The Future of Consumption: The Solution

From: tom_vanderbilt

In response to Eric’s question about how hyperconsumerism can be addressed, if it all, I think that, following Max’s arguments, the amount one consumes is a personal choice, and to try to regulate that may indeed represent an infringement. But that doesn’t mean the issue can’t be addressed at a social level.

There’s the myth that this state of hyperconsumerism is just the magic of the market, just the way things ought to be, but the invisible hand of government plays a great role in fostering certain consumption choices. For instance, I suggest the government’s subsidy of highway costs, which represent by far the highest expenditure on public transportation. If the true costs of roads were reflected in user tolls, people might be much less willing to use this form of transportation. The usual response here is that this is a regressive sort of tax that would punish the poor, but jettisoning other forms of public transportation in favor of highway spending (which promotes the most wasteful, consumptive behavior not only in energy consumption but in the abysmal architecture of strip malls, parking garages, etc., etc.) I think punishes the poor far more.

Similarly, the government has put a high tax on certain products because it is trying to reduce their usage—cigarettes, for example. Cigarette use has declined through economic disincentives and education at a government level—who’s to say government couldn’t do the same, for example, with a program to get people to buy responsibly and not run up their credit cards?

As to [Bill’s] notion that government need not get involved because by the time it does the vast majority of people will have already decided to alter their behavior, there are myriad examples of positive social change that have only occurred because they were legislated. Recycling, for instance, would never have worked at the household level on a voluntary basis—it became successful when fines were threatened, etc., and despite the grumbling, people now more or less participate.

Another government-level step that might be taken—and the idea is not mine—is to tax advertising. It is, after all, a commercial enterprise, and a non-productive one at that, and so taxing it would either reduce the intrusion of commercial culture into so many previously unbesmirched areas of human life or at least provide some social benefit as a result of this activity, rather than just prompting consumer spending. If a retailer sells a product and must charge sales tax, then why should a corporation selling an idea or an image get off the hook?

Max points out that people will only change their consumption patterns when presented with alternatives they perceive to be superior. The problem here is that the nature of our current economic system is that it does not take kindly to presenting such alternatives (e.g., my previous point about the networks refusing to air anti-commercialism commercials). Yes, the information is out there, and one can buy books or read articles about less consumptive ways of living or critiques of consumer culture, but the conglomeration of media outlets, among other factors, makes it difficult for alternative visions to break the market barriers and gain any kind of mass acceptance.

Conglomeration itself is another factor fueling the rise of consumption—think of the vertical integration going at Disney, where a movie begets a book and a video game and a sweatshirt. When one conglomerate pairs up with another big company, say Burger King, the result is a product that is essentially just an advertisement for another product (e.g., Coca-Cola served in a Lion King cup).

I generally think people can make up their own minds about advertising but I’m less certain about children, who are now the focus of a unprecedented level of marketing that ranges from captive-audience news reports with commercials to ads in schoolbuses to McDonald’s in the cafeteria to Reebok-sponsored physical education programs to focus groups. It’s quite incredible that prayer would be banned in schools but that the secular preachings of Nike and Disney should be allowed to be nailed to the schoolhouse door, so to speak. At an age when children are learning moral lessons and can’t really articulate why it might be better not to buy expensive licensed Disney merchandise, there is something quite nefarious about this commercial carpet-bombing. Companies are looking for the consumer of tomorrow, of course, and studies have shown that children’s brand loyalty and brand recognition are becoming more advanced, and at an earlier age.

People may not view the alternatives to consumerism as superior, but they should be allowed to view them in the first place. What government can do—as PBS was supposed to do, before it became just a kinder, gentler version of any other network, with its own line of merchandise available at the local mall (a point it left out of its own documentary on Affluenza)—is guarantee that a certain right to expression is upheld, not just in theory but in some way that competes with the massing of economic power at the top.

We must consider that vibrant economic growth is not a panacea for all the world’s troubles (it hasn’t done much to reduce the income gap, as a decade’s worth of studies show), and if history is any guide, these kinds of changes in global consumption patterns will not come about simply because people realized it might be better for future generations or someone on the other side of the planet.

Regards, Tom Vanderbilt

The Forum Part II: Searching for Solutions 1 2 3 4

The Forum Part I: Defining the Problem