I Want to Be a Consumer

by Mark T. Mitchell on April 26, 2009 · 8 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Economics & Empire,Writers & Poets

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A bit of doggerel from Punch Magazine (25 April 1934).

I Want to Be a Consumer

“And what do you mean to be?”
The kind old Bishop said
As he took the boy on his ample knee
And patted his curly head.
“We should all of us choose a calling
To help Society’s plan;
Then what do you mean to be, my boy,
When you grow up to be a man?”

“I want to be a Consumer,”
The bright-haired lad replied
As he gazed up into the Bishop’s face
In innocence open-eyed.
“I’ve never had aims of a selfish sort,
For that, as I know, is wrong.
I want to be a consumer, Sir,
And help the world along.

“I want to be a Consumer
And work both night and day,
For that is the thing that’s needed most,
I’ve heard economists say,
I won’t just be a Producer,
Like Bobby and James and John;

I want to be a Consumer, Sir,
And help this nation on.”

“But what do you want to be?”
The Bishop said again,
“For we all of us have to work,” said he,
“As must I think be plain.
Are you thinking of studying medicine
Or taking a Bar exam?”
“Why, no!” the bright-haired lad replied
As he helped himself to jam.

“I want to be a Consumer
And live in a useful way;
For that is the thing that’s needed most,
I’ve heard economists say.
There are too many people working
And too many things are made.
I want to be a Consumer, Sir,
And help to further trade.

“I want to be a Consumer,
And do my duty well;
For that is the thing that’s needed most,
I’ve heard Economists tell.
I’ve made up my mind,” the lad was heard
As he lit a cigar, to say;
“I want to be a Consumer, sir,
And I want to begin today.”

–Patrick Barrington

h/t Glenn Moots

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar The Reticulator April 27, 2009 at 12:38 am

Very good. Is there a story about how you found that?

avatar Mark T. Mitchell April 27, 2009 at 1:32 pm

No story. A friend emailed it to me. To me, the striking thing about this is its date. It was published in 1934! Apparently one has to go back quite a way to find the “good ole days” when people’s loves were rightly ordered. Maybe back to Genesis 3. But at the same time, does our relative affluence today make consumerism potentially more virulent than ever?

avatar D.W. Sabin April 27, 2009 at 4:42 pm

Personally, I can’t say whether or not the Consumer Swine Flu is fundamentally more virulent today than in a decidedly less product-rich 1930′s. We’ve been enjoying shiny new things ever since Gronk charred a nicely pointed thigh bone and handed it to Broont with a nod and a grin. But, as we saw on the hilarious “Crappiest Generation ” bit in “Noted Briefly”….the public suffers from A.D.D. Dyspeptic Nervosa. They can’t wait to get as much as possible but when they get it, the charms fade and the product toke just don’t seem to do the same trick. Landfills become a museum of impatience and discarded longing. Ennui is the new can-do.

All I know is there are certain things in this poem that are a tad confounding such as the curly headed bright-eyed boy patted while atop the ample knee of the kind old bishop and in the end, the little boy fires up a cigar. I know, kids matured faster back then but lawsy.

It’s interesting to think that in it’s era, there was a wider culture actually saying too many people were engaged in making things and that they needed consumers to make an economy. It’s obvious but to think it was less than a hundred years ago when the society might have said there were too many people engaged in making things and not enough people to create an economy….wow….there is progress and then there is PROGRESS.

Now the swells suggest we’re entering an era of poverty chic where it will be good for us all to go without…..Was there any similar movements of this poverty chic mentality back then?

As to society having a plan….since when?

avatar Kevin Carson April 27, 2009 at 6:42 pm

Of course being a consumer really does require a considerable amount of selflessness given the current structure of the economy. It means working forty or more hours a week to obtain use-value that, in a rational economy, would probably require about fifteen hours of labor to produce. The extra work time goes to producing for unnecessarily capital-intensive production methods, the inflated overhead costs of such production methods, the costs of inventory and buffer stocks that go with supply-push, the enormous cost of high-pressure mass marketing that go with same, the mountains of crystallized labor wasted in landfills because of planned obsolescence, etc. And all these things are directly entailed in the imperative of consuming what mass production industry can produce, so we can keep the wheels turning and avoid the idle capacity that could result in another Great Depression.

Because products aren’t designed to last, production isn’t geared to demand, and machinery isn’t scaled to the flow of production, we spend about two thirds of our work time in the moral equivalent of digging holes and filling them back in again (because, as Huxley put it, “ending is better than mending”).

If that isn’t self-sacrifice, I don’t know what is.

avatar The Reticulator April 27, 2009 at 8:30 pm

Re “poverty chic” back in the 1930s: That was before my time but I think poverty was not in good odor at the time. The 1930s did produce some people who were obsessive and compulsive about saving, making do, etc. It changed people. A dear uncle of mine has spent time in jail rather than give up the ways and attitudes he acquired. He has done it in good humor and he jokes about his ways, but the neighbors were not always amused. Twenty-four years ago I was visiting, and when I woke up the first morning he was coming in the door having done his grocery shopping, as he jokingly called it. He had been making the rounds of the dumpsters. He generally knew where to find the good stuff. (Some of my neighbors might say they can at times detect the family relationship.)

But I think you can find “poverty chic” in some popular literature of the 19th century. “Heidi” and “Silas Marner” come to mind. They’re about the redeeming power of innocent children who live the simple, rural life away from the corrupting influence of adult civilization. I suppose some of Charles Dickens falls in this category, too, minus the rural part.

BTW, I’ve long wished to get a copy of the Garrison Keilor skit from the very early 1980s. It’s about making a TV series out of Heidi. The producers wanted to make some changes. They kept tinkering, and in the end grandpa ran a deli on Long Beach and Heidi was a helicopter pilot for the LAPD. I.e. it ended up being just like every other TV show.

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