The Consumption Economy Is Dying—Let it Die

The big problem with consumer spending is that if you buy a product made outside the U.S., it doesn't encourage domestic investment. And that's what we really need.

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With the stock market plunging, we've heard plenty of warnings that a "pullback" in consumer spending could trigger another recession. Let me suggest an alternative. The last thing this economy needs is more debt-fueled consumer spending which mainly creates jobs overseas. Instead, we should be focused on boosting investment in physical, human, and knowledge capital.

Now, who am I to be dissing the American consumer? Don't I know that consumer spending "accounts for 70% of economic activity," as many economic reporters have written in recent weeks? (Indeed, if I have to read that number in another story, I might be forced to go all Office Space on a piece of expensive consumer electronics.)

It's true that consumer spending creates economic activity. But it's not true that all that economic activity is in the United States. Many of the consumer goods we buy are imported. If you buy a shirt or television, you are stimulating manufacturing jobs in China, or perhaps Mexico. You aren't doing as much to stimulate jobs at home.

This is true across the economy, but a helpful example is the clothing, or apparel, industry. Since the fourth quarter of 2007, clothing purchases by consumers have increased by about 5% in real terms, according to the latest figures from the Bureau of Economic Analysis. Over roughly the same period, shipments from U.S. apparel factories fell by 31% in real terms, while apparel jobs fell by 26%. The winner: Factories in China and elsewhere making clothes for the U.S. market.

It's not just clothes, of course. In many stores, it's getting harder and harder to even find products that say "Made in the U.S.A." That's one reason why much of the economic stimulus escaped out the back door in the form of imports.

Now, this doesn't mean imports are evil. When we buy goods from overseas, we generate some jobs in retail and wholesale. If you buy a shirt for cheaper than it would otherwise be if we made it here, you have more money left over to buy other things, like health care.

But the big problem with consumer spending is that if you buy a product made outside the U.S., it doesn't encourage domestic investment. And that's what we really need. In the past, a dollar spent on a shirt would start a virtuous circle, as the clothing factory expanded, adding more workers and buying new sewing machines. That investment in new machines, in turn, would create more business for the sewing machine company, who would then hire more workers who would need new shirts.

Today, the cycle is happening overseas. We have a genuine investment shortfall in the U.S., where both business and government are way below historical norms for spending on equipment, buildings, software, and infrastructure.

Consider this: Personal consumption in real terms is 11% below its long-term trend, based on the 1997-2007 period. That sounds bad enough. But nondefense government investment is 17% below its long term trend, as state and local governments cut back. And counting all private sector enterprises, nonnresidential investment is a stunning 25% below its long-term trend.

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These figures are devastating for our economic future, both short and long-term. Low investment means fewer jobs and weaker productivity growth. The longer the investment shortfall lasts, the more damage it does. However, we're not going to close the shortfall by encouraging debt-financed consumer spending. Instead, we need to redirect resources to productive investment.

Here's a couple of examples of what we can do. First, I like to see the Obama administration publicly identify and applaud "investment heroes": the top companies who are investing domestically in either physical capital or knowledge capital (R&D, design, and other forms of intellectual investment). The bully pulpit of the president can be a wonderful tool, if it directed toward the right cause, and this would send a signal of the importance of investment.

Second, Obama should come out in favor of countercyclical regulatory policy. We should accelerate the regulatory approval process during periods of economic weakness to boost corporate investment, just as countercyclical monetary and fiscal policy have been used to stimulate consumer spending. This is a message that has to be sent from the top to encourage regulators to consider the effects of their action on the economy.

The potential list of policies to boost investment goes on and on, including targeted infrastructure spending, as I described in my previous Atlantic piece, and perhaps a rationalization of the corporate tax code.

But what's important is that none of these policies is about boosting consumer spending. If we want Americans to prosper, we need consumer spending to become less important to the economy, not more. In the end, we need a production economy, not a consumption economy.