September 2012, Week 2


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Mon, 10 Sep 2012 21:42:33 -0400
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America the Possible: Breaking the Chains of Consumerism 

by James Gustave Speth

Monday, September 10, 2012 by Common Dreams

Article printed from www.CommonDreams.org 

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

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

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

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

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.

James Gustave Speth is a professor at Vermont Law
School and a Distinguished Senior Fellow at Demos, a
nonpartisan public policy research and advocacy
organization. His most recent book is, America the
Possible: Manifesto for a New Economy. A former dean of
the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, he
also co-founded the Natural Resources Defense Council,
was founder and president of the World Resources
Institute, and served as administrator of the United
Nations Development Programme. His previous books
include: The Bridge at the Edge of the World:
Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis
to Sustainability and Red Sky at Morning: America and
the Crisis of the Global Environment. 


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