

Want to impact the economy? Give what you have. Want to impact the world? Give all you have to the poor, and follow Jesus.

The Jesting Fool said...

Interesting article.

I have no disagreement with you about the status and nature of the US economy. Seems pretty focused on excess. As a worker in the food industry, I can vouch for the fact that a huge amount of food gets thrown away. I've become used to it, but it still bothers me.

I'm not sure how much room our form of capitalism leaves for "contemplating the place of the soul", but I'm interested to read your thoughts when you post future articles on this topic.

And to echo Andy, excellent first three lines.

amy said...


Thanks for this post.

This is spur-of-the-moment speculation on my part, but here goes. Do you think that, in a sense, the problem with excess in our country perhaps has something to do with the fact that Americans (at least modern Americans) don't value quality? We like our food piled high and priced cheap, its origin and nutritive value and freshness be damned. We don't want to know who made our stuff and where and out of what and why. We'd rather buy ten $30 pans over the course of a lifetime than one $200 pan that will never wear out. We want "more" for our money, and the people who make the goods we consume take the hint that we don't care if it's shit, as long as it's cheap shit. In my limited travels, I've noticed that elsewhere (among first-world countries) people tend to have and consume much less, but what they have is much more durable / responsibly produced. Upgrading doesn't seem to be much of an issue when quality is valued from the start. Andy, you've traveled far and wide—what do you think?

Perhaps this is a symptom and not a component of the problem—like I said, it's spur-of-the-moment thinking.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Jesting Fool,


And yes, I share your sense of pessimism. It is difficult to conceive of an active participant in the American economy truly having time to grow in a healthy way.....that's the direction I'm thinking at this point, but I am open to suggestions. Things like corporate yoga, fitness centers, etc. all seem geared toward keeping workers in good enough physical shape to keep cranking out the work and producing for the Company. I do think there are exceptions to this, but I think the exceptions prove the rule.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Amy: Do you think that, in a sense, the problem with excess in our country perhaps has something to do with the fact that Americans (at least modern Americans) don't value quality? We like our food piled high and priced cheap.....We'd rather buy ten $30 pans over the course of a lifetime than one $200 pan that will never wear out.....In my limited travels, I've noticed that elsewhere (among first-world countries) people tend to have and consume much less, but what they have is much more durable / responsibly produced. Upgrading doesn't seem to be much of an issue when quality is valued from the start. I like your thought, and I'm interested what others think about it.

I think you've hit on something really important: we prefer more (quantity) over quality. It's part of the disposable society. We would rather purchase a new pair of pants that are "in style" each fall and spring, rather than to have a really good/quality pair of pants that lasts, was not made using exploited overseas labor, etc.

I would add that when people move up in the American economy and become more wealthy, they tend to purchase higher quality goods....but they still purchase quantities of goods, they still consume A LOT, but they have the resources to invest in quality as well as quantity.

With the American poor and middle class, I would say that there is a very intentional effort (on the part of Corporations) to produce cheap goods. It's where the demand is, frankly. As a culture, we demand cheap stuff.

amy said...

And here is the cycle: Poor people demand cheap stuff, so corporations produce cheap stuff that will wear out quickly, ensuring that, if they can't make a large profit from one expensive but well-made widget, they will make a large profit from the ten cheap crappy widgets that replace the one expensive but well-made widget. The poor must buy the cheap widgets that must be replaced regularly instead of the expensive widgets that need only be purchased once. So the corporations keep the poor poor by forcing them to waste money on cheap crap, thereby securing the continuing demand for cheap crap (which, of course, is easier to produce poorly and less responsibly).

And I say, if you can't afford to buy responsibly and buy quality, if at all possible, don't buy.

Anonymous said...

as a former producer of the cheap crappy widgets that amy speaks of, i understand this conflict at a deep, heartfelt level. it's what ultimatly led me to leave the "great" job that i had.
coincidently, i became directly, a small part of this economy that disgusts you so, jon. producing [more] crap that people don't need. hoping for this recession to turn around... praying that people continue to spend/buy/want/desire/induldge.
as i was reading your post, the thought crossed my mind, "i wonder what jon authentically thinks of me and what i do (job wise) in respect of his own struggle and disgust with american consumerism?". it's definitely something i would love to have a conversation with you on. just wanted to post the thought to get you thinking...maybe we can discuss more thursday?

Jonathan Erdman said...


I participate in the economy as well.....so, I will not cast the first stone at you.

amy said...


You're an artist, right? I would argue that there's a vast difference between what you create, even though people must use "disposable" income to purchase it, and piles of junk at Walmart and Pier One. Even though buying your wares is somewhat of an indulgence, I still think that placing money directly into the hand of an artist in one's community who makes a living from her creativity is not an irresponsible use of money. What you make may not be necessary for basic survival, but it isn't crap, and buying a necklace from you is certainly more responsible and meaningful than buying one at Target, even if yours costs thrice as much. As an artist myself, I think (I hope) there is more to owning artwork and supporting artisans than sheer consumerism.

But then, I can't speak for Jon.

Jonathan Erdman said...

I agree with Amy's assessment.

The creativity of local artists is far different from mass produced, pop art.

What sucks as a local artist is having to compete against the mass produced advertisers who must tell everyone that art is better if everyone has the same styles.....and then has to replace those "old" styles with what is currently "in style."

Target trinkets (like most corporations) are made (at least in part) with exploited labor forces.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Here is a (very lengthy but illuminating) email from my (wonderful and beautiful) friend Tamie. This is worth the read b/c it shows the Catch 21 that local business owners are in as they try to compete with huge corporate chains:

Yesterday I phoned an acquaintance of mine who knows this area (Wheaton, Illinois; I'm visiting family) and asked him to recommend some local restaurants and coffee shops. I believe so strongly in supporting local business that I called someone in another state to ask him for recommendations. He suggested a place called Spiazza Coffee, and I came here yesterday and bought about $5.00 worth of coffee and food.

This morning I returned to Spiazza for a few minutes to check e-mail. I was so full from breakfast that I decided not to buy anything at that time, knowing I’d return later in the day and buy a full lunch while I lingered and tried to catch up on e-mail.

When I walked back in, it was later morning and there were only a few other customers sitting around. I sat down at a table and started to set up my computer; I wasn’t even done arranging myself when the owner yelled at me across the place, “Hey! Are you going to buy anything?” “Yes, I said.” Gruffly he said, “Are you really going to buy something? Really? Because you were in here this morning and you didn’t buy anything.” I was so taken aback at being publicly confronted this way. I gave him a who-the-fuck-do-you-think-you-are look and stammered, “Yeah, I—I was planning to.”

For a few moments I sat looking at my computer screen and seething. I felt angry and embarrassed. Finally I decided that I needed to say something, so I walked up to the counter and said to him, “I really didn’t appreciate the way you just treated me. You really embarrassed me. You don’t know anything about my life circumstances, why I might have left earlier, and even if you wanted to talk to me about buying something, you didn’t have to yell at me across the store.” He told me that many people had been spending time in his shop without buying anything, and that people needed to buy something if they were going to sit there and use the internet. I told him that he knew nothing about me, and that he could have handled the situation differently. Finally he apologized for embarrassing me.

I sat back down and for some reason the interaction released something deep inside of me and I started sobbing. When I was finished crying I resumed my work.

A few minutes later, a tense argument broke out between the owner and another customer. The customer was saying to the owner, “That’s no way to treat a customer! Why are you talking to me like that? I’ve been coming here for years. I buy things here all the time. I bring my kids here, my parents here. My brother is one of the artists whose work is exhibited here. But even if I hadn’t been coming here for years, being confrontational like that is no way to get business.” I sat there nodding. Apparently the owner had treated another customer the way he’d treated me, and the customer had responded in a similar way. I hadn’t just been being overly sensitive, which was a relief!

The owner started telling the customer about how many people come in and spend hours just sitting here, not buying anything. About how hard it is to make it as a small business owner. Eventually, both the customer and the owner relaxed and started talking together about the struggle to stay afloat financially, especially when Starbucks is just across the street…

Later I heard the owner talking on the phone, saying he was supposed to be off work by now but his employee hadn’t showed, and now his daughter was going to be late for school. His daughter was in fact roaming around the shop; she looked about 7 or 8. Suddenly I felt such compassion for him, the owner of a local business competing with brutal multi-national corporations. Many of his customers are Wheaton students—they were the ones in here sitting forever and buying nothing—young people attending the most expensive Christian college in the United States, who don’t have the social consciousness or respectfulness to just purchase a few drinks. And on top of this, he is trying to care for his young daughter, and his employees aren’t coming through.

We just never know what’s going on in another’s life. Just like he does not know that I have other concerns burdening my mind this morning, concerns that if he had known them at the outset might have softened his heart toward me, and perhaps he would not have yelled in the first place.

But more than all of this, I think about how our cultural way of relating to each other makes us business owners and customers first, and humans second or third or not at all. Each person walking in the door of a business is a pocket book, a money well, to be cajoled or charmed or bought. And there is so little public space where we can just sit, read our books or think or nap. So people try to hang out in coffee shops, the most inviting spaces in our marketplaces, but even there, there is the expectation that money will be spent. And so money gets prioritized above everything, once again. If you don’t have enough money to buy a drink, or you just don’t want to buy anything right now—you don’t want to spend money, for whatever reason—then you’re not welcome in any of the market place spaces, and there are few other spaces to go. There are parks….but what if it’s raining? There are churches….and most churches I know lock their doors during the week.

The business owner here at Spiazza told me he was going to ask me to leave if I didn’t buy anything—this, despite the fact that 90% of his shop was empty, despite the fact that I had done nothing offensive or inappropriate. What the hell kind of system have we got ourselves here? Derrick Jensen says that we have to pay money if we don’t want violence done to us, and I’m beginning to understand just how true those words are.

I think about my friends Evan and Allison, traveling around the States without a car and with very little money. What if they happened across this place and wanted to rest a spell? What if they couldn’t purchase anything? Wouldn’t it be worth it just to offer them space to rest their weary bones? Wouldn’t it be infinitely valuable, in terms of hospitality and humanity? Nope, not in our context. In our context, soul concerns, becoming deeply human, loving each other, holding sacred space, being hospitable—all of these are relegated to the status of accessories, nice things if you can spare the time and energy, after you’ve done the important thing: spend or make money.

And yet—I feel Spiazza’s owner’s pain. If he’s going to make it as a local business, if the world isn’t going to be completely controlled by Starbucks and Wal-Mart, then he’s got to compete, he’s got to have patrons willing to dish up the cash. Clearly, he doesn’t have to be rude, but he was only rude because the customers weren’t keeping up their end of the deal; our tense exchanges with him only exposed expectations that are always here.

Fortunately, the other upset customer and I are both people who want to support local business and we both told the owner this. Before the owner left the place, to take his daughter to school—late, of course—he offered both me and the other customer free coffee, and we both assured him of our support. And what does that mean? What kind of life can I live in order to most deeply support myself and my fellow human beings?

Anonymous said...

thanks for the vote of support. yes, i do believe there is something of greater value that comes from buying something made by a persons hands than buying the same/similar thing at a big box store. personally, for me, making something with your hands/imagination/creative spirit is a reflection of God. and, as an artist, i can use it for good or evil. it can be easily exploited for the sake of consumerism. i'm not going to lie, it is a constant battle within me as i paint, creating art for money, and being cautious not to be controlled by it. it's hard sometimes. sometimes i really feel like i walk the line....

Anonymous said...

i really found tamie's experience upstetting. personally, as a shop owner, i would never treat my customers that way. no matter how bad of a day i was having. because, bottom line, part of having a small business is the looker. and there is major value in those that just come to enjoy even if they can't buy. and as soon as we learn to see this a joy, we as small business owners will be a lot better off!

amy said...

Tamie's essay reminds me of the absolute necessity in our society of small business people like you (Nicole) and like the coffee shop owner. Small businesses provide people with the opportunity to launch a decided "hell no, we won't go!" at the corporate whores, seducing the public with promises of savings and status and sex appeal.

I agree completely that creation is a reflection of God, not only of artwork proper, but of everything that we alter into being: food, clothing, a garden, a poem, a child. I personally believe that the very act of creation brings us into communion with the Creator, and that, just as the mark of the Creator is on Creation, so we mark our creations on an unseen level. For me, this distinguishes a transaction between the maker and purchaser of an item—a bracelet or a dinner plate or a cup of coffee—from a trip to a big box store or chain restaurant to buy some soulless junk. I think it's akin to the difference between a bridal chamber and a brothel.

Hmmm. Maybe I'm off topic now. Sorry.

In any case, thanks for giving us a choice. Even if the things you sell aren't necessary items, your presence within the community and within society is essential.