You Are What You Buy

The Winter 2004 Wilson Quarterly issue mentioned yesterday contains three separate articles devoted to consumerism. The first of these is entitled “Shop “til We Drop?” My favorite part of the article is the opening sentences,

We shop, therefore we are. This is not exactly the American credo, but it comes close to being the American pastime.”

Unfortunately, it somehow seems appropriate to substitute the word “shop” for “think” in that famous line when it comes to modern American society.

The author is quick to point out that consumerism has a long history in America, being noted by Alexis de Tocqueville as early as 1830. Not only does it have a long history, it seems endemic in our society, beginning with infants barely out of the cradle and ending with conspicuous caskets that mark our final departure:

Even infants and toddlers quickly absorb the consumer spirit through television and trips to the supermarket (” I want that” is a common refrain). As we age, consumption becomes an engine of envy, because in America the idea is that everyone should have everything-which means that hardly anyone ever has enough.

Although conspicuous consumption may have been a constant throughout our history, household debt has skyrocketed in recent years, going from roughly 20% of household income in 1946 to 120% in 2002:

In 2002, consumer spending accounted for 70 percent of U.S. national income (gross domestic product), which is a modern American record, and a much higher figure than in any other advanced nation. In Japan and France, consumer spending in 2002 was only 55 percent of GDP; in Italy and Spain, it was 60 percent.

Social critics have not ignored these tendencies:

To critics, this ‘consumption treadmill” is self-defeating, as Cornell University economist Robert H, Frank put it in his 1999 book Luxury Fever: Money and Happiness in an Era of Excess. People compete to demonstrate their superiority, but most are frustrated because others continually catch up. Meanwhile, over-consumption – homes that are too big, cars that are too glitzy – actually detracts from people’s happiness and society’s well-being, Frank argued. Striving to maximize their incomes, workers sacrifice time with family and friends-time that, according to surveys, they would prize highly. And society’s reluctance to take money out of consumers’ pockets through taxation means too little is spent to solve collective problems such as poverty and pollution.

Despite such criticism, spending continues to spiral out of control, spurred on by businesses that have become masters at meeting the needs of consumers, even if the “needs” are produced by industry itself. As society has changed, businesses have learned to exploit those changes as Paco Underhill points out in an essay entitled “Inside the Machine:”

The restaurant and retail food industries have been utterly transformed by the needs of women who work. ‘Meal replacement” has become the hottest growth area in the food industry. Supermarkets are forever increasing the space devot- ed to making and selling prepared foods; you can hardly find a market today that doesn’t include a bakery, charcuteric, soup station, salad bar, sushi chef. And what the supermarket doesn’t do, the fast-food and family restaurant chains do. We can complain all we like about the quality and nutritional value of the food these businesses provide (and about a possible connection between the boom in prepared meals and the obesity epidemic), but we must give them their due when it comes to identifying and meeting a need.

In his essay, retail anthropologist Underhill explains the sophisticated planning that goes into a mall to keep consumers shopping as long as possible and to maximize profits. Considering the planning that goes into our malls, it’s no wonder that even critics of malls often find themselves shopping there.

Considering how much money I’ve spent at Amazon, I’m afraid to even think what kind of evil genius went into designing that site. Do you think they spent months studying people who hate to shop when they designed their site?