Last weekend, I read When Consumers Cut Back: A Lesson From Japan in the New York Times. I was hoping it would be about the benefits of thrift, but the article starts off a little differently:
As recession-wary Americans adapt to a new frugality, Japan offers a peek at how thrift can take lasting hold of a consumer society, to disastrous effect. The economic malaise that plagued Japan from the 1990s until the early 2000s brought stunted wages and depressed stock prices, turning free-spending consumers into misers and making them dead weight on Japanâ€™s economy.
Wow – “dead weight on the economy?” Too often we forget that the economy is meant to serve us, and not the other way around. How do we reconcile a society that demands ever-increasing consumption, yet is running into environmental and human limits? Less interest in cars is a good thing, not a bad thing, yet the article disapprovingly states:
… only 25 percent of Japanese men in their 20s wanted a car, down from 48 percent in 2000, contributing to the slump in sales.
There is no easy answer, and the economic pain is real. That said, there are plenty of jobs that need doing – they just aren’t the jobs that we’re currently set up to do. Let’s think about services, not stuff; more teachers, less cars; designers who make thoughtful products that last; repair, not obsolescence. Trying to prop up the failing status quo of an out of control consumer society is harmful, foolish, and destined for failure.
To help us keep the economy our servant and not our master, we need to measure more useful things: GNP is supremely flawed as a measure of success. Measuring contentment is more difficult than measuring dollars, but isn’t it much more important?