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America the Possible: Breaking the chains of consumerism

The following is an excerpt from the recently published America the Possible: Manifesto for a New Economy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012). The book, written as the third volume of Speth's award-winning American Crisis series, calls for deep, transformative change in a dozen areas of national life, including a reimagination of our political economy, a halt to debt-inducing consumerism, and a host of prescriptions for our bad case of affluenza. This appears with the kind permission of the author.

The path to a new political economy leads straight away from consumerism and commercialism to a very different world in which getting and spending, material possessions, and overall consumption have a decidedly circumscribed and modest place in everyday life.

In her insightful book, A Consumers’ Republic, Lizabeth Cohen documents that American consumerism as we know it did not just happen. It is not something in our genes or human nature, at least not wholly. Referring to the era of postwar prosperity that lasted approximately from 1945 to 1975, she notes that “this period of unprecedented affluence did much more than make Americans a people of plenty. Undergirding the pursuit of plenty was an infrastructure of policies and priorities, what I have dubbed, for shorthand, the Consumers’ Republic. In reconstructing the nation after World War II, leaders of business, government, and labor developed a political economy and a political culture that expected a dynamic mass consumption economy not only to deliver prosperity, but also to fulfill American society’s loftier aspirations.”

A consumer society is one in which consumerism and materialism are central aspects of the dominant culture, where goods and services are acquired not only to satisfy common needs but also to secure identity and meaning. Framing this situation as a matter of consumer sovereignty--where the customer is always right--is misleading. Consumption patterns are powerfully shaped by forces other than preformed individual preferences--forces such as advertising, cultural norms, social pressures, and psychological associations.

Consumerism is not, and should not be confused with, consumption that satisfies essential human needs. Consumerism is the faith that meaning, identity, and significance can be found in material, commodity consumption, which in turn requires money. But since meaning and self-realization cannot be found there, nor basic psychological needs so met, consumers remain unfilled and are driven ever on to seek more possessions, which requires still more money, all of which is well understood by marketers. Richard Layard refers to the “hedonic treadmill” to describe the phenomenon whereby people become habituated to their new incomes and their new toys. “When I get a new home or a new car, I am excited at first. But then I get used to it, and my mood tends to revert to where it was before. . . . Advertisers understand this and invite us to ‘feed our addiction’ with more and more spending. However, other experiences do not pale in the same way--the time we spend with our family and friends, and the quality and security of our job.”

A consumer society is one in which the human tendency to compare ourselves with others is grotesquely exploited. This human tendency to compare ourselves with others has not escaped the attention of humorists. There’s the joke about the Russian peasant whose neighbor had a cow while he did not. He had lived a good life, and so God asked how He could help. The peasant replied, “Kill the cow!” Numerous studies confirm that happiness levels depend inversely on one’s neighbor’s prosperity. People constantly compare themselves with others, and if everyone is better off financially, then no one is any happier. Comparative position is what counts, not absolute income, so rising incomes can leave just as many unhappy comparisons.

Consumerism thus has a doubly negative impact. It is the beating heart of the growth system. Private consumption expenditures in the United States, for example, are about 70 percent of gross domestic product, and consumer spending is the principal driver of the economy and its expansion. When the Financial Times observed that “the stamina of shoppers will be crucial for global growth,” the emphasis was on consumers serving the economy, not the other way around. Second, consumerism gives rise to a host of social pathologies. On the squirrel wheel of getting and spending, with the longest hours on the job in the OECD, and with both parents often at work, we Americans are neglecting the things that would truly make us better off, including personal relationships and social contact. Ed Diener and Martin Seligman, two leaders in the field of positive psychology, point out, “The quality of people’s social relationships is crucial to their well-being. People need supportive, positive relationships and social belonging to sustain well-being.”

In The Loss of Happiness in Market Democracies, sociologist Robert Lane believes Americans suffer from “a kind of famine of warm interpersonal relations, of easy-to-reach neighbors, of encircling, inclusive memberships, and of solidary family life. There is much evidence that for people lacking in social support of this kind, unemployment has more serious effects, illnesses are more deadly, disappointment with one’s children is harder to bear, bouts of depression last longer, and frustration and failed expectations of all kinds are more traumatic.”

Our families, friends, and true companionship are thus among consumerism’s principal casualties. We have channeled our desires, our insecurities, our need to demonstrate our worth and our success, our wanting to fit in and to stand out, increasingly into material things--into bigger homes, fancier cars, more appliances and gadgets, and branded apparel. But in the process, we’re slighting the precious things that no market can provide. We are hollowing out whole areas of life, of individual and social autonomy, of community, and of nature, and, if we don’t soon wake up, we will lose the chance to return, to reclaim ourselves, our neglected society, our battered world, because there will be nothing left to reclaim, nothing left to return to.

Amitai Etzioni sees the excesses of consumerism also at the roots of our current economic troubles: “The link to the economic crisis should be obvious. A culture in which the urge to consume dominates the psychology of citizens is a culture in which people will do most anything to acquire the means to consume--working slavish hours, behaving rapaciously in their business pursuits, and even bending the rules in order to maximize their earnings. They will also buy homes beyond their means and think nothing of running up credit-card debt. It therefore seems safe to say that consumerism is, as much as anything else, responsible for the current economic mess.”

Cohen also highlighted the ironies inherent in the faith that “a prospering mass consumption economy could foster democracy.” What actually happened was we witnessed “a decline in the most critical form of political participation--voting--as more commercialized political salesmanship replaced rank-and-file mobilization through parties.” She also notes, “The Consumers’ Republic’s dependence on unregulated private markets wove inequalities deep into the fabric of prosperity. . . . The deeply entrenched convictions prevailing in the Consumers’ Republic that a dynamic, private, mass consumption marketplace could float all boats and that a growing economy made reslicing the economic pie unnecessary predisposed Americans against more redistributive actions.”

The creation of the Consumers’ Republic represented the triumph of one vision of American life and purpose. But there has always been another American vision, what historian David Shi calls the tradition of “plain living and high thinking,” a tradition that began with the Puritans and the Quakers and that provides the tradition on which to build a better America for tomorrow. This tradition that sees America as a republic of virtue has always been in tension with the allure of unfettered purchasing, of America as the venue nonpareil for consumer appetites indulged shamelessly and unapologetically. In his book The Simple Life, Shi described how the concept of the simple but good life “has remained an enduring--and elusive--ideal. . . . Its primary attributes include a hostility toward luxury and a suspicion of riches, a reverence for nature and a preference for rural over urban ways of life and work, a desire for personal self-reliance through frugality and diligence, a nostalgia for the past, a commitment to conscientious rather than conspicuous consumption, a privileging of contemplation and creativity, an aesthetic preference for the plain and functional, and a sense of both religious and ecological responsibility for the just uses of the world’s resources.”

If the creation of American consumerism was a project of the country’s political and economic leaders after World War II, as Cohen concludes, it should be possible to build a counter project aimed at something better. Overcoming our bad case of national affluenza is important if America is to achieve a host of goals: reducing its ecological footprint, expanding investment in public goods, bolstering retirement security, reducing corporate power, undermining our growth fetish, expanding civic engagement, focusing resources on vast social and economic disparities at home and abroad, and improving the social and psychological well-being of individuals and families.

Etzioni properly asks what should replace the worship of consumer goods and argues that “the two most obvious candidates to fill this role are communitarian pursuits and transcendental ones.” “Communitarianism,” he writes, “refers to investing time and energy in relations with the other, including family, friends, and members of one’s community. The term also encompasses service to the common good, such as volunteering, national service, and politics. Communitarian life is not centered around altruism but around mutuality, in the sense that deeper and thicker involvement with the other is rewarding to both the recipient and the giver. . . . Transcendental pursuits refer to spiritual activities broadly understood, including religious, contemplative, and artistic ones. . . . Communitarian activities require social skills and communication skills as well as time and personal energy--but, as a rule, minimal material or financial outlays. The same holds for transcendental activities such as prayer, mediation, music, art, sports, adult education, and so on.”

Juliet Schor has also offered a path forward, one she calls “plenitude.” It has four key features: moderation in hours of work, self-provisioning, environmentally aware consumption, and restoring investments in one another and community. In sum, “work and spend less, create and connect more.”

What policy agenda would help move America beyond consumerism? First, there are attractive steps, including some described elsewhere in this book, that would help immensely: eliminating wasteful subsidies and imposing limits on virgin materials entering the economy and on emissions, toxics, and other residuals discharged to the environment; requiring full-cost, honest prices, with border tariffs to protect U.S. producers and workers from unfair foreign competition from countries not fully internalizing costs; imposing a surtax on high-end consumption spending along with various luxury taxes; promoting new for-benefit corporations and corporate transformation generally; providing high-quality public services, infrastructure, and amenities; moving to much greater social and economic equality and security; conducting educational and social marketing campaigns that not only provide accurate information to consumers but also address deeper issues such as the shortcomings of consumerism; promoting sharing, renting, and collaborative consumption instead of owning (“do more, own less, rent the rest”); attacking waste and throwaway, made-to-break culture by requiring producers to take back products at the end of their useful lives and to design products for durability, easy repair, and even instructive conversation; imposing tight regulation on “easy credit,” predatory lending; and promoting initiatives to shift cultural norms that promote consumerism.

Two additional steps are essential. First, we need to put in place a set of new policies that will eliminate overwork and lead to a shorter work-year. Just as America legislated a forty-hour workweek, we can also legislate a thirty- to thirty-two-hour (or four-day) workweek. A take-back-your-time package of initiatives should also include measures to protect part-time workers and favor work sharing; guarantee longer, paid vacations; restrict the use of overtime; and provide for generous parental and caregiving leaves, worker sabbaticals, graduated retirement, and the option of early retirement. Allied with these measures should be support needed for non-income-generating “leisure” activities (continuing education, hobbies, recreation, family and community activities, politics, volunteering, music, the arts, reading, self-improvement, and so on).

Second, we must put advertising in its place, which should be a small place. Advertising is one of the world’s most pernicious businesses. In the United States, advertising expenditures grew from $60 billion a year in 1960 to $260 billion in 2004 (in 2003 dollars), or about half of total world spending on advertising that year. In 1983, at the behest of the Reagan administration, the Federal Communications Commission deregulated advertising to children on television. One year later, the ten best-selling toys all had ties to television programs. Between 1983 and 2011, marketing aimed at children swelled from a $100 million-a-year endeavor to a $17 billion-a-year juggernaut. The average child in the United States today sees twenty thousand commercials annually. Meanwhile, ads have invaded air travel, movie theaters, video games, comic books, postseason bowl games, public schools, universities, clothing, and popular songs. And that’s not all: “Wizmark’s ‘Interactive Urinal Communicator’ plays 10-second promotional messages to the ‘ever elusive targeted male audience you are constantly aiming for.’” The Internet is the largest segment, but “out-of-home” advertising now exceeds radio, newspaper, and magazine advertising combined. Finally, there is the advent reported in the April 23, 2011, issue of The Economist of “gladvertising” and “sadvertising:” “a rather sinister-sounding idea in which billboards with embedded cameras, linked to face-tracking software, detect the mood of each consumer who passes by, and change the advertising on display to suit it.”

These folks show us no mercy, and we should return the favor. A good start would be a ban on advertising to children in grade school, as is now done in some Nordic countries and Quebec. We should also severely restrict out-of-home advertising, especially in schools. Vermont has made a strong start with its ban on highway billboards. It should be unlawful to circulate mail-order catalogues except on request. To ensure greater truthfulness and relevancy in advertising, a committee of the corporation’s directors should be required to attest to the accuracy and relevance of all claims in major ad campaigns, and accuracy and relevance should be closely policed by the appropriate federal agencies, with fines levied when appropriate. Television and radio should be required to make time available so that the public can challenge advertising pitches and commercialism generally, much as Adbusters and others now do. Finally, advertising costs should be disallowed as a business expense for tax purposes.

There is no magic bullet with which to slay consumerism, but measures like these will carry us a good distance toward that goal.

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