Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Economic Wisdom of South Park

In my first post, I discussed (among other things) the kind of moral outrage inspired in this culture in the face of people "spending beyond their means."

In that post, I referenced a piece "In the Long Run, We Are (Not) All Dead." I chose it for a number of reasons, not the least of which was because it directly attacked Keynes on (what it considered) moral grounds.

But I just recently recalled a South Park episode, one that makes the point better than anything else I've seen, and better than anything I could write. It's called "Margaritaville."

It's sheer genius. Watch it if you can.

Residents of South Park become convinced that the reason for the economic crisis is "frivolous spending." And it not only becomes a moral issue; it becomes an explicitly religious issue. Randy walks around wearing sheets, preaching to the residents of South Park, speaking in the language of the Old Testament. They all listen in awe. Through our "needless spending", he preaches, we have "forsaken The Economy." "We have become lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of The Economy" he thunders.

How to appease the "vengeful, unforgiving" Economy that we have forsaken? Abstinence. Self-denial. Abstain from "needless spending." "Instead of cars...we can get around on llamas. Instead of video games...our kids will play with squirrels!" (It's just hysterical. If you don't want to watch the whole episode, just watch that one clip)

When Kyle objects, saying we should all go out and spend more ("whichever of you guys that has never gone out and bought something frivolous go ahead and huck the next squirrel"), he is treated as a heretic. (Quite literally: "There's only one option. We have to kill the Jew")

Of course, given capitalist conditions, Kyle is right, and Randy is wrong. (When people start spending again, by the end of the episode, economic conditions in South Park improve.) Capital accumulation (typically called "growth") is a necessary (though not sufficient) condition for increased employment, and spending is a necessary condition for capital accumulation.

But such a state of affairs is sheer insanity. Under capitalism, luxury is a condition of necessity. (That is, for people to have jobs, the economy must grow -- entirely irrespective of whether some of the consequences of GDP growth are deleterious, or even whether such growth is sustainable over the long-term. But this is all the more reason to eradicate a system under which people must sell their labor-power to acquire the mere means of their existence. That is, it is all the more reason to rid ourselves of the institution commonly known as "the job.")

[To be sure I am not misread: I am not imputing an anti-capitalist sentiment behind this episode, let alone to South Park. In fact, I'd be very surprised if Parker and Stone held such a view. I am, however using this episode to (a) show how the objection to spending has a moral & religious fervor; (b) show how spending, rather than saving, is necessary to bring a capitalist economy out of a recession, and (c) to argue that, given all the consequences of (b) we should perhaps consider transforming our economic system. This show explicitly endorses claims (a) and (b), though not (c). Whether Parker and Stone would even consider something like (c) is something I can't answer. Further, I admit, I have here barely elaborated on, or made the case for, part (c). That will have to wait for another post.]

[Incidentally, this South Park episode is brilliant on yet other questions as well. If, for example, anyone reading this blog is unfamiliar with the debacle of mortgage-backed securities, just watch this episode. If you substitute the word "Margaritaville" for "mortgage," you basically have it. And the lampooning of the Fed is also just hysterical.]


  1. They missed the chance to have Randy borrow against the equity in his Margaritaville...otherwise you are right...perfect

  2. I certainly agree that any system based on never-ending growth, where growth means an increase in the production of material objects, is doomed. It should be possible to sustain such a system, though, so long as the increase in goods produced comes from virtual goods, like information or Farmville cows. Given that a lot of material goods produced to sustain growth are completely unnecessary and/or useless (part of the point of your post), the fact that a Farmville cow is also useless should not be an obstacle. Currently, our 'growth' remains driven by material production, and thus will cause unsustainable harm to the environment. But, you could image a world where apart from true necessities people wasted their money primarily on virtual goods. At least for the environment, this would be good.

  3. @James. True. Although, at the same time, one imagines that the Margaritaville-bubble had crashed by that point.
    (Did you watch the part with the chicken in the Fed? Brilliant emperor-has-no-clothes moment)

    @David. That's a fair point. Although even the creation of information (as commodities) requires the use of labor and material resources (e.g., silicon chips have to be made for computers, etc.). Though it is almost certainly the case that, if the goods are "virtual," the costs are almost entirely fixed, not marginal. That is, the marginal cost of production of a Farmville cow is so small I imagine we might as well treat it as zero. So I think that is a fair point.

    Part of my objection, however, is not just about environmental sustainability, although that is an exceptionally important topic. It's just about (what I view as) the irrationality of a system that requires that we continue to consume goods and services even if we don't want to. Contentment, satisfaction, would be a threat to the very functioning of the system. That just seems to me like sheer insanity.

    This is why I'm never entirely satisfied with anti-consumerist movements. I don't think they draw out all the consequences of their argument. If, indeed, there is something 'bad,' in some sense, about our increasingly consumerist society, what would be the consequences of undoing this? And what does that say about the rationality (or lack thereof) of our economic system?