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Cathedrals of Consumption: A review of the proposed federal budget for 2017

Reviewed: The President's Budget for Fiscal Year 2017,

When George Ritzer (2010) explored modernity in commercial settings, he observed what he dubbed “Cathedrals of Consumption,” or the massive super-structures like Disneyland and the Bellagio and Walmart, where the material needs and wants of entire communities are daily served by highly rationalized, but often curiously attractive and satisfying corporate labor and distribution systems. While Ritzer listed many kinds of these cathedrals, from franchises like Mcdonalds to cruise ships and casino-hotels, he neglected the mother-ship! For economic scope and scale, as well as mystery and methodology, neither Walt Disney, Sam Walton, nor Ray Kroc could hold a candle to the Federal Government of the United States! As evidence, consider budget for 2017, as submitted by President Barrack Obama. Here, almost all of Ritzer's principles converge in one spectacular display of fiscal-phantasmagoria! The setting is the imagination of the sitting chief executive; the consumer is the entire mass of indifferent American tax-payers, businesses, and institutions; and the qualities of “Rationalization, Enchantment, and Disenchantment” (p. 73) can be observed, by turns, in their fullest and most highly-evolved expressions.

What the federal government and Ritzer's enchanted vision of Disneyland have in common is that at their hearts, a magic kingdom can be found. Each of these are predicated on a kind of supernatural idealism in which the impossible is not only possible, but a mandate! However, while Disney's objective is to relieve the patron's stress for a little while, the government's goal is to eliminate it altogether, or die trying. In Obama's conception, no social ailment is beyond remedy, from curing cancer to defeating Isis to providing universal preschool. This kind of consumption-diversity presupposes a kind of vast, virtual mall with vendors selling everything from Predator drones and Hellfire missiles to vaccination batteries and children's books. It implies access to fully-global resource and distribution centers, as well as coordinated networks across all the other social institutions. While many would agree that it's getting old pretty fast, the phenomenon itself is pretty new. One critical difference between Disneyland and the federal government, however, is that the patron can check out of the one whenever, but can never really leave the other (short of expatriation, of course).

Following Ritzer's theme, lets explore the uncanny resemblance piece by piece. Concerning the major categories he lists, (pp. 8-20) the parallels are often obvious, almost like a child's game. The federal government is like a franchise in that there are thousands of similar, smaller versions scattered throughout the country which operate at least in part along federally established guidelines, precedents, and protocols, but which themselves are not expressly owned or controlled by the federal government. It is also like a chain store because there are countless other, smaller offices among the departments which are both locally operated and federally controlled. The government is like a shopping mall for businesses and special-interest groups who peruse the lobbies and the DC metro area looking for goods, services, investments, and other new entrepreneurial opportunities; and the federal government is practically no less electronic in this regard than Amazon. For it's unmatched buying potential, the government can be said to often have the most premium access to discounts. For this reason, the government's role as a facilitator-of-commerce makes it simultaneously one of the world's most potent discounters. While the presence of bricks and mortar makes a superstore analogy debatable in the abstract, the ice-berg, ghost ship, autopilot, and collision metaphors certainly lend themselves to a cruise-ship analogy. The potential for failure at this level of consumer activity renders the casino-hotel analogy quite uncomfortable, but one thing is for certain: Entertainment has never been a bigger part of the game than during the coverage of the 2016 presidential election. At least until one gets to the fine print.

Among the contributing factors to these new faces of consumption, Ritzer discusses the economy, the youth boom, the internet, and other enabling technologies which can all be appropriated for their relationship with the growth of the federal government. (pp. 25-29) Washington has in fact become a “one-stop shopping” “destination” for the American citizen. (p.35) One critical theme to observe is what Ritzer terms the “altered social relation.” (p. 36) The federal government, as a representative body, has never been so close to, yet so far away from, the American citizen. Historically, prior to the full scale application of globalism for which the twenty-first century has been so markedly notable, the relationships between voter and citizen were much more involved. Even with the advent of email and other enabling conditions, however, there is a widely-perceived and rapidly-expanding sense of dissonance and disconnect between the two which almost perfectly mirrors the automation of the Walmart checkout process, which is ironic, given the current expansion of the federal government's international presence as both a consumer and a producer of goods and services.

In Ritzer's survey of related social theory, he centers upon three major themes which can be directly related to the federal government: Rationalization, Enchantment, and Disenchanment. (pp. 54-59) Returning to Obama's proposed budget for the coming year, perahaps the list should be reordered. Enchantment comes first. Language is designed to be motivational and positive. References to past accomplishments and future Utopias have the curious effect of distracting the audience's focus on the present. At the end of his preamble, the president makes references to ongoing efforts to subdue nature itself: “...innovation to tackle climate change and find new treatments for devastating diseases,” drawing a direct psychological between those efforts and the nation's capacity for “national security and global leadership.” (OMB, 2016) The rationalization follows, with a more concise and comprehensive list of categorical initiatives ranging from biomedical research, manufacturing, and clean energy, to space exploration, the water supply, and educational equity. This list is designed to provide a quick and convenient (and decidedly un-critical) point-of-access for those special-interest consumer groups wishing to see if their own cause-du' jour' has survived in the platform. The list itself is exhaustive, which contributes to a sense of universal optimism that is also enchanting. The audience is invited to picture once again a future in which homelessness is eliminated, health-care is within everyone's reach, drug addiction and terrorists are both defeated, and the nation calls every other nation partner. The president sums all these accomplishments up, and attributes them to “A Government of The Future,” again, arguably intended to distract the reader from a deliberated focus on the government of the present, where disenchantment reigns.

In keeping with Ritzer's themes, it may be said of the federal government that rationalization is the direct root of the disenchantment. However, much like Disney's underground tunnels, one must look beyond the imagery and stagecraft of the president's presentation. That is all just spectacle. To truly comprehend the mechanization and wizardry, one must peer behind the readily accessible curtain and view the proposed budget itself. Specifically, page 164 and 165, where after a hundred some-odd pages of sweeping reductions and civic-minded appropriations, the reality seeps through in just a few single shafts to disrupt the fantasy. According to the president's own projections, these worthwhile initiatives come with a more than $500 billion deficit in 2017 alone. In fact, according to those same projections, the already-ridiculously-irresponsible national debt is expected to increase by about half over the coming decade, clearing a fist-clenching $27 TRILLION by 2027. The president reasonably, if not rightly, neglects to mention this detail in his shiny, well-polished summary of his budget-proposal, for the same reason Disney clears its trash underground.

Some additional context is required, at this point, in order for the full gravity of the disenchantment resulting from the punchline at the end of the president's very long and tedious joke to be appreciated. In the first place, although both sides of America's political establishment are fond of blaming their party rivals for the country's astonishing debt problem, neither end of the political spectrum may evade accountability. Since 1980, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, the amount of federally held debt as percentage of of GDP has progressed almost steadily since the inauguration of Ronald Reagan, prior to which it had reached its lowest point (under the Carter administration) since World War II. If the exception is a brief period of deficit reduction during the second Clinton administration; the example must certainly be the explosive increase in debt issued by the treasury following the infamous bank-bailouts after the 2008 financial crisis. Once a manageable 30% of GDP, the debt currently rests above 105% and promises to keep right on growing.

Complicating matters, the standing debt already exceeds the annual revenue from federal income tax by a multiple of ten, and exceeds the total revenue by roughly a multiple of six!(Government Tax and Revenue Chart, 2016) Those most intimately concerned with these numbers come in two classes, by default: Voters and Laborers. The Bureau of Labor Statistics places the total strength of the American workforce (ages 16 and over) at about 250 million tax-payers. (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2016) However, the drop-off from the 55-64 age group to the 64 and over crowd is greater than fifteen million! This is what Bill Newcott (2016) describes in his article “boomers turn 70,” about the post-war generation of Vietnam-era baby making. All those kids grew up, went to work, and now millions of them are ready to leave the work force, for well-earned retirements. The big problem analysts are concerned about is the obvious double-jeopardy consequence, in which the number of people who contribute tax revenue is going to decrease sharply, while the number of people who are dependent on things like pensions and health-care subsidies increases profoundly.

But on the other side of the rocking sea-ship are the voters. In 2016, Jens Krogstad (2016) asserts that “the U.S. electorate... will be the country's most racially and ethnnically diverse ever.” Drawing from the Pew estimates of over 215 million voters, Krogstad notes that this year “there are 10.7 million more eligible voters today than there were in 2012.” While little empirical may be available on hand to support the assumption, it is fair to guess that comparatively few of them will show up to the polls calling for higher taxes on themselves, although it is also reasonable to guess that those who do call for higher taxes as a budget reducing measure are likely to target “others” for shouldering those responsibilities. What is evident in the President's budget assessment however, is that the successful candidate must focus on providing the right products for everyone in order to win even a dismally low share of the public approval rating, and everyone wants something. The Pentagon, for instance, wants $23 billion worth of top-secret B-21 stealth bombers (at a “unit cost...of $606 million, of course), not to fight ISIS of course, because we aren't conducting manned bombing runs in either Iraq, Syria, or Afghanistan, but to stave off the perception of weakness that encourages Russia to build their own bombers, and vice versa. (Yeshiva World News, 2016) The National Aeronautics and Space Administration, for another example, wants a revolutionary new electro-magnetic propulsion system called the E-Sail which, according to the one article “could send spacecraft to the edge of the solar system in just 10 years.” (Daily Mail; NASA)

As far as cathedrals of consumption go, even Disney finds itself hopelessly outclassed.

Works Cited

Image Source:

----- Government Tax and Revenue Chart: United States 2004-2021 – Federal State Local data. Retrieved from (accessed 23 July, 2016).

----- “How Much Does The Pentagon's Secretive Bomber Really Cost?” Yeshiva World News, (21 July, 2016). Retrieved from (accessed 23 July, 2016).

Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. (2016). Federal Debt: Total Public Debt as Percent of Gross Domestic Product. Retrieved from (accessed 23 July, 2016).

Krogstad, Jens. “2016 electorate will be the most divers in U.S. History,” Pew Research Center. (3 February, 2016). Retrieved from (accessed 23 July, 2016).

Macdonald, Cheyenne. “Nasa reveals new details of radical 'proton power' system that could send spacecraft to the edge of the solar system in just ten years,” Daily Mail, (20 July, 2016). Retrieved from (accessed 23 July, 2016).

NASA. “NASA begins testing of revolutionary E-Sail technology,” (11 April, 2016) Retrieved from (accessed 23 July, 2016).

Newcott, Bill. “Boomers turn 70,” AARP Bulletin, (January, 2016). Retrieved from (accessed 23 July, 2016).

Office of Management and Budget. (2016). Budget of the US government for Fiscal Year 2017. Retrieved from (accessed 23 July, 2016).

Ritzer, George. “Enchanting a Disenchanted World: Continuity and Change in the Cathedrals of Consumption,” (Thousand Oaks, Ca: Pine Forge Press, 2010).

United States Department of Labor. (2016). Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey. Retrieved from (accessd 23 July, 2016).

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