Skip to main content

Consume this

Claude Fischer, professor of sociology | December 14, 2011

This Christmas season and this Great Recession combine to focus media attention on this critical question: Are Americans spending enough? News anchors breathlessly report Black Friday receipts, trends in online shopping, and FedEx shipping loads. If only people would stretch their budgets, use their credit cards more, take a fling or two, and buy! — then the economy would start up, employers would hire more people, and we’d be on our way back to prosperity and full employment. Even sober economists agree.


"Shop Michigan" (

At the same time, many of us (sometimes the same people) worry that all that buying is highly wasteful and highly polluting. Making, shipping, and shopping for all those goods are literally ruining the planet. Critiques of consumption as being immorally wasteful go back centuries (see this earlier post). So, is spending our salvation or our doom?

Consumer revolution

Historians have often written about the coming of  modern “consumer society,” which they typically define as a society in which the mass of people, not just the elite, buy luxury goods like leisure clothes, furniture for entertaining people, and special treats (in the 18th century, tea and sugar). Scholars have disagreed about when this consumer society emerged, some placing it around the mid-20th century, some about 50 years earlier, some yet earlier, on and on, all the way back to 1700s and even before that. Some have argued that it was the widespread demand for such “baubles” in the 1700s, not new mechanical inventions, that generated the industrial revolution in England and the U.S.

Americans have valued such consumption for ages. Part of the complaint the Revolutionaries had against the British monarch was that he impeded trade and twisted the system on behalf of British exporters; Henry Ford boasted that his wages allowed average workers to buy cars themselves; Herbert Hoover ran on “A chicken in every pot; two cars in every garage;” the New Deal pushed Americans to buy homes, toasters, and other appliances to move the economy; and so on. American unions, according to one line of interpretation and in contrast to European unions, cut a deal, blessed by government, with major firms: We’ll give you labor peace and free rule over the workplace; you give our members high wages so they can buy the goodies of the American Dream. In other words, the argument is that the American unions traded workers’ control of their labor for a pottage of consumer trinkets.

Kalamazoo Mall1960

Kalamazoo Mall1960 (K. Pub. Library)

Yet, Americans have for ages also felt guilty about consumption. The Puritans were so down on luxury and display that they barred Christmas celebration and gifts. What we now call sustainability was a theme in back-to-the-land movements of the 1800s as well as the 1970s. Social reformers and intellectuals have long pleaded that Americans should seek the unencumbered simple life (see, e.g., here). The climate crisis has made the pleas all the more urgent…. but not, it appears, more heeded.

An out

Is there a third way between spending binges to drive the economy and penny pinching to save the planet? One way might be to shift the spending away from today’s baubles – the plasma TVs, SUVs, disposable toys, and such – to recyclable, less polluting goods. Moral entreaties to make that transition don’t work much, but focused taxes such as energy tariffs could.

A broad, long-term strategy would be to move Americans’ spending from private to public goods, so that fewer dollars go into newer-bigger-better commodities and more dollars go to, say, infrastructure repair, park maintenance, K-12 education, and public preschools. That would require considerably higher taxes and a larger government as well.

Other democracies have gone this route. And the average citizen of those countries probably lives better (certainly lives longer) than the average American does. But public goods have not been so popular here. The politically effective slogan that you know better how to spend your money than Washington does means: You should be able to buy the new dishwasher or car or game system you want rather than have the government use your money to hire more employees or prettify a park. Americans are hearty consumers, but getting them to consume pubic goods via government is a hard sell.

In this context, we have to decide whether to root this season for more spending or less spending.

Cross-posted from Claude Fischer’s blog, Made in America: Notes on American life from American history.

Comments to “Consume this

  1. To Ken:
    Your account of the invention of consumerism in the early twentieth century is plausible, but so are at about a half-dozen accounts with other dates. I think the weight of the historical evidence is that “consumerism” as we think of it today started far, far longer ago than that — and may even be a general part of the human condition when humans have any spare wealth. (Chapter 2 of my book, “Made in America,” goes into the historical debates and scholarship.)

  2. Though we all know that the shift in consumption of private goods to public goods would increase job creation and potentially shrink many of our current economic woes, ultimately our elected officials shy away from this solution because such a shift would require a significant shift in our national mindset.

    We consume commodities because they satisfy our individualist mindset; they fulfill an immediate need for us, our friends, and our families. If we all start thinking beyond our own sphere of living to the 300k+ Americans around us, so many of whom are struggling, we would understand that investing now in large scale public projects such as infrastructure will boost the opportunity and welfare of our ENTIRE population, not just us as individuals. Do we really want to live in a nation where only a small percentage of us are making strides, while the rest remain stagnant? To stay in the mindset we are in now would be in opposition to the very premise of progress.

    Our government should be bold and instigate public projects without fear of offending its taxpayers. If we succeed, positive public perception will follow.

  3. Consumerism was invented in the 1910’s and 1920’s in a response to excess supply of good held by manufacturers. Retail innovations such as improved newspaper display advertising, self service, window displays, and one price for all moved it forward. Americans responded. Later innovations, such as credit cards, kept this initiative going. Some consumer oriented firms spend as much as 25% of their revenues on advertising and marketing. One of the reasons that so many Americans prefer private goods over public goods is that so many firms make a profit by convincing them to buy private goods. They know that income spent on public goods (through taxation) cannot be used to buy private goods.

  4. Something to remember, although the flower child of the 70’s has been demonized by the right for being lazy and dirty.

    In truth they grasped the reality of our planets finite resources and embraced the culture of Environmentalism on every level especially consumerism.

    Their Back-to-the-Land movement had them making absolutely everything they needed or wanted from scratch, they were gifted recyclers who believed in recreating and repurposing everything imaginable. Eventually the majority of them grew weary of the endless taunting by the right and ‘drank the koolaid’ or bought into the unbelieveable reality that the ride-up was never going to end.

  5. I find it funny that “Black Friday” (the symbolic point at which retailers apparently begin to turn a profit for the year) went from being a business survival marker to a marketing ploy.

    This whole naming of things to get consumers to buy got me thinking, if businesses want to take us of even more cash, perhaps they should just keep appropriating days.

    But instead of coming up with fun names and gimmicks, perhaps the marketers should just do the real business of marketing: making consumers feel inadequate so they buy things that will make them feel better. For example, how about:

    … Your Clothes Are Ugly Tuesday
    … Wow, You Own a Small TV Wednesday
    … Are Those Wrinkles Below Your Eyes? Here. Buy Some Cream Thursday
    … Your Cooking Is Terrible Saturday
    … No One Loves You Sunday
    “Take my wallet! Just make me happy through more stuff. Please!”

    — Michael

Comments are closed.