Profit-propelled Growth (PART 1)
Vinod Anand | 09 Aug 2013

Profit-propelled Growth (PART 1) (Vinod Anand) Sustained technological advance tends inexorably to destroy the sources of satisfaction of ordinary people regardless of the form of economic or social organization. It is, however, worth distinguishing certain features common to the affluent West, where economic growth is directed in the main by commercial forces, if only because some of these features have become so marked and, to some people, so manifestly vicious that they are apt to obscure, temporarily, the less immediate but ultimately more destructive consequences associated with technological advance per se. Some economists have dismissed as untenable the doctrinaire claims made on behalf of the private enterprise system, in particular the claim that it enhances welfare by extending the range of choices open to society. We now turn briefly to some other examples of the more overtly corrupting influences exerted on society by the ceaseless search for profits in a mature economy. (1) The wealthier the economy the greater the opportunities for the so-called growth industries. With an increasing margin of expenditure available for ‘luxury items’, the chance of making a quick fortune by some new article of wear, or some new mechanical gadget, is in the forefront of the minds of business executives and of hopeful young men as yet unplaced in industry. Indeed, some products that are introduced into the economy as novelties or luxury items — the telephone, the private car, the television set, for example — so influence the growth of the economy as to become necessaries for the mass of the people. The rapidity and apparent ease with which anyone acting on a lucky hunch can become a millionaire has always been played up in the United States, yet never as persistently as today. One cannot easily escape the welter of success stories about people, young and old, educated and semi-literate, who have become wealthy overnight, so to speak, by gambling on a bright idea or by a series of shrewd transactions, honest, shady, or a mixture of both. As an essential ingredient of the contents of newspapers, popular magazines, and television programs, such tales have become a part of the daily intake not just of the business community but of society at large. It goes without saying that the overnight fortune is less likely to be made by producing some staple item more efficiently than by inventing some ‘gimmick’, by discovering some new ‘need’, or by creating some fashion. The net gains of the fortune-seekers themselves, however, are of less concern to us than the effects on the public at large. The opportunities for quick fortunes, by the successful marketing of novelties and gimmicks, are further magnified in a wealthy economy by the formation of a volatile consuming public severed from the sobering influences of tradition. Indeed, the chief hope of maintaining the economic momentum of a wealthy private- enterprise system lies in the development of such a consuming public. As already indicated, the success achieved in maintaining sales momentum in a wealthy commercial society requires the continuous creation of new dissatisfactions which are made to rise phoenix-like from the ashes of old satisfactions. And this process is facilitated by just such a consuming public, one whose tastes are uninfluenced by traditional notions of excellence and whose acquisitive impulses are unrestrained by any standards of propriety. Thus, taste becomes the slave of fashion, and fashion the creature of profits. The ideal consuming public for the wealthy competitive society is apparently one that is free-floating in time, a public that can be moulded and segmented and pulled hither and thither by bright-eyed ad men. And if this ideal pubic is, in fact, so conveniently coming into being in economic conditions of near-surfeit, some thanks are due also to the pronouncements of the technocrats who bid us seek emancipation by embracing the exciting idea that perpetual and accelerating change is the essence of our new civilization, a civilization in which social norms have no time to form and conceptions of right and wrong are functional and ephemeral. (2)Owing to high employment and postwar affluence, one of the fastest growing markets in the West, just now, is that drawing its substance from the pockets of juveniles. Not surprisingly, the US provides an outstanding example, with the luxury expenditure of American ‘teenagers’ (between thirteen and seventeen years old) averaging (in 1965) some seven hundred dollars a year. Given spare cash on this scale, one need only bear in mind the impetuousness and gullibility of youth, now exposed daily to the suggestions of teenage magazines and to high-powered advertising media, to appreciate the boundless confidence with which so many businessmen view their future prospects. Using the magic pipe provided by Madison Avenue, private enterprise has taken on a new role as Pied Piper of Hamelin followed by hordes of youngsters jingling their money and tumbling over themselves to be ‘with it’, without of course the faintest notion of what they are ‘with’ or where they are going. And it seems scarcely credible that eminent economists on both sides of the Atlantic continue with all solemnity to apply themselves to the study of means whereby national outputs can be expanded more rapidly at a time when so large a portion of any additional output caters to this display of puerile extravagance and frantic go-go. This new manifestation of commercial growth is not merely outlandish; its repercussions on society are pernicious. For though assertive impulses associated with the process of growing up can admittedly bring about occasional tension between old and young even in stable societies, the differences in outlook between a youth and his father are considerably aggravated by this gathering pace of change. Up to a generation ago it was common enough for a young man to forsake his father’s gods at some stage in his life, yet he generally managed to do so without estranging himself completely from his elders. Difference of opinion between generations was not incompatible with sympathetic communication between them. If the young rebel forsook his father’s gods he generally embraced new ones, and his defiance was tempered by the outward forms of respect for parents so that, differences in opinions notwithstanding, they could still partake in the common fund of affection that unites a family. Today, with the dissolution of a Common frame of ethical reference, communication between the generations appears to be breaking down. Contempt rather than defiance has come to mark the attitude of the young towards their elders. After all, what is there to defy, apart from the police, when conventional morality has all but withered away? In a commercialized society in which the most money is made by fanning the flames of minor vices — envy, lust, vanity, avarice — a society in which status and success are the overt rewards of sustained self-seeking, it is no great wonder that utter cynicism is in vogue with the young. In so far as this cynicism breeds among the young a negative couldn’t-care-less attitude towards adult approval, they are the more readily exploitable by the commercial purveyors of frippery and feathers.  I have no doubt that redistributive policies would raise aggregate expenditure even in the absence of sales promotion. But it is conventional to accept as a political datum the existing structure of disposable income. With the given structure of distribution of disposable purchasing power, the US is a near surfeit economy in the sense that sales pressure and created obsolescence are necessary to maintain the propensity to spend.     PAGE  PAGE 1