There are times when I feel we need to question the ‘received wisdom’ to see if it is still properly based on a realistic and rational foundation. And when the US Treasury Secretary, Jack Law, recently called on countries, especially Germany, to boost economic growth via boosting consumer demand, I had a “that’s weird, let’s look at that again” moment.

There is a well known economic theory of efficient markets that is, broadly speaking, based on the idea that if the supply of goods matches the demand for those goods then everyone is happy and prices are stable, and if they are misaligned then either the price will go down as goods become abundant, markets might collapse and the suppliers become poor (too much supply), or prices will rise as goods become scarce and the suppliers will get rich (too much demand). But what is forgotten is that this is a ‘zero sum game’ in which there will be winners and losers, so let’s look at the theory the other way round. When the supply of goods is greater than the demand, then prices collapse as a result of greater abundance of goods and the consumer gets to save more of their money and so they become ‘richer’, and when there is too much demand, prices rise and the consumer has to spend more of their money for scarcer goods and so becomes ‘poorer’. Of course, the intrinsic value of the goods does not change in either scenario but the price does as suppliers manipulate it to maximise return – in other words, because they are greedy!

So, in simple terms, if the supplier is getting richer, the consumer is getting poorer; conversely, when the supplier is getting poorer, the consumer is getting richer. So if the supply and demand are not in balance, then is it better that the supplier gets richer or that the consumer gets richer? The answer to that is almost certainly that it depends on whether you are a ‘supplier’ or a ‘consumer’.

Because greed seems to be a fundamental of human economic behaviour, suppliers almost always try to manipulate the situation so that consumer ‘demand’ rises and the supplier gets richer at the expense of the consumer. What also happens is that government policy of whatever shade of political belief also tries to manipulate the situation to make the suppliers richer and the consumers poorer – the ‘poor’ are always far easier to control as they are often dependent on the government.

Now back to Jack Law. For most of the two decades covering the end of the last century and the beginning of this, we have been ‘demand’ led in that consumers have been demanding more and more of all types of goods ­– which they usually do not need and frequently dispose of before the end of their useful life – and paying for them with cheap credit that, six years ago, suddenly ran out. Consumers found themselves in severe debt and unable to pay it off while being equally unable to re-schedule their debts with new credit lines: having made themselves believe they were ‘rich’, consumers all over the developed economies were spending money they did not have and the dawning of reality has been painful.

During those same two decades, the suppliers of goods saw cheap credit as a cornucopia and grabbed it with both hands making huge sums of money in the process. And now that the credit taps have been turned off and ‘the consumer’ has realised they were living a false dream, the suppliers are hurting (read: going broke) and are demanding that ‘government do something’ to get the consumers to spend again: after all, they reason, the consumers are merely the tethered milk-cow to be milked and bilked out of their money for the benefit of the suppliers. Jack Law was merely doing his bit to help the suppliers make money and to keep the consumers poor, thus clearly positioning himself on the side of business and opposed to the good of the people.

The materialistic, consumer-driven society that exists in its purest form in the USA and almost as purely in the UK is a very individualistic, greed-driven and selfish model, and is neither in the rational self-interest of the consumer nor in the interest of the greater society. However, for the last half-century there has been an assumption amongst those who think they know what-is-what that the consumer society is the only viable economic model that will deliver growth and prosperity. But what has happened over the last six years is that the consumer has finally, perhaps irrevocably, discovered that consumerism using other people’s money is great fun, but when the owner of the money wants it back the result is extreme and sometimes insupportable pain: they have discovered that there is no such thing as a ‘free lunch’, and no such thing as a right to prosperity.

The trouble is, in societies that are not consumerist (the vast majority of the world) and are significantly less individualistic than the USA and the UK (see the work of Geert Hofstede), prosperity is based more firmly on supply and demand being balanced – thus in those economies, suppliers make and supply only what they can sell and consumers only buy what they genuinely need; everyone is happy with less but there is a more equal division of the wealth of the society. The balance is restored between the consumers and the suppliers, and neither is pursuing a ‘beggar thy neighbour’ policy.

But the USA, and to a lesser extent the UK, are finding the change very difficult, simply because it involves a fundamental change in attitudes, behaviours, and fundamental beliefs, leading to a profound change in the way the society operates. Instead of the unrestrained pursuit of personal gain at the expense of all others, Americans and Britons in particular will have to once again learn the value of cooperation with others – a cooperation based on trust rather than contract law; based on mutual interests rather than self-centred, self-interest; based on being a good neighbour rather than the bully boy on the block. There is plenty of evidence that, at the grass-roots level of ‘Everyman’, this is already happening: cooperatives are forming, and neighbour-help-neighbour groups, barter markets and the like are springing up. But this reality, this need to change, has yet to reach the company strategists, the corporate leaders and the governmental policy makers. Entrenched pork-barrels, fat-cat remuneration packages, and a gut-wrenching fear that they’ve been wrong all along are all contributing to an evident ‘denial of reality’ that change has to begin at home, that beggaring the consumer citizen for the benefit of the suppliers is not a viable or sustainable solution and that ‘the people’ have had a enough. Jack Law’s call for other countries to push up demand (essentially to push up demand for US goods) so that the USA need not change its ways is just the latest example of this sense of denial.

Alasdair White is a business school professor, writer and publisher. He is the author of five management books and a thriller novel as well as writing the Management Blog. He lives in Belgium.

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