Our Consumptive Economy: ‘A Sordid Boon’

Whispered about in hushed tones by a frightened society, it was named “consumption” due to its effects draining the victim’s body of vitality and the very breath of life. From the 19th Century to the early decades of the 20th Century, tuberculosis was one of the deadliest pestilences to ever ravage humanity. As the Harvard Library records: “By the late 19th century, 70 to 90% of the urban populations of Europe and North America were infected with the tuberculosis bacillus, and about 80% of those individuals who developed active tuberculosis died of it.”

The scourge spared no race, gender, or class, though the poor suffered more due to their claustrophobic tenements and the highly contagious nature of tuberculosis. The Tenement Museum described the disease’s insidious progression:

Early tuberculosis symptoms were vague and elusive, described as “severe bodily or mental fatigue” or “a short and insidious cough, with a feeling of lassitude, and a decline in general health.” One could live for years, even decades with the disease, having “survived” but never fully recovered, marked by a rattling cough, fatigue, night sweats, and a general feeling of “wasting away.” As the disease progressed, a victim would begin to feel a burning and aching in their chest and cough up thick, white phlegm and blood. They would lose their appetite, and muscle mass. Death eventually came when enough liquid had built up in the lungs that they cannot get enough oxygen and their respiratory system fails.

Today, tuberculosis has been checked, though not eradicated. As such, especially in the first world, the symptoms of the disease are no longer in the forefront of people’s minds. This, of course, is a welcome development; however, it does impair the moral imagination’s ability to recognize these symptoms within the body politic, specifically America’s consumptive economy.

Earlier generations of Americans established business entities and/or were employed in a productive economy. Its economy encouraged and rewarded entrepreneurial spirit, initiative, and hard, honest work within a free market, capitalist structure. It allowed successive generations of Americans to operate and/or work for a single business concern, be it a farm, small business, and/or corporation, for decades, or, should they wish, climb ever upwards within a classless society to pursue their American Dream.

It was not an Edenic economy: persistent racial and gender discrimination and disparities were real and, to varying degrees, remained, despite diligent efforts to eliminate them. The fact that all citizens were not equally able to fully participate in the economy was shameful and precluded the optimization of the American economy. Still, over time, America’s productive economy created the world’s largest middle class and, ultimately, the most prosperous and equitable economy in human history.

So much so, that when the world lost its mind for the second time, America’s productive economy manufactured and extracted the war materials necessary to defeat fascism and imperialism; and, post-war, America’s productive economy generated and shared the wealth needed to feed and rebuild a war-ravaged European population; prevent a totalitarian takeover of the entire continent; facilitate the resurrection of free market economies; and strengthen the allies who would help America lead the free world and win the Cold War.

One would think our productive economy’s accomplishments would be heralded and perpetuated.

The elites had other ideas.

In fact, elitists, especially in academia, had long loathed America’s free market, capitalist system. To cite but one among the plethora of radical critiques, we have this example submitted by my friend, whom we shall call “Dr. Dan,” lest we imperil his position in academia: “The leading textbook on economics for undergrads, Paul Samuelson’s Economics, conceded that the U.S.S.R. would likely overtake the U.S. in GDP at some point because the Soviet growth rate was (erroneously, it turns out) seen to be very much higher than America’s.”

Purblind by their radical ideology, at the very time the left was pining for a socialist economy, they were laying the foundations for a direct assault to impose cultural Marxism upon the traditional American culture that undergirded that productive economy. From the mid-20th century onward, the left’s long slog from political correctness to the Maoist DIE cult (diversity, inclusion, equity) to full-blown secular, morally relative post-modernism has born bitter fruit. Designed to be politically divisive, exclusionary, and inequitable, the invidious DIE cult has wrought all three evils upon Americans.

The result is the capitalist right’s deindustrialization and the outsourcing of major components, including agricultural goods, of the productive economy, disastrously converging with cultural Marxism to devolve our productive economy into a consumptive economy.

Growing up, my Gen X peers and I were told our productive economy was “evolving” into a “service economy.” As youths growing up in Detroit (a.k.a., “The Motor City”), to say this sounded ominous would be an understatement. Subsequently, our concerns mounted when we were then told America would have a “service economy.” Later, we were told America would have a “knowledge-based economy,” then a “consumer economy,” and, finally, a “globalized economy.” Our fears mounted with every pronouncement. Yet, they proved unfounded, for we gravely underestimated the damage that deliberate decimation of the productive economy would wreak upon our city, state, and entire country, especially when conjoined to the left’s diabolical assault upon traditional American culture.

Armed with “free trade agreements” (that was not “free” but, rather, negotiated trade), the elites and their handmaiden policy makers outsourced American manufacturing and agricultural jobs off-shore to “low-cost” countries lacking workers’ rights, particularly, and human rights, generally. MIT economist David Autor has called this the “China Shock” and estimated that the shift of manufacturing to China since the turn of the 21st century has cost the US approximately 2 million manufacturing jobs. As jobs were shipped overseas and cheaper (in every sense of the word) products flooded into the U.S., the elite’s new mantra was that America had become a “globalized consumer economy.”

In a nutshell, the elites would get rich through lower production costs. Workers would allegedly win despite stagnant wages because the lower costs of products would allow them to keep their heads above water—if not climb the ladder out of a stagnant, miasmatic economic pool. The advent of the credit card abetted this transition, for more Americans were comfortable with carrying debt—perhaps far too comfortable.

This comfort with carrying debt affected public attitudes toward government debt as well, which further abetted the destruction of the productive economy. Initially, this helped blunt the impact on enough of the voting public to facilitate the transition. Indeed, the left welcomed the opportunity to foster governmental dependence upon ever more of the populace. Such government spending to “transition” (i.e., pacify) displaced workers into service jobs, early retirement, or most likely unemployment could be borrowed from the low-cost countries whose holdings of U.S. dollars and debt had rapidly grown due to our and our ballooning trade deficit. The disparate effects of our trade policies were seen in the container ships that overwhelmed U.S. ports, arriving loaded with Chinese goods and returning to China nearly empty, at the same time as profits soared for U.S. corporations that moved their production to China. The ships returned empty because communist regime manipulated their currency to ensure U.S. jobs were relocated to the PRC.

As Dr. Dan reminds us:

China intervened in the market for international trade by fixing the RMB to dollar exchange rate to lower the price of Chinese exports to the West; and increased the price of exports from the West to China. China’s huge current account surplus’ accumulated dollars were used to purchase U.S. government debt. Absent China’s intervention, market forces would have caused the value of the dollar to fall relative to the RMB, which would have made U.S. manufactured goods more competitive, thereby reducing the loss of U.S. jobs to China.

The fact that the largest of these “low-cost” countries underwriting the dismantling of our productive economy (including the “Arsenal of Democracy”) was a nuclear-armed, genocidal communist dictatorship engaged in “unrestricted warfare” against their primary, hegemonic enemy, the United States, did not seem to bother the domestic architects of our consumptive economy any more than did the concomitant erosion of traditional culture and the end of many of their fellow citizens’ American dreams.

Yet, as much as we wish it were otherwise, the domestic architects are not solely to blame for our consumptive economy’s degenerative selfishness. They may have incentivized the temptation to ignore the suffering of our fellow citizens who were harmed by their handiwork, but far too many Americans relented to that temptation and bit the apple of indifference, never expecting they, too, could someday get stuck with the consumptive economy’s tab.

But the consumptive economy’s tab tolls for thee and all Americans, for it is a tenuous, unsustainable economic balancing act. Pushing consumption for its own sake, the consumer economy is less an endless loop than a tightening noose; one devoid of any aspirational or spiritual purpose. As William Wordsworth lamented during the Industrial Revolution:

The world is too much with us; late and soon,

Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers; –

Little we see in Nature that is ours;

We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!

In this consumptive economy, we must be ever vigilant and protect what we should most treasure. Tuberculosis consumes bodies. The consumptive economy consumes souls. For, in this life, there is one wage that must always be paid. As Paul the Apostle instructs us in Romans 6:23: “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Having bartered our hearts and powers, amassing fleeting products and pleasures, we will be spiritually broken when the consumptive economy’s wages of sin come due.

An eternity of torment won’t be time enough to redeem the debt.

An American Greatness contributor, the Hon. Thaddeus G. McCotter (M.C., Ret.) served Michigan’s 11th Congressional district from 2003-2012, and served as Chair of the Republican House Policy Committee. Not a lobbyist, he is a frequent public speaker and moderator for public policy seminars; and a Monday co-host of the “John Batchelor Radio Show,” among sundry media appearances.

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About Thaddeus G. McCotter

An American Greatness contributor, the Hon. Thaddeus G. McCotter (M.C., Ret.) represented Michigan’s 11th Congressional district from 2003 to 2012 and served as Chair of the Republican House Policy Committee. Not a lobbyist, he is a frequent public speaker and moderator for public policy seminars, and a Monday co-host of the "John Batchelor Show" among sundry media appearances.

Photo: Hudson Body Plant . Located at the corner of Conner and Gratiot Avenues, the plant was designed by famed architect Albert Kahn (who also designed Hudson's main factory) and was built in 1925 for a Hudson supplier. Hudson purchased the building in the late 1920's. Hudson bodies were fabricated in the building, then trucked down the street to the main assembly plant on Jefferson Avenue. Hudson closed the plant when they ended operations in Detroit in 1954. In 1956, General Motors purchased the building and it served as a Cadillac stamping plant until the Poletown plant opened in 1985.