The economic underpinnings of the United States have ceased to serve the best interest of the people. We could attribute this to nineteenth century robber barons exploiting workers, or the failure of early twentieth century progressives to alter profit driven capitalism, or the rise of the military-industrial complex, or our reluctance to grapple with the interdependencies of the global economy. But I prefer to lay the blame on James Carville. As manager of Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign against George Bush, Carville coined the phrase, “The economy, stupid”. The slogan, usually paraphrased “It’s the economy, stupid”, did three things simultaneously. First, it got Clinton elected. Second, it cemented the idea that economic issues trump all others in national elections. Third, it bestowed autonomy and power to our economic system beyond the ability of any ordinary individual to influence.
Prepositions matter. ‘Our’ economy is something we own, we have a stake in it; perhaps we can affect it. ‘Their’ economy is other; it differentiates and possibly creates barriers among people or countries. ‘An’ economy is neutral, there is no value assigned to its merit. But ‘The’ economy is established, fixed, authoritative and unalterable. Nouns preceded by the preposition ‘the’ are rendered important, even majestic. We don’t pay tribute to a queen; we honor the queen. And every one of the three billion males on earth knows the difference between a man and being ‘the man’.
The human propensity to personify is universal; we are reassured by symmetry and human proportion. But when we personify abstract concepts, bestow human attributes upon them and accord them human rights, we yield some of our own. Corporations were created as individuals of business in order to pool risk and resources for a more efficient good. But when corporations received the right of free speech (thanks to the Supreme Court ruling in Citizen’s United), actual humans lost some of our own voice. Similarly, when we proclaim our web of economic activity to be ‘the economy’ it is no longer something that serves us, it is something we serve. When we elevate the economy to a position of immutable power, when we attribute it the ability to play king maker in a presidential election, when we toil under its burden, we are diminished in return.
These days we call our economy the consumer economy since consumer spending is the largest component of economic stimulus. Consumer spending is now 71% of GDP, up from 61% a generation ago. The consumer economy used to be great; it provided stuff we needed. Then marketers perfected the pathways to human desire and the economy moved from providing for our needs to satisfying our wants. By the time George Bush II recommended shopping as the appropriate patriotic response to the Iraq war, consumption had become a civic duty. Now the consumer economy is the noose around our neck. We are told over and over that the only route to prosperity is through buying more stuff.
For most of us, the only certainty in a consumer economy is the certainty of debt. Debt is not bad in itself; it an essential lubricant to a flourishing industrialized economy. Debt allows people with ideas and capability to execute their vision, ultimately to create wealth. But just as corporations have been given too large a voice in our world, debt has become a burden that we serve rather than a tool that serves us. Debt is no longer something we undertake in exchange for creating wealth over time, it is the mechanism by which we survive from month to month. Most of us are in debt, have been since we were young, and will be for the rest of our lives. Debt is the tether that binds us to the consumer economy and traps us under its power.
I propose we abolish ‘the’ economy. Since I am no revolutionary and never want to topple all the good that is the United States, I suggest we start small. First, wash away the proposition ‘the’. When economic activity aligns with our interests, it is our economy, when it diverges from our interests, it is their economy, a signal that we ought to circumvent it, and ultimately change it. When debt is going to help start a worthwhile business, buy a house or educate a child, go for it. But when a dinner out or new TV will tether us to constant payments, think twice. Don’t bow to marketing and political messages that push us to consume. Don’t revere the economy imposed by others. Figure out what constitutes your economy and cumulatively let’s make it our economy, an economy that works for everyone.