Monday, April 07, 2008

Russian Video Conference- An Attack on Consumerism

This morning at 9 a.m. I found myself in a video conference in Research I on the Fairfax campus of GMU with a room full of sociologists studying globalization and a room full of students from Moscow who said they studied global economy. The topic for the discussion was consumerism. Peter Stearns, a provost at Mason, had started the session by giving a brief introduction to what he believes is consumerism and to how he believes it should be viewed and addressed.
The event turned to be a lashing out against what they have taken to be Consumerism.
Peter Stearns had roughly described consumerism as a deep interest of groups in acquiring goods they do not need. The purchase of goods that are not needed for survival.
Historically, Stearns stated, consumerism can be explained, but viewing that many societies were extremely hostile towards it the subject must be studied to comprehend why societies would want such a world. He had correctly turned to the 17th and 18th centuries with the Industrial Revolution and the beginning of the first globalization(trade with the colonies) as the source of the increase wealth which he saw as the reason why individuals began to buy the goods not essential to survive. To Stearns, consumerism grew because individuals wished to have things to identify themselves much like a wealthy person today purchasing a large mansion or designer clothes. He does not view this purchasing of material as a blessing but rather as an absurdity. Stearns had clearly defined his distaste towards the large debts most American citizens acquire in order to purchase these consumer goods. My response is simply, isn't it a good thing? We are receiving goods without even having to pay for them immediately. We are getting the upperhand within this deal. See CafeHayek for their so many blogs on this topic such as this recent one titled, "I [Heart] America's Trade Deficit"

I want to define here that consumer goods is never clearly defined. By defining consumer goods, as those goods which are not needed to survive, who is to say what is needed since what is needed for me is not needed for others. Bread has been the main food source for most of man's history. It was not until recently that man was able to have more choice in his food supply. In Mises' The Free Market and Its Enemies, Mises points out that Queen Anne of England had seventeen children; none made it to adulthood, yet with the Industrial Revolution, with the age of consumerism living standards improved allowing for the mortality rate to improve. Mises says, "from the point of view of the parents the improved life expectancy of their children may not have seemed merely materialistic(consumeristic)." In fact, Mises points towards consumerism as a gift. Before the Industrial Revolution, common man had bought his clothing through second hand stores. Clothing was handmade and a skillful task and therefore was only a good for the wealthy. The global trade with the colonies brought in cotton, a common man's good, which with the growth of industry began to be produced into clothing by mass production. Common man had improved his life by simply specializing and trading. Coffee, tea, sugar to our dear Provost are considered consumer goods, but to the common man in the 18th century this was a good that enabled him to feel as rich as a King. Today, common man can purchase an ice cream cone any day of the week. This is something that not even Kings could have enjoyed any day in the past.
Oh, Dear Provost Stearns... to claim that consumerism is what brings fault to many attacks upon the Jewish people. Throughout most of history, Christians and Muslims had believed charging interest to be a sinful act. They did not understand the necessity of the interest rate (a forward looking process), and as the Jewish faith did not have any law against such a practice, they quickly became the bankers and merchants. This perhaps may be one of the reasons why the Jewish people are viewed as always greedy. They invested and merely wanted their return, but to ask for repayment is sinful to other religions.
Provost Stearn, I was insulted to see your fear in globalization. This fear that consumerism, materialism, or whatever name it is we wish to impose on it is a greed that is useless and is devouring mankind. This materialism has provided for new forms of transportation, better living environments with air conditioning, and an increase of wealth that helps raise members of the society out of poverty. We do not want to spread this?
We have not even addressed the simple concept of comparative advantage.

To the dear Russian professors and students, do not fall for the faux pas. Trade is essential and a brilliant form of interconnecting mankind with one another. Why would anyone not want to have the goods that make you happy? We are not only producers but consumers... we live each day in purpose of bettering ourselves off for tomorrow. History is important so I am not trying to say that Provost Stearn is on the wrong track but to quote Mises' in Human Action. "The subject matter of all historical sciences is the past. They cannot teach us anything which would be valid for all human actions, that is, for the future too. The study of history makes a man wise and judicious. But it does not by itself provide any knowledge and skill which could be utilized for handling concrete tasks."

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