A nation of bankers and shopkeepers

capital-projectWhen my father could still speak, he would sometimes ask, “Do we really want to be a nation of bankers and shopkeepers?”  By which he meant, “Do we really want to become a nation that doesn’t make things?”  And, when talking about the nation of “bankers and shopkeepers,” he would inevitably mention England, a once-great manufacturing power that had allowed its amazing industrial advantages to wither away, leaving only “the capitalists,” who controlled and circulated most of the wealth, and “the shopkeepers”—everyone else—who retailed things.

To my father, who had spent his life running heavy-equipment manufacturing companies, the specter of the US becoming such a place was ominous and terrifying.  Such a configuration might be fine for a small country like England with a population of 53 million, but it would not do for a large country like ours, with a population over 300 million souls.  Without manufacturing, there would never be enough jobs to keep so many millions of Americans employed.  And if they did not have enough money to support themselves and spend, the American economy and government would sink under the weight.

I used to find my father’s shorthand analysis confusing, but its prescience has become clear with the passage of time.  Globalism has eaten away at our nation’s self-sufficiency.  As American corporations have outsourced manufacturing, our nation has become increasingly organized around the needs of capital (“Wall Street”) and around consumption of all kinds, which, more than a necessity, has become a favorite pastime, an opiate nearly.  That we can’t even finish a space rocket if Russia refuses us an engine measures how dependent on the will of other nations we have become.  In this iteration of the Space Race, we’ve lost.

The Mall of America near Minneapolis encapsulates the kind of nation we are today.  Its hundreds of shops, stocked with goods made mainly in other countries, are staffed with Americans earning around minimum wage.  Credit cards in hand, we flock to the Mall, to shop, buy a meal, and marvel at the amusement park’s scale.  It’s one of the largest anywhere around, you know.

America at the Mall, © 2014 Susan Barsy

Enjoy the ride, © 2014 Susan Barsy
Some fun! © 2014 Susan Barsy

© 2014 Susan Barsy

4 responses

  1. With more than ‘due respect’ to your father’s view, it’s worth noting that the ‘nation of shopkeepers’ has already faded to a nation of franchisees and cashiers.

    Mr. Hooper, the late, lamented shopkeeper from Sesame Street, was modeled on community figure who — like the moderate republican he likely was — has become increasingly endangered.

    • Yes, well, my father’s metaphor has a toy-town quality to begin with. . . . which is partly what makes it provocative. And you are right that the simple, independent characters it posits have long ago been themselves transmogrified.
      I need to study up on Mr Hooper (perhaps there is even a scholarly literature?)
      Thank you Cary, and happy belated birthday.

    • I should add that I would like to find a way to write about the old notion of “political economy” and whatever it is that has replaced it . . . . the concept of possessive individualism?
      I continue to be surprised that there has been no concerted outcry in the US about the decline of national self-sufficiency–“dependence” of all kinds being one of the chief bogeymen in our politics.

  2. That is a well written essay. And, yup, I agree with it. Interestingly enough, the money that Wall Street raises for companies (mostly American–or “headquartered here”) via the stock mkts to a large degree goes so that those companies can build and hire outside the US. Add to that the unending thirst Americans have for goods foreign made, and it all becomes a circle. But much of the profit ends up going back to the “headquartered” U.S. company, which keeps dollars abroad and then continues to expand exclusively abroad.