Ochenski: The buy line

Consumer mania won’t buy us out of our problems



The National Economic Commission has finally formalized what many economists have been saying for some time—that the country is in a recession. According to the Commission, the recession began in March and brought to an end the longest sustained growth period in U.S. history. President Bush, who is totally consumed with his “global war on terrorism,” has responded by urging citizens to start spending money like crazy while he prods Congress for an economic stimulus bill he “can sign by Christmas.” Bush’s prescription for what ails the economy seems as shortsighted as his administration’s energy plans which, while running roughshod over the environment by cutting loose multinational corporations to drill, mine, and burn their way through the nation’s remaining resources, have absolutely no chance of bringing us one step closer to “energy independence.” Urging Americans to buy their way out of a recession reinforces the worst aspects of our consumption-based society while negating a tremendous opportunity to step back, take stock, and perhaps realign our priorities for a more sensible and sustainable future.

While it can be argued that the war in Afghanistan is going well for the president at the moment and his popularity is soaring, the entire scenario is not unlike what happened to his father only a decade ago. Daddy Bush was at the helm when the United States entered the Gulf War. Ostensibly, the U.S. entered that war to protect Persian Gulf states like Kuwait from aggression by Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. In truth, however, it was our self-interest in maintaining the flow of oil that drove the war effort. Then, as in our new war, the mighty air power of America was unleashed to devastating effect as massive land forces swept across the country in the roiling black clouds of burning oil wells. Daddy Bush’s popularity, like his son’s, swelled with every replay of smart bombs and cruise missiles homing in on Iraqi targets. When Bill Clinton, then-governor of Arkansas, announced his bid to unseat Bush, the pundits laughed out loud. How, they wondered, could a political unknown unseat the victor of the Gulf War?

But things were not rosy for the homeland economy. Then, as now, unemployment figures jumped while economic growth stagnated. In fact, by way of comparison, our unemployment now is higher than it was then. While Daddy Bush was able to blast Saddam Hussein back to Baghdad, the smart bombs and cruise missiles could not be used to defeat a sagging economy. When the votes were counted, the little-known governor from Arkansas won the election and, like a Texas barbecue running out of beer, brought the first Bush presidency to an early end.

Comes now the son who, greatly fearing a repeat performance, will do whatever it takes to avoid his own presidential demise. Surrounded by many of his father’s former advisors, it is no surprise that George W’s first priority in recession is to take care of those who have taken care of him. Hence, the disgraceful House-passed “economic stimulus” package that provides billions of dollars to large corporations. Under the latest rhetoric, this ruse to shift even more wealth to the already-wealthy is rationalized as a way to “create pay checks, not welfare checks” by Republican spinmeisters. The Senate Democrats, who oppose the bill, point out that the gold being shoveled into the corporate troughs will likely wind up lining the pockets of executives, not creating jobs. The Demos say it makes more sense to put the money in the hands of the least wealthy, since they will spend it immediately on necessities like food, clothing, and utilities. This argument, which only promises to get more bitter as Congress heads toward its Christmas break, has grounded the Bush “stimulus” efforts in a logjam of competing interests.

And so a desperate Bush pleads for Americans to spend more money—no matter where they get it. At worst, heeding Bush’s plea will force many Americans to fall deeper into the credit card debt that plagues so many families. At best, should the Demos succeed and some of the federal pork escape the clutches of his corporate friends, “patriotic spending” will make sure it all gets back to the corporate coffers anyway.

The whole plan leaves those of us with a conservation ethos asking “Is this the only way?” Even as carmakers offer their latest monster SUVs at zero percent financing, does it make sense to buy them and put even more of these gas-guzzling polluters on the road? What does it do to wean us off imported oil? Likewise, what will bigger TVs and more electronic gadgets do to reduce electricity demand? And what happens to global warming if, as the Bushies (and our own governor) suggest, we just shut up and consume regardless of how many more power plants, oil wells, and coal mines it takes to meet that demand? Are we selling out our kids’ future so we can prop up a consumption economy and preserve a presidency that so far has produced little in the way of sensible, long-term policy?

The answer, of course, is that there is another way. We could stimulate the economy through prudent investments in smaller cars, more efficient (not just more) appliances, a nationwide effort to insulate homes, replace inefficient furnaces and air-conditioners, and develop better mass-transit options. We could even do it with the same themes—patriotic spending to secure our nation, ensure prosperity, reduce reliance on fossil fuels, and move us closer to a consumption and pollution profile that would bring Americans in line with the rest of the world. Long-term solutions to our problems are waiting to happen, lacking only the political vision and courage to make them real. Instead, like little kids in a candy store, we are being told to spend every nickel in our pocket for short-term solutions that will leave us poorer, less secure, and wallowing in our own pollution ... and it’s a crying shame.

When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Missoula Independent.

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