The American Economy Is Creating a National Identity Crisis

It has become painfully clear that we are more than just consumers and corporate shareholders.

It has become painfully clear that we are more than just consumers and corporate shareholders.

Tim Wu / August 26, 2019/ NYTimes


Since the 1980s, American economic policy has insisted on the central importance of two things: cheaper prices for consumers and maximum returns for corporate shareholders.

But these priorities also generate an internal conflict, for they neglect, repress and even enslave our other selves: our identities as employees, producers, family members, citizens. And in recent years — as jobs become increasingly unpleasant and unstable, as smaller towns and regional economies are gutted, as essential industries like the pharmaceutical and telecommunications sectors engage in outlandish profiteering, and above all, as economic inequality becomes the trademark of our nation — the conflict seems to have reached a breaking point.


the specific prioritization of consumers and shareholders in economic policy dates from the 1970s and ’80s, in what amounted to a mostly well-intentioned project gone too far.

By now it has become obvious that the formula has gone too far, contributing to much of the social and economic dissatisfaction in the country — from the perpetual low-level fatigue with our consumer culture to the growing rage against callous corporations. In the service of ourselves as consumers and shareholders, we have hollowed out many of the aspects of life that we care most about.

For an individual person, the lengthy neglect of significant parts of one’s identity can lead to psychological harm. The same goes for a whole nation.

Life without a simple formula is, of course, harder and more confusing. But there is no coming to consciousness without difficulty and pain, and what the United States desperately needs is a vision of economic health more consistent with what we know makes life worth living.



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