That large numbers of Americans are not voting is a cause of great concern. Democratic government, we’re told, depends on an informed and active citizenry. Billions of dollars are spent during every election cycle to “get out the vote,” but such efforts have generally fallen short of expectations. Nevertheless, candidates continue to be elected and government operations go on without interruption year after year.
Far more worrisome would be a situation in which Americans curtailed their spending, limited their purchases of goods and services. That would be unthinkable, likely regarded as an existential threat to our way of life. Our economy would, under such circumstances, be unable to withstand such a jolt (as would most others, especially in the developed world). It is, after all, predicated on a system of consumption without end , with individual consumers, boundlessly eager to add to their existing stock of goods and to avail themselves of whatever services promised to enhance their lives. Most people, at all income levels, are quite willing to play their parts
The problem is just how to keep all the balls in the air in order to maintain an ever-growing level of consumption so that our economic machine, strikingly productive, does not falter, slow down even grind to a halt, unable to dispose of all it can produce. What could contribute to such a dire state of affairs? Poor people can’t afford to purchase much beyond the necessities. Were that portion of the population to increase, it would create pressure on others to take up the slack. But many of those who are not poor are nonetheless not in a position to carry the load. Too often they’re in debt, their ability to consume limited by the fact that wages have remained essentially flat in recent years. In addition, the job market has been unable to support a broad range of full-time well-paying jobs for all those seeking them (including recent college grads). Thus, relatively high unemployment, part-time employment and erratic cycles of employment (including millions who have left the job market) have put a damper on the consumer’s confidence.
But too much is at stake here for our consumption-based economy to be allowed to malfunction.. Ways, for example, have been found to allow consumers to spend more money than they have. That challenge was addressed long ago with the advent of credit cards, which magically augmented purchasing power by putting substantial amounts of money into individual accounts from which they could draw at any time. And for the credit-worthy, these amounts would be increased when credit limits were approached. Even more powerful leverage eventually buoyed the marketplace in the form of home equity loans. As home prices rose owner equity in their properties increased proportionately. Accordingly, they were encouraged to refinance and draw funds out of their homes for purchases that need no longer be delayed. Millions took advantage of this contrivance, thereby adding trillions of dollars to potential purchasing power. In addition, in recent years a booming stock market (induced in part by Federal Reserve monetary policy) has added trillions of dollars to the net worth of individuals holding securities. This produced a “wealth effect,” i.e., a feeling of wellbeing, even euphoria, long associated with enhanced levels of consumption. Even the poor were enabled to join in it. Thanks to the earned income tax credit, the government transferred billions of dollars each year into their hands which generally resulted in immediate purchases of one sort or another.
While money was generated in ways just described, producers of goods and services and those who sold them to the public were, at the same time, hard at work devising ways to get individuals to loosen their purse strings. Advertising grew as never before as commercials flooded our environment in any way and in every place imaginable. Sales enticements were everywhere, holiday buying periods heavily promoted, consumers bombarded with “come-ons,” whether on billboards, through mailers, over the phone, on TV, via the internet or on a variety of mobile devices. Everywhere were new products and services ”better than ever,” presented as essential to those in pursuit of the good life. Consumer research reached new levels of sophistication as individual buying patterns were analyzed and products offered to meet specific individual interests, as well as the needs of various segments of the buying public. Supply did not generate demand, as an old economic precept once assumed, but it certainly spurred extraordinary efforts to whet consumer appetites.
In sum, our economic system, as currently organized, requires that there be no let up, no slackening in the pace of consumption. Just as some sharks must keep swimming to remain alive, our economic machine must keep in constant motion, an unending cycle of increased production and consumption. The pressure is constant. The stakes are high. We may not choose to vote, but we must never forget to spend.