The Future of Consumption

From: tom_vanderbilt
Re: Max and Bill’s comments

On the idea of spending less on Christmas, as a freelance writer of predictably slim economic means, I’m all for it. Yet as someone whose cash flow depends on magazines (who in turn depend on advertisements from Disney, Nike, and other producers of consumer and entertainment goods), I’m immediately implicated by this desire: If everyone followed suit, I might find myself out of a job.

As someone who also just completed on a book on athletic shoes and the global economy, I must say what struck me most profoundly was how by following this one product—sneakers—one could chart the intensification of consumption and consumer culture after World War II. Before the late 1970s the sneaker was an inexpensive—even in adjusted dollars—product worn mostly by children that might be replaced once a year. There were several producers who made a couple of different lines over a number of years, and little advertising. By the 1990s, the athletic shoe was an expensive product that came in a dizzying array of styles, with entire new lines being rolled out four times a year, with shoes specifically matched to different activities—the point being that you needed to buy more than one pair to do different activities.

The point to all this is that like sunglasses or t-shirts or other once simple and cheap goods, there are now more sneakers than there have ever been, across a wider price spectrum. Here comes the chicken and egg question: Is it consumer demand that has driven the intensification of production, or is it the drive by companies to boost profits by selling more goods more quickly? That’s too big a question to answer here, but I will point out that from 1950 to 1990 global spending on advertising rose from under $40 billion to over $250 billion, faster proportionally than population growth and the growth of the economy itself. I raise this statistic to suggest that the rise in consumption is not merely the collective expression of the popular economic will, but an outcome prodded and desired by the producers of the things we buy, desperate as they are to avoid the dread overaccumulation.

The old saw goes: Coca-Cola doesn’t sell Coca-Cola, it sells advertising. So, figuratively, are we buying the products or buying the advertising? What if there were no advertising? Could the products sell themselves? Would we only buy things we needed?

Max Sawicky hints that exhorting people to buy less might somehow infringe upon the free speech of those who want to buy more, but I would suggest on the contrary that it is the anti-commercial activists who are subject to censorship. One immediate case is that several television networks refused to allow The Media Foundation to use advertising—one of few outlets of speech (and not free) in a consumer society—to promote Buy Nothing Day, ostensibly on the grounds that it ran counter to their interests. Not necessarily the interests of the American public, but the commercial sponsors and the network itself. Perhaps what’s good for General Motors is good for America, but why not let people make up their own minds and present alternative opinions, or, in the mantra of the marketplace, another choice?

So people won’t see ads for Buy Nothing Day; they’ll see economists bemoaning the flat Christmas spending among the middle classes (who might actually be using money on something sensible like college loans or savings) or trumpeting the vibrant spending at the top (the logical result of a booming stock market); they’ll see the litany of news stories about parents turning the toy market into the next Dutch tulip bubble as they scramble to get Junior that advertised toy; they’ll see ads for last-minute purchases; they might even catch Miracle on 34th Street, in which the Macy’s janitor Alfred tells the man who thinks he’s Kris Kringle: “Yeah, there’s a lot of bad ‘isms’ floating around this world, but one of the worst is commercialism. Make a buck, make a buck. Even in Brooklyn it’s the same: Don’t care what Christmas stands for. Just make a buck, make a buck.”

Of course, Christmas as we know it wouldn’t exist without consumer culture, to disagree slightly with Bill, and Christmas as a holiday has from the start been surrounded by sentiments that it had become too commercialized. In the book Consumer Rites, Leigh Eric Schmidt argues that the same process that created national markets and products created national holidays and traditions. Consumerism is tied up with the religious aspect of Christmas to the point where to suggest we might want to cool it down a bit verges on blasphemy—or being the dreaded Grinch. Kwanzaa was created as a specifically anti-consumerist, African-American-oriented response to Christmas, but has quickly become tied up in the same commercial culture of Hallmark cards and other baubles.

This is actually my point with the voluntary simplicity movement, which is not necessarily something I advocate. I, like Max, would rather focus on raising wages than reducing spending, and it seems a bit preachy for people with nest eggs to be talking about how they dropped out of the rat race (this is vaguely akin to the U.S. advising China or another developing country that “you don’t want to go through what we went through”—easy for us to say now). Most people never make it to the big party, and simplicity comes naturally to them (unless they can get a credit card, which most do; hence the rising levels of personal bankruptcy).

Hyper-consumerism is now such an ingrained part of American life that it becomes difficult to imagine any alternative. The cycle of working, getting, and spending leaves us inexplicably with no time even though every aspect of life is now supposed to be more productive; you can see the result of this in everything from increased fast-food consumption (itself a part of modern consumer society; people buy finished products instead of making their own food) to the decline in community organizations. Not to yearn for a lost Eden or anything, but it’s interesting to think about what we may have traded in when we got the shiny new consumer society. Writing in The Atlantic Monthly in 1924, the political philosopher Samuel Strauss had this to say about what he called consumptionism:

Formerly the task was to supply the things men wanted; the new necessity is to make men want the things which machinery must turn out if this civilization is not to perish…the problem before us today is not how to produce the goods, but how to produce the customers. Consumptionism is the science of compelling men to use more and more things. Consumption is bringing it about that the American citizen’s first importance to his country is no longer that of citizen but of consumer.

Tom Vanderbilt

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