The Ultimate Purpose of an Economy Is to Produce More Consumer Goods

Arthur F. Burns? Raymond J. Saulnier? Anonymous?

shopping08Dear Quote Investigator: One criticism of modern economies asserts that consumer goods are being wastefully over-produced and human happiness has become disconnected from the possession of superfluous material objects. These critics contend that individuals and economic architects should concentrate on creating positive and constructive experiences and deemphasize the proliferation of mass-produced physical artifacts. I am interested in a quotation that exemplifies the opposite viewpoint:

The economy’s ultimate purpose is to produce more consumer goods.

This statement has been attributed to the notable economist Arthur F. Burns who was an adviser to President Dwight Eisenhower. Indeed, as I write this message the Wikipedia entry for Burns ascribes this saying to him, but no solid citation is given, and I have doubts. Would you please examine this topic?

Quote Investigator: There exists some confusion regarding the name of the economist who made this statement and the precise form of the remark.

In 1959 Dwight Eisenhower was the president of the United States, and the prominent economist Raymond J. Saulnier was the chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers. In January 1959 Saulnier gave testimony to the Joint Economic Committee of Congress, and he spoke a version of the saying under investigation in response to a question from a senator. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

Mr. Saulnier. Let me interpolate by saying that, as I understand an economy, its ultimate purpose is to produce more consumer goods. This is the goal. This is the object of everything that we are working at: to produce things for consumers.

Senator O’Mahoney. But we must have consumers who can buy.

Based on current evidence QI suggests that Raymond J. Saulnier should be credited with the expression above. QI has not yet found solid support for the ascription to Arthur F. Burns. Interestingly, Burns was also the chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers during the Eisenhower administration; however, Burns served before Saulnier. It is possible that the shared job title may have caused a misunderstanding that resulted in a misattribution. Of course, it is also conceivable that both economists made the remark.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

During the congressional committee hearing a senator highlighted the assertion that the gross national product had grown faster under the previous administration of Harry Truman than under the current administration of Dwight Eisenhower. Saulnier responded by indicating that the gross national product could be segmented into goods and services. He argued for the primal importance of goods and suggested that the measured growth in the consumption of goods reflected a healthy economy. Here is an excerpt from an editorial published in a Sandusky, Ohio newspaper in March 1959 which reprinted a streamlined version of Saulnier’s remarks: 2

Dr. Saulnier’s reply went to the heart of the argument. “As I understand our economy, its ultimate purpose is to produce more consumer goods,” he said. “Under the previous administration, the annual rate of increase in this sector was 2.9 percent; in the following six years it was 3.8 percent. If you take a total gross national product, the rate in recent years has lagged. But if you look at consumption-the thing which, as I say, I regard myself as commissioned to maximize—you find that we are doing better.”

In October 1959 the “Weekly People: Official Organ of the Socialist Labor Party” printed an instance of the saying attributed to Saulnier. In the following excerpt “He” referred to the influential commentator Arthur Schlesinger Jr.: 3

He declares that this [political revival] will result in a drastic and favorable change in basic values, away from that expressed by Dr. Raymond J. Saulnier, chairman of Eisenhower’s Council of Advisors, who believes that the ‘ultimate purpose’ of the American economy is merely ‘to produce more consumer goods.’ (For whom?)

In January 1960 the saying was further disseminated by the pundit Walter Lippmann in his newspaper column. Saulnier was not directly named; instead, his title as adviser was used: 4

This fallacy can best be understood in the light of some testimony given a year ago by the chairman of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers. “As I understand an economy,” he said, “its ultimate purpose is to produce more consumer goods. This is the object of everything we are working at: To produce things for consumers.”

In 1962 a writer in “The Antioch Review” recalled the critical words of Lippmann and repeated the saying ascribed to Saulnier: 5

In January 1960, Walter Lippmann took issue with Raymond Saulnier, Chairman of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers, who remarked, “As I understand our economy, its ultimate purpose is to produce more consumer goods.” Lippmann replied, “The object of our economy is … to use the wealth and power which our economy can produce to support the national purposes which we so frequently proclaim.”

In 1995 an article published in the journal “Critical Inquiry” included an instance of the saying. Oddly, the date of the quotation was shifted from 1959 to 1953. The accompanying note of support referred to “WN” an abbreviation for the 1991 book “The Work of Nations” by Robert B. Reich: 6

In 1953, the chairman of Eisenhower’s Council of Economic Advisors pronounced that the “ultimate purpose” of the American economy was “to produce more consumer goods” (quoted in WN, p. 45).

In 2010 the book “Selling Out: Consuming Ourselves to Death” printed a modified instance of the expression and credited the words to Arthur F. Burns: 7

Arthur F. Burns, Chairmen of the Council of Economic advisors under President Eisenhower, exceeded Lebow’s orgasmic faith in the wonders of growth when he evangelized that: “The American economy’s ultimate purpose is to produce more consumer goods.” If Burns could observe the behavior of consumers today, he would feel a profound sense of satisfaction in the fact that consumers have reached Nirvana.

In conclusion, QI believes that Raymond J. Saulnier can be credited with the statement given in the January 1959 citation. QI has not yet discovered support for ascribing the expression to Arthur F. Burns.

Image Notes: Image of soft drinks on shelves is a cropped and brightened version of a Wikipedia image released into the public domain by SMC who was the author. Shopping mall image from Archbob at Pixabay.

(Great thanks to James Wallman whose query led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Wallman is a trend forecaster who recently published the work “Stuffocation”.)

Notes:

  1. 1959, Congressional Hearing, Hearing Before the Joint Economic Committee, Congress of the United States, Eighty-Sixth Congress, First Session, Pursuant to Sec. 5(a) of Public Law 304 (79th Congress), Meetings Held in January and February 1959, January 1959 Economic Report of the President, (Statement of Raymond J. Saulnier, Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers on January 27, 1959), Quote Page 29, Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C. (HathiTrust Full View) link link
  2. 1959 March 20, Sandusky Register, Editorial: Growth That Prospers, Quote Page 4, Column 1, Sandusky, Ohio. (NewspaperArchive)
  3. 1959 October 3, Weekly People: Official Organ of the Socialist Labor Party, Youth Wants the Truth: Schlesinger’s “Liberal” Prognosis, Or, Scratch a Liberal and Find a Reactionary Underneath, Quote Page 4, Column 3, New York, New York. (Old Fulton)
  4. 1960 January 23, Times-Picayune, Satisfaction Justified? by Walter Lippmann, Quote Page 10, Column 6 and 7, New Orleans, Louisiana. (GenealogyBank)
  5. 1962 Autumn, The Antioch Review, Volume 22, Number 3, Liberalism in the Fifties: The Travail of Redefinition by Bernard Sternsher, Start Page 315, Quote Page 325 and 326, Published by Antioch Review, Inc. (JSTOR) link
  6. 1995 Winter, Critical Inquiry, Volume 21, Number 2, Envisioning Capital: Political Economy on Display by Susan Buck-Morss, Start Page 434, Quote Page 436, Published by: The University of Chicago Press. (JSTOR) link
  7. 2010, Selling Out: Consuming Ourselves to Death by David Model and Lesley Model, Quote Page 5, Published by AuthorHouse, Bloomington, Indiana. (Google Books Preview)