Consumption is the enjoyment of consumers’ goods and the satisfaction of wants. Consumerism is the theory that an increasing consumption of goods is economically desirable.
There is a tradeoff between economic growth and consumption
Economic growth is made possible by forgoing current consumption. For example, consider the case of a teenager considering whether to save money for his future. If he spends his salary on toys and trinkets, he will never accumulate any savings. If, on the other hand, he minimizes expenses and saves money for college, he will forgo current consumption and invest in capital improvements. The same tradeoff applies to all consumers and producers: capital improvements require a sacrifice in current consumption to invest resources needed to expand future production.
Production, not consumption drives economic growth
The lack of a consumer culture is not an impediment to economic growth, as resources that are not consumed are invested into new markets and production capital. If a consumer forfeits a new car now to buy a better car at some point in the future, his savings are not lost. Instead of being directed into present consumption, his savings become the investment capital for new factories and R&D into cheaper and better cars. This is why such high economic growth is possible in "Asian tigers" such as Hong Kong and South Korea – high rates of savings support rapid technological progress and investment into industry at the cost of a much more frugal lifestyle than in the West.
Capital has structure
Politicians and the media treat GDP as a single number, but it is crucial to understand that producers face a choice between producing consumer goods and investing in intermediate goods used to create consumer goods. Those goods differ as well: a factory owner can invest in merely maintaining his factory, building a similar factory to expand production, or engaging in a long-term research and development program in a new product or production process. Thus, the goods produced by an economy can be one, two, or more level removed from consumer goods.
Capital investments require savings and stability
Economic and technological progress requires that entrepreneurs make long-term investments in intermediate production goods many levels removed from the consumer. In order for this to happen, two things are necessary: that consumers forgo current consumption to invest in future production, and that reliable long term predictions can be made about future savings rates and demand patterns.
Monetary policy disrupts economic growth
Governments control over the currency allows them to use monetary policy to achieve short-term economic goals, such as increasing GDP. But the consequences of artificially manipulating interest rates are disastrous. By expanding the money supply through manipulation of interest rates or sending money directly from the printing presses to banks and other corporations, the government is devaluing savings and redirecting them into increased consumer spending. This improves the economic statistics in the short run at the cost of wiping out the resources set aside for long-term capital improvements. Furthermore, the arbitrary nature of government intervention in the economy makes long-term predictions about future savings and demand impossible.
Let the market direct savings and investment
There is no single right answer to the tradeoff between current consumption and the savings available to invest in future production and increased economic growth. Every individual must choose for himself how to balance present spending with investments in his future. In a free market, the sum of individual savings rates becomes the real interest rate.
For the last few decades, America’s spending binge has been funded by foreign investment and rapid technological innovation, but ultimately, unless its consumption is drastically cut, and the income redirected into savings and repaying debts, its money will be increasingly worthless both at home and internationally. The dire consequences of hyperinflation can be seen in Zimbabwe, where life expectancy has declined from 60 to 37/34 years, unemployment is at 80%, and as much as half the surviving population has left the country.
Note: this page was based on The One Minute Case Against Consumptionism, which is in the public domain and was kindly provided by David Veksler - big thanks to him!