Essays

I. Renewing American Vigor: Transforming Consumption and Production

By Carl W. Hunt and Charles E. Hunt

Editors’ Note: this essay is intended to be a work in progress subject to the comments and input of our readers and continued reflection on the part of us all. Future versions will explore challenges and solutions more deeply. Please consider contributing!

Introduction

This essay has its roots in 2010 when Chuck was serving the American Battle Monuments Commission in France and Carl, retired from the Army for four years, was working as an information technology consultant primarily for the US Department of Defense. The topics of American consumption and production had been on our minds for years before but we never discussed it together until then.

In 2010, Chuck had been in Europe for over two years and viewed the “Great Recession” through the eyes of both American and European media, as well as experiencing its effects abroad. Carl’s time in Europe in 1987-1990 didn’t specifically inform his perceptions of what the US was experiencing in 2010, although it did help shape ideas about how other nations considered material possessions and social interaction.

It was more than apparent in 2010 that the United States was not going to bounce back quickly from the Great Recession, and that a lot of Americans (and the citizens of many nations) would see things get worse before they got better. We wondered how we could learn from these experiences and document both what we learned and how we might help our nation transform itself toward greater freedom, security, prosperity and equally importantly, equal access to opportunity, the core component of Reconnecting to the American Promise. [1]

We thought about some of the root causes of the Great Recession and what we could propose to re-imagine an America that was more humble, yet more confident and secure as a source of inspiration for other nations. We wondered how we could get back to talking softly while carrying a big stick to use only when necessary (to paraphrase Teddy Roosevelt).

We saw four broad but important categories that needed to work jointly and synergistically to renew American Vigor: consumers, producers, investors and marketers…all working “together” more effectively. We thought this synergy would benefit from the support of an effective government environment in which the governing members worked collaboratively on behalf of a vision of America of equal access to opportunity that was more consistent with that of our Founding Fathers.

Even though we didn’t realize it at the time, we had also planted the seeds for the Reconnecting to the American Promise website and blog. This essay presents not only our initial thinking but the thoughts and words that composed the process of participating in the presentation of the website to the public. In many ways, it’s our backstory.

Background on Production and Consumption: Is “Stuff” the Problem?

Life in the Connected Age can be as simple or as complex as we want it to be. The odds are good that we actually make it more complex in our quest to satisfy both needs and wants. Even though our brains appear to use the same thinking mechanisms to satisfy both needs and wants, according to neuroscience using one thinking process to deal with two distinct issues leads us to acquire a lot of “stuff” we don’t actually need to live happily. [2]

In their 2012 book, The Stuff Cure, Betty and Mike Sproule propose several ways to simplify life and live happily in less clutter. The book is an insightful look at ways to make our lives less of a burden to ourselves and to others. It’s also a revealing look into how America, and much of the West, has put sustainable economic growth at risk. And for those who find inspiration in a more spiritual life, the book reveals how far we’ve drifted from simple, elegant and productive lifestyles that are as much about our families, communities and our nation as they are about our individual selves.

For the past seven years or so, Annie Leonard, creator of “The Story of Stuff,” has been a chief proponent of satisfying the competing interests of our need to have stuff and our need to protect our environment. Her online movies help us visualize both problems and solutions related to acquisition of the things we feel compelled to acquire and consume. Her stories tell us a great deal about ourselves and the future we likely face if we don’t transform ourselves into better consumers and suppliers of stuff.

Stuff can be a real problem, not only in how it fills our closets and garages, but also in how it requires manufacturing, transportation and storage businesses to consume precious and limited natural resources to make and supply all this stuff. [3]

Equally important, stuff doesn’t equate only to material possessions: it also relates to the ideas we acquire and hang on to even in the face of evidence that refutes the value of those ideas. In that sense, ideas can be a lot like the stuff Betty, Mike and Annie describe.

In this essay we try to pose some questions about how America became a “stuff-oriented” society and how the passion to produce, acquire and show off our possessions and ideas became emblematic of the “American Way.” We also try to answer these questions and examine ways to overcome many Americans’ current approach to life in an age where environmental and economic conditions pose significant threats to our way of life and Reconnecting to the American Promise.

How Did We Become so Consumption Oriented in America?

Betty and Mike Sproule suggest that because we tend to “attribute meaning to obsolete objects,” we acquire so much stuff because these things reflect “the story of our lives. Material objects conjure up feelings that, together, constitute our humanity. When looked at, or thought about, the items that we keep enable us to clarify what our experiences of living add up to.”

The Sproules’ explanation can be generalized well beyond Americans to be sure, as it helps to show why all people everywhere tend to collect and display the “story of our lives.” But for the purposes of this essay, we’re going to focus on how Americans have allowed this tendency to distort the narrative we tell ourselves and the rest of the world about who and what America really is. We want to know why WE are so stuff-oriented.

Betty and Mike offer their own list of questions and answers that can help us identify the emotional attachments we build to our possessions, “stuff” as they call it throughout their book. They roll up their explanation elegantly:

It seems to be the case that personal stories—complete with details and emotions—become attached to even neglected or nonfunctional parts of our stuff inventory. So that’s the problem in a nutshell: lose the stuff, lose the memory. Or at least that’s what we fear. So we hold onto the core of our being when we keep on hand physical objects that have traveled with us on our journey.

Betty and Mike’s beautiful explanation also applies to ideas and opinions that we acquire throughout our experiences and education in life: “lose the stuff, lose the memory,” even if it’s the “nonfunctional parts of our stuff inventory.” We should constantly challenge both the quantity of our physical stuff and the quality of our ideas to avoid holding on to the “nonfunctional” items we possess for too long.

“The Story of Stuff” producer, Annie Leonard, has interesting insights about why we’re where we are as a national entity. Annie notes that the way we measure Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in the US has significantly skewed how we individually and nationally value production and consumption. This naturally drives the way we market goods and services and of course the ways in which GDP-measured deliverables attract investors. The production of more stuff, whether good stuff or bad stuff (in terms of its impact on our environment and long-term production strategies) has become the bottom line for investors and the markets because it’s easy to measure. This clearly affects public policy as well, as Annie substantiates.

Annie’s video explanations, The Story of Solutions, The Story of Change and The Story of Broke, all combine to present new ways to think about how we build more sustainable products and services and how we better value and finance them both as a nation and as individual investors and tax payers. She challenges us to change the questions we ask ourselves about what we really need and what we really want in order to help reveal how we became a nation of essentially ineffective consumers and producers.

In large part, we have become a nation of producers, marketers and consumers because that’s what great nations do: they make stuff, they sell it and they use it. They generate ideas and they “market” them to the world. This model, while basically valid in any economy, has not really benefited from meaningful refinement in the Connected Age. If there’s one place innovative thinking could be introduced with the prospect of good return on investment, it’s in the development of a novel model of American capitalism that embraces smarter production, investment, marketing and consumption of both goods and ideas.

Collectively, our nation should look more closely at the concepts behind “The Stuff Cure” and “The Story of Stuff.” Are we in fact hiding behind the thrill of the hunt and the acquisition of stuff whether we need it or not, just to enjoy a brief rush we get from buying something or showing off a new possession? If that’s what’s happening to us, we are succumbing to marketing and not satisfying real needs. We’re succumbing to the lure of the ideas of edge-driven politics that distract us from the real problems our nation needs to tackle.

Bottom Line: we need the cure for the “nonfunctional” physical and ideological stuff we’ve been hanging onto for too long.

This is really the key: how we think about and ask questions concerning new ways to build, consume and market the things and ideas we really need and want are critical to the way our nation’s future will unfold. Will we be a smart global leader that uses resources wisely and efficiently, or will we consume everything in sight, loving the thrill of acquiring while often misallocating resources, as we practically have since the introduction of the Industrial Age in America?

In this current version of the essay, we’re simply attempting to reflect on how these attachments to making and accumulating stuff change us and the image of America that so often makes us appear wasteful, hypocritical and short-sighted. We hope to challenge readers to rethink consumption and production of stuff, including edge-driven political ideas, and refocus on the American Promise.

Harnessing the Connected Age Tools to Transform Consumption and Production

We’ve seen a lot of discussion in recent years about the transformational potential in information technology to positively impact business, academia and government. To be sure, the IT profession has greatly influenced the way we live our daily lives both socially and professionally. IT has even spawned a significant industry that to this day helps keep America potent and competitive in a global economy.

In spite of these remarkable achievements, we face ever greater challenges in our economy, our educational system, governments of all levels and particularly in our personal lives. But, we must ask: what have these amazing new discoveries and technologies done to improve the likelihood for America and Americans to pass to their next generations a country that offers the same opportunities of the great nation our parents passed to us?

Unfortunately, our government and the politicians who “service” our government on behalf of those who elected them have stopped asking that question. Even if government has failed us here, it’s still a personal issue – as Americans with families and future hopes and dreams for those families and America, we must challenge ourselves with that line of inquiry. In the Connected Age, actions can start with personal, individual perspectives and scale.

Since our personal lives inform how we connect to others and to our community, this is an important place for America to focus. Since we interact with each other more and more through information technology here and abroad, we need to examine what these new connecting capabilities can do to get our nation on track to better levels of prosperity and sustainability of our resources and our ideals.

Leveraging these information technologies that have become so pervasive is an imperative! In reality, these new IT-based discoveries in science and resultant innovative technologies have laid the framework for this nation to remain great and become even greater.

The problem is that we have been unable to see the forest of opportunity in a new age of connectivity because all we can see are the trees that compose our individual relationships to the present and the future. A big part of our vision problem for the future is that we have forgotten how to look at the past and find clues to build a more promising tomorrow that offers opportunity for all, even if it involves the occasional personal sacrifice. This is why this blog devotes so much space to the Founders of America and the Framers of our Constitution and the sacrifices they made to lay the roots of America.

We have used America’s great discoveries and technologies to transform almost every aspect of American life but one of the most personal: the way we consume. We’ve pretty much stopped thinking about sustaining our future with smarter production and consumption. In fact, new technologies and the resulting gadgets we can buy because of new inventions and innovations have changed the way we look at opportunity in America.

We’ve forgotten the responsibilities of buying and selling, the basis of a capitalistic culture. We have allowed ourselves to become ill-informed consumers of goods, services and ideas in this great nation. It’s past time we transformed that part of American life, as well. Policy makers have no interest or will to take this challenge on so we as individual and community-based Americans have to. If we as smarter citizens can take this lead, perhaps the politicians will tag along and look for ways to improve our nation through policy.

A few years ago, former Office of Management and Budget Director David Stockman articulated a national level position in the NY Times that reflects an overwhelming mandate for a national return to responsible consumption. Such an appeal tends to fall on deaf ears at a personal level because we think our political leaders are responsible to fix national profligacy. That approach won’t even begin to show up on a politician’s radar however, until a mandate of individual wills inform our elected members. That requires Americans as individuals to change.

Thinking about the Way Forward in America

One way to begin individual change is to start using the transformational power of our information technology to inform ourselves about what has happened to the United States in the last 40-50 years as far as politics, budgets and production are concerned. We need to overcome the political influence that some have sought to leverage in distorting the use of IT to prejudice us against each other, and begin to pull this nation back from a financial and political abyss it faces today. We can quit hiding behind the distraction of acquiring and hoarding more stuff and factional ideas and begin to enjoy an elegant and more meaningful life. We can rediscover a life where chatting on the front porch with neighbors and a sense of community regains its rightful place in Americans’ lives.

That requires individual responsibility and even an individual change in the way we consume and produce goods and services in the United States and abroad. Producing, selling and buying simply to make money can no longer be the rationale for the American form of capitalism…or the rationale for our lives. Production and consumption requires more intelligence than that in a globally connected age, and we need to harness IT innovation and change our political infrastructure to leverage these new opportunities to succeed as a people. The same applies to the ideas we generate.

We are a connected people in this nation and we need to start using that connectivity to become a united nation once again. We need to Reconnect to the American Promise and return to a life that’s grounded in the kind of Common Sense we’ve mentioned in our blog posts about Thomas Paine. We can still return to being a nation that reflects concern for our future generations and that lives up to the responsibilities to lead the rest of the world in developing civilization and supporting societies that embrace freer and more open forms of government. We just have to want to do it and be willing to dismiss at the polls the politicians who get in the way.

The novelist John D. MacDonald’s famous fictional character Travis McGee shared with readers a great deal of what he learned in his life as a “salvage consultant” working out of Ft. Lauderdale, FL, in the ‘60s, ‘70’s and ‘80s. The life Travis lived was quite simple, built around having only what he needed to be comfortable and follow his dream of self-reliance, helping a few friends along the way.

MacDonald fans lived with Travis as he came full circle through his life as a simple beach bum living on a houseboat in “Fort Lauder-damn-dale” to a wizened, older soul who questioned the value of a materialistic life and the rush to gain ever more wealth. He observed those in the Florida real estate boom years constantly chasing more stuff. Living those years with Travis and his friends (and antagonists) tell us a lot about the value of a simpler, live-and-let-live kind of life that covets little yet finds balance with the real necessities.

One of Travis’s greatest lessons came from his best friend Meyer in The Green Ripper. [4] Meyer, reputed to be a learned economist, often spent quiet, reflective times with Travis and helped our hero see both the forest and the trees. This lesson has words of advice for Americans today who want to leave a better future for our children. It advises us over 35 years later that we can still learn to put our lives in perspective, and that being disappointed in ourselves is overrated and holds us back from moving forward. It can help us transform the way we produce and consume and help us return to clear thinking about how America should lead in a hyper-connected world.

After a particularly tough adventure that was taking Travis a long time to recover from, Meyer told Travis at the end of The Green Ripper “Not one of us ever grows up to be what he intended to be. Not one of us fulfills his own expectations, Travis. We are all our own children, in that sense. At some point, somewhere, we have to stop making demands.”

Meyer was not advocating to Travis that he stop being responsible to himself and to others. Meyer cautioned Travis that he needed to understand who he really was and what was really necessary to live successfully…what demand and consumption really meant.

We do make demands of ourselves and of our children, but it’s usually based more on the demands that our parents made of us, not focused on what the future will require. That’s where our nation is now: we don’t even want to think about the future our children are facing so we just pass to them our own version of demand. That version is based on old ways of producing and consuming and those ways are not sustainable. Worse, we’re also passing to our children an enormous debt that we’ve refused to address as a nation.

Meyer knew that for Travis to recover, he needed to better understand what was important in life and live it more simply and elegantly. This is not unlike the way America needs to recover from 2008 and the years leading up to it. This nation desperately needs to have a national conversation about what’s really important, what’s really needed for an American life that’s fair and accessible to all, and what expectations we really need to set for ourselves and our future generations. That includes thinking about demand, production and consumption. [5]

Some Conclusions

We’ll close this essay with a few points from another subject we’ve discussed in this blog: A National Strategic Narrative. How America produces and consumes (and markets and invests) must be at the center of the discussion as it has been a part of A National Strategic Narrative since its beginnings in 2011.

Unsustainable growth is at the heart of what Narrative co-author Captain (USN, retired) Wayne Porter described in a TEDx Talk in April, 2014. Wayne said the “interdependencies of people, cultures, markets and ideologies that we experience (in this connected age)” have led “to increasing competition for food, water and energy – it transcends politics…it’s much bigger than that.” [6]

In his TEDx Talk, Wayne goes on to note the “growth we’ve seen from this competition is unsustainable…what we’re seeing is an exponential growth in consumption and we’re already exceeding the carrying capacity of the planet that has resulted in significant climate pattern change and even greater increases in competition rather than cooperation.” He continued “it’s as if we’re breathlessly racing the rest of the world for the last pack of cigarettes, little mindful for the ill effects that might have on our health.”

Wayne also said that “there’s a big difference between residents and citizens: residents pay rent and they don’t care what shape they leave the place in; citizens take ownership…they share responsibility.” He fairly asked the question if we consider ourselves renters or citizens.

In discussing a critically needed future focus to shake our national selves out of where we are today, Wayne observed that “we need to equip our ‘posterity’ right here in the communities of America…we need to equip our posterity with the tools they need they need to create a better future for follow-on generations.” We need to embrace citizenship and act like good citizens rather than renters.

Wayne Porter and his partner Colonel Mark Mykleby, USMC retired, discuss a great many points in their Narrative that relates to this essay, and we encourage readers of this work to compare their thoughts to ours. One important thing common to both of us is that we call for a return to citizen ownership and responsibility for our nation, seeking to “equip our posterity” for their own future ownership and responsibility.

We can all start contributing now through a better understanding of American production and consumption and acting like citizens who care about our children.

Originally published by Carl and Chuck Hunt, 9/4/2014.

Notes:

[1] Equal access to opportunity is a significant theme of a recent paper by Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz entitled “Reforming Taxation to Promote Growth and Equity”, The Roosevelt Institute, May, 28, 2014.

[2] See for example, Kahneman, D., Thinking, Fast and Slow, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, NY, 2011.

[3] Interestingly, Founding Father (although not a signer of the Constitution) George Mason of Virginia even proposed a section in the final drafts of the Constitution that address an “effort to abstain from conspicuous consumption” according to Richard Beeman in Plain, Honest Men: The Making of The American Constitution, Random House, NY, 2009 (p. 344). According to Beeman, Mason’s proposal reflected the friction between the existing elite of America and the still ongoing Puritan influences that may yet be affecting America today. In his proposal, Mason called out the “‘the extravagances of our manners [and] the excessive consumption of foreign superfluities.’” Since many of the Founders in Philadelphia in September, 1787 were in fact members of the elite Mason addressed, the proposal didn’t go very far: readers may recall that George Mason lived in what was the equivalent of an American palace at Gunston Hall, VA, owning a huge property tended to by some 300 slaves. As Beeman points out, America was then and is still a land of significant contradicting influences [Beeman, ibid].

[4] MacDonald, J., The Green Ripper, Random House, NY, 1979.

[5] For further commentary of where MacDonald thought we were heading as a society, see also a Purple Place for Dying, Random House, NY, 1964. Even in 1964, MacDonald sensed where America was going and the direction of our educational system. Even though the words were written some 50 years ago, MacDonald’s observations ring true today. The US Library of Congress commissioned MacDonald to publish an essay entitled “Reading for Survival” (Library of Congress, Washington, DC, 1987). This unedited essay recorded the last lessons learned from Travis and Meyer, having been published shortly after his death in December, 1986.

[6] Abstracted by a lecture delivered by Captain (ret) Wayne Porter, USN, at a TEDx-Santa Cruz Talk, 8 March 2014.

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