From Consumers to Commons

Not long ago, I was talking to someone who once had been a deficit hawk but had been turned into a full-blooded Keynesian by the current recession. He wanted a stimulus package in the range of $500 billion to $700 billion. "Consumers are dead in the water," he said fervently, "so government has to rev up the economy so they'll start buying again." I agreed. But I didn't tell him that his traditional Keynesianism is based on two highly questionable assumptions in today's world and that Keynes' underlying logic inevitably leads us toward something bigger and more permanent than my friend has in mind.

The first assumption is that American consumers will eventually regain the purchasing power needed to keep the economy going full tilt. That seems doubtful. Median incomes dropped during the last recovery, adjusted for inflation, and even at the start weren't much higher than they were in the 1970s. Families went on a spending binge over the last 30 years despite this because women went into paid work, everyone started working longer hours, and then, when these tactics gave out, went deeper and deeper into debt. This indebtedness, in turn, depended on rising home values, which generated hundreds of billions of dollars in home-equity loans and refinanced mortgages. But now that the housing bubble has burst, the binge has ended. Families cannot work more hours than they did before and won't be able to borrow as much, either.

The second assumption is that, even if Americans had the money to keep the spending binge going, they could do so forever. Yet only the most myopic adherent of free-market capitalism could believe this to be true. The social and environmental costs would soon overwhelm us. Even if climate change were not an imminent threat to the planet, the rest of the world would not allow American consumers to continue to use up a quarter of the planet's natural resources and generate an even larger share of its toxic wastes and pollutants.

This would be a problem if most of what we consumed during our binge years were bare necessities. Instead we binged on stuff. And surely there are limits to how many furnishings and appliances can be crammed into a home, how many hours can be filled manipulating digital devices, and how much happiness can be wrung out of commercial entertainment. The current recession is a nightmare for people who have lost their jobs, homes, and savings, and it is part of a continuing nightmare for the very poor. That's why we have to do all we can to get the economy back on track. But most other Americans are now discovering they can exist surprisingly well buying fewer of the things they never really needed to begin with.

What we most lack, or are in danger of losing, are the things we use in common -- clean air, clean water, public parks, good schools, and public transportation, as well as social safety nets to catch those of us who fall. Common goods like these don't necessarily use up scarce resources; most often, they conserve and protect them. Yet they have been declining for many years. Some have been broken up and sold as more expensive private goods, especially for the well-to-do -- bottled water, private schools, security guards, and health clubs, for example. Others, like clean air, have fallen prey to deregulation. Others have been whacked by budget axes; the current recession is forcing states and locales to axe even more. Still others, such as universal health care and preschools, never fully emerged.

Where does this logic lead? Given the implausibility of consumers being able to return to binge spending, along with the undesirability of our doing so even if we could, and the growing scarcity of common goods, there would seem only one sensible way to restore and maintain aggregate demand. That would be through government expenditure on the commons. Rather than a temporary stimulus, government would permanently fill the gap left by consumers who cannot and should not be expected to resume their old spending ways. This wouldn't require permanent deficits as long as, once economic growth returns, revenues from a progressive income tax refill the coffers.

My friend the born-again Keynesian might not like where the logic of Keynesianism leads in today's world, but he doesn't need to know. The rest of us, however, might take heart.

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