It is widely accepted that to the extent the economic crisis can’t be blamed on greedy bankers, it is the fault of the rest of us shopaholic Americans. We spent more than we had and must now shamefully repent by putting money into the bank rather than a new flat-screen. But we shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves. Columbia University economist Amar Bhidé argues that the long-term growth of our economy is driven by consumers who have an exceptional appetite to buy new stuff—and that’s a good thing. In his book The Venturesome Economy, he recounts the historical role of American shoppers in stimulating worldwide innovation. Shoes are one good example. It was Americans who decided they were no longer satisfied with having only a single pair of shoes. Cobblers couldn’t offer products at low enough prices for the typical American, and thus the manufacturing of shoes began in earnest. When cars were first invented, they were considered merely toys of the rich, until a vast middle-income market demonstrated a willingness to make sacrifices (including going into debt) to afford this society-altering technology. More recently, there is the iPod, which, Bhidé maintains, would never have developed without the optimistic and unfrugal American consumer.
Consumers have obviously cut spending in recent months, but will the recession cause us to lose our willingness to experiment? “There’s no reason to say that the venturesomeness dies in the course of a recession,” says Bhidé. “It was during the early eighties, the worst recent recession in the U.S., that people started getting very excited about the personal computer. The bad feelings of that time went away, but personal computing certainly has not.”