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Consuming and the safety net

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Monday, Dec 8, 2008

As part of my ongoing preoccupation with Chinese consumer demand, I felt obliged to link to this editorial from today’s FT. The editors raise a claim frequently asserted in evaluating China’s consumer behavior, that “China’s citizens save because they fear nobody will look after them in bad times—and bad times are coming.” You’d think that the People’s Republic would have a more robust safety net in place for the people. It may be that one needs cash on hand to distribute the bribes and make the black-market purchases to get something of a standard that we can find straightforwardly on the market (though affording it is becoming more and more of a problem).


Anyway, the rationale implied here is that in Western countries the state supplies extends much-greater security to its citizens; in effect, it saves for them and covers their emergency needs. This the populace can go out and spend as much as it would like on luxuries much more comfortably. So a good way to stimulate the economy would be to strengthen the social safety net—more unemployment benefits, affordable health insurance, more generous social security benefits, and so on. Under such a regime, we would work to earn the money for the frivolous stuff that we use to define ourselves and shape our identity—the markers of distinction that have preoccupied us throughout the consumerist boom. But the state would assure that our subsistence needs are met.


This seems the implicit promise of consumer capitalism—that society is so prosperous that we can concentrate all our efforts on self-fashioning (even if these ultimately make us insecure and existentially angsty). But of course “we” means “middle class and up”; there remains the strata of lower class workers who have little margin for error with money, for whom identity creation in the hipster mode remains unthinkably. These are the people our society chooses to motivate with blunter incentives—starvation, homelessness, etc. And safety-net improvements will most likely not be made for lower-income people in practice (except incidentally), since in helping them, no extra cash is freed up to buy baubles and prop up demand. Some might even argue that allowing the lower-income people to play at homeownership through subprime mortgages caused the crisis in the first place—a distortion that puts the cart before the horse. Financial engineers needed loans to work with to manufacture more exciting securities; unthinkable loans were then extended to meet this need (not the “need” of poor people to own McMansions).


I wonder whether the degree to which the middle class must rely on the state safety net is the degree to which it must be withdrawn from the lower classes from whom the middle class must remain distinct. They can’t be standing in the same welfare line—that would be a scandal. Better not to extend welfare to the lower classes at all.

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