Inevitable Consumption

by Rob Horning

18 October 2007

Was the housing bubble symptomatic of the infantile mentality that Benjamin Barber, in his recent book, insists that shopping-mad Americans have had foisted upon their selves? Or is there a different lesson to draw?

For the past few years, the American housing market had been operating in the realm of pure fantasy. In a climate of low interest rates and unrestrained optimism about real estate, credit came too cheaply to eager buyers—some whose dubious credit histories didn’t deter them from dreaming of owning brand-new suburban mansions. All the easy money, doled out in an ever more elaborate series of mortgage products that deferred the pain of payment until some unheeded future, ended up inflating prices on homes across the country.

But this inflation didn’t really bother anyone: for homeowners, it simply meant that they had more equity in their homes against which they could borrow, fueling the purchase of home improvements, flat-screen TVs, SUVs and $3-a-gallon gas. And those who hadn’t yet gotten in on the home-owning bonanza, loans were even easier to come by, as the steady rise in prices (and the fees associated with mortgages) along with the diversification of hedging tools available (the collateralized debt obligations now notorious in the business press) made lenders complacent about risk.

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Benjamin R. Barber

How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole

(W. W. Norton)

So in the most decadent stages of the housing bubble, brokers were arranging loans for borrowers who didn’t even have to disclose their income. All you needed for a loan, it seemed, was the impulse to get one and buy something. Collectively, the nation had ceased to save altogether—the savings rate went negative and stayed there. Americans consumed more than they earned as a country, deferring the resulting deficit to some as yet to be determined point in the future, when someone else’s children would have to worry about it. Buying oversize houses beyond their fiscal reach was perhaps the best emblem of this; irresponsible consumerism written as large as possible.

So when interest rates rose and defaults mounted along with the supply of unsold homes, credit suddenly dried up throughout the financial system, and consumers were abruptly awakened from their carefree dreams. Some tried to cling to their delusions, petulantly attached, apparently, to the belief that the ever-upward spiral of home prices was some constitutional right. One morning on NPR, real-estate “experts” could be heard complaining that the credit pendulum has swung too far too quickly: A few months ago loans were too easy to come by; now they are too hard—bankers now have the temerity to verify borrowers’ incomes.

This was accompanied with the usual trumpet-sounding about home ownership as the basis of the American dream, and what about the families? If a middle-class family can’t fulfill its definitive dream of home ownership, then why the hell do they even have an America for? Listeners were then invited to feel sorry for the families that couldn’t afford median-priced homes in bubble-inflated markets, with no indication given that the lax lending helped foster the high prices in the first place. Instead the implicit prescription—lower rates, easier credit—was more of the infection that led to the disease in the first place.

Consumerism, however, is different from prosperity, and not necessarily a consequence of it. First and foremost, consumerism is an ideology, a state of mind that prioritizes shopping over other possible activities and regards choices among products in a marketplace as the corollary of personal liberty—think of Sailor Ripley, Nicolas Cage’s character in Wild at Heart, who wore his snakeskin jacket as “a symbol of my independence and belief in personal freedom.”

Those seeking to justify such a course—to argue for rate cuts at the Fed, to argue against restrictions on lending, to argue that there’s no such thing as a housing bubble (since, some seem to believe, homes are preordained to always increase in value)—will often offer this chain of reasoning: When the middle class feels as though it can’t afford the half-a-million dollar houses for sale in the tony suburbs where they feel sufficiently coddled, they become discouraged about economic prospects generally (just look  at the consumer sentiment index’s recent performance) and curb their discretionary spending on luxury consumer goods (like new-construction housing itself). (see “U.S. consumers’ sentiment weakens”
by Ruth Mantell, MarketWatch, 28 September 07)

This downturn in consumption would then spread throughout the economy, bringing on a recession that would harm everyone. We are already seeing some of this in the ways local governments are being affected by the loss of housing-related revenues, as “Housing Slump Strains Budgets Of States, Cities” points out (Wall Street Journal, 5 September 2007).  Lower housing prices mean lower tax assessments, and fewer homes sold mean fewer taxes paid. Fewer housing starts mean fewer associated fees collected. It’s clear to see how many people have an interest in prolonging housing bubbles and how deeply perverse the incentives can be, as long as people believe the inflation in housing can be contained to housing, where it is offset by generous income tax breaks and the happy possibility of those home equity loans.

But to those who remained on the sidelines of the real estate frenzy—to those who are skeptical about assuming massive debt loads to speculate on real estate values or maintain a competitive level of conspicuous consumption—hearing about housing woes threatening consumption is just a happy bonus. Already reveling in schadenfreude, such skeptics—like, well, me most of the time—aren’t too troubled by the thought of people shopping less. The housing industry’s current state seems less a crisis than a long awaited correction, restoring some kind of sanity and moral justice to the economy. In my more thoughtless and fatuous moments, I tell myself, See, that’s what people get for wanting more than they can truly afford, for having a juvenile perspective on economic circumstances and putting their impulsiveness in front of prudence.

It’s been very tempting at times to hope that credit will dry up altogether, forcing a shift in values away from consumption, for which there will no longer be any funds. But follow that logic to its conclusion and what I appear to be yearning for is a return of the Great Depression, when people were forced to find other ways to occupy themselves than shopping (and working) by doing things like standing in a queue all day hoping for a cheese handout or a chance to perform some day labor, or perhaps staying at home to boil wallpaper to extract nutrients from the paste.

Material deprivation, rampant unemployment, and generalized insecurity are probably not worth wishing for. Something I find myself struggling to remember is that increased consumption is different from consumerism. Increased consumption is a macroeconomic fact inseparable from any kind of growth, even if it is restricted to population alone. (If there are more people, there needs to be more consumption, obviously.) And prosperity seems like a pretty stupid thing to root against; there’s no contrarian or underdog angle to rooting for recessions.

Consumerism, however, is different from prosperity, and not necessarily a consequence of it. First and foremost, consumerism is an ideology, a state of mind that prioritizes shopping over other possible activities and regards choices among products in a marketplace as the corollary of personal liberty—think of Sailor Ripley, Nicolas Cage’s character in Wild at Heart, who wore his snakeskin jacket as “a symbol of my independence and belief in personal freedom.” Consumerism is the belief that the acquisition of more things equals a fuller life, that personal aspirations are best understood in terms of collecting more and better things, that who we are is best defined by the things we own and how we choose to display them. Behind this is a subtler but more fundamental set of prerequisite beliefs, that the individual is sovereign and the pinnacle of human dignity is the expression of rational choices in ever more elaborate markets, yielding a comprehensive sense of selfhood made material in our possessions.

It’s a mind-set peculiar to modern consumers, but it can seem a natural by-product of the exchange process itself, especially if you accept the commonsense view that we fashion our own relationships to the market, deciding for ourselves how much energy to invest in acquiring collections of goods, keeping up with trends, and so forth. But if you believe that, then you’d have to conclude that consumerism’s current supremacy is a matter of collective preference. You’d expect, then, that people would be happier in a society that offered more choice, but survey data don’ t seem to bear that out, as Robert Lane exhaustively demonstrates in The Loss of Happiness in Market Democracies (Yale UP, 2001). Behavioral psychology—explored in Barry Schwartz’s The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less—has suggested that many people are traumatized by too many options, burdened by insignificant decisions (HarperCollins, 2004). And anecdotally this seems true; we take the choices the market has brought us for granted, but not the accompanying stress they provoke, the crushing responsibility of living up to the promises that different goods seem to embody, as developed by the ever more sophisticated advertising industry.

This disjunction, between what market ideology leads us to expect—joy spreading spontaneously with the irresistible march of strip malls and retail chains—and the stark reality of a populace that is increasingly depressed and indebted makes consumerism seem a ripe subject for criticism. But what seems to offend middlebrow critics about consumerism is its supposed vulgarity, the tackiness it allows lower-class consumers to express and visually pollute the country with. Benjamin Barber, an occasional Atlantic contributor, is one such writer, and in his recent book Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole, (Norton, 2007) he has worked himself up into a lathered state of vituperative outrage about consumerism and the way it, in his view, infantilizes Americans.

Like Christopher Lasch or Allan Bloom, Barber, whose perhaps best known for his clash-of-civilizations study Jihad vs. McWorld, is an august, Olympian social commentator of the old school, prone to sweeping generalizations that transform the sorts of zeitgeist items found in newspaper lifestyle sections—odd poll findings, trend stories, accounts of youth culture, tossed-off Tom Friedman columns—into all-encompassing pronouncements on the shambolic state of civilization. His first sentence in Consumed gives a fair impression of the lofty tone he seeks to adopt: “In these paltry times of capitalism’s triumph, as we slide into consumer narcissism, Shakespeare’s seven ages of man are in danger of being wasted away by lifelong puerility.”

Balancing citations from paternalist social critics from the left (Juliet Schor, Naomi Klein) and right (Joseph Epstein, Daniel Bell), Barber seems to seek nonpartisan grounds from which a moderate, centrist charge against consumerism could be launched. His critique lambastes consumerism for fostering dumbed-down consumers with infantile expectations that all desires can be satisfied quickly and easily. Building on the idea elaborated, for instance, in John Kenneth Galbraith’s The Affluent Society, that the industrial overproduction resulting from unprecedented economic growth must be sopped up by unnecessary consumption, Barber argues that consumers are lured into frivolity by implied promises of eternal youth: “Grown-ups in the First World who are currently responsible for 60 percent of the worlds consumption, and with vast disposable income but few needs, will have to be enticed into shopping. Inducing them to remain childish and impetuous in their taste helps ensure that they will buy the global market goods designed for indolent and prosperous youth.”

Equipped with tyrannical false needs, the populace ends up making foolish political choices, permitting government and communities to be gutted as the public sphere is subdivided into uncooperative private-household fiefdoms. As citizens grow more complacent in their solipsism, the very future of participatory democracy is threatened—why, they might even tolerate a dictator as long as they still could go to Wal-Mart and purchase their cheap, childish gewgaws.

Barber’s method is basically accretive; under some general rubrics he tends to compile observations and restate his same basic thesis with ever more rebarbative rhetoric. Throughout, though he occasionally writes some ludicrous sentences—“ecstasy, like speed (the eponymous drug for people who think they are cool), is a specialty of the young”; “the child’s easy pleasure ... in playing with his own excrement was simply another (largely indistinguishable) example of the kind of reductive pleasure an adult might find in playing the flute in an Afro-Caribbean rock band”— he offers few arguments I would disagree with and articulates many I’ve probably covered in these columns—the problems with convenience as a value, with mistaking brands for personality traits, with championing individualism as an end in itself. He is especially lucid on how consumerism legitimates itself, drawing on classic Frankfurt School arguments about how the culture industry manufactures its ubiquity and authority.

But in Consumed, these points about consumerism are expressed so stridently in such concentrated form, they seem not convincing but repellant, self-satisfied with their outrage at philistinism and shallowness. Throughout Consumed,  Barber repeatedly denounces the sorts of lives people are actually living and misrepresents the complexity of most people’s relationship to consumer society while advocating an arid ideal of communitarian responsibility that sounds about as fun as my 11th grade civics class—which was not, I should add, an elective.

People seek to participate in consumer culture because it can generate communities just as easily as it can seem to dismantle them, and the private uses to which they put the goods on offer may have nothing to do with the repulsive way in which they are marketed, and even if they do, the collective wishes expressed there are not entirely vulgar and demoralizing; they offer ways to imagine fulfillment that are far more diverse than the oppressively tight-knit communities of the past would permit. In a mass, globalized society, consumerism, for better or for worse, fulfills the former functions of community, offering a culture to participate in on a scale that seems relevant. Barber’s is just the sort of book that drives one to seek refuge in such notions as the ones I’ve just rehearsed (which I’ve mocked plenty of times before), which restore some dignity to ordinary people in the face of totalizing arguments about contemporary frivolity and our inevitable idiocy.

What makes Consumed so off-putting is the way Barber blends in his value judgments about the “puerility” of culture as if they were just more pieces of supporting evidence. To him, it’s so self-evident that Shakespeare and the symphony are inherently superior to supermarket tabloids and rock-and-roll noise that the existence of the latter are clearly proof of a sick society. But this reduces his moral argument about consumerism to a matter of taste, which ironically has the effect of endorsing one of consumerism’s fundamental tenets, that curatorial tastefulness is an authentically deep personal accomplishment. And his taste specifically seems to be for the idealized small town life of 1950s TV shows—a fantasy creation of the consumerism he condemns.

For instance, Barber rails against fast food as destroying the former appreciation we had for preparing meals and eating deliberately. If we now flock to fast food restaurants, though, it’s not merely because we’re gluttonous ninnies under the sway of marketing; it’s also because we’ve started to move away from the domestic arrangements that once prevailed, and fewer housewives exist to do the work. The loss of the traditional family seems to lurk behind much of Barber’s critique, supplying the set of assumptions with which he hopes to underscore his outrage, as when he denounces “antichild zealots” and urban “childfree environments.” The temerity of some women, to not have children!

But the subprime-mortgage mess belies the idea that the crazed consumption Barber condemns is antithetical to traditional assumptions about family. If the mounting defaults have lessons to teach us about consumerism, it’s not necessarily that Americans are imprudent, impulsive, or infantile. Rather it shows how the traditional assumptions that Barber tacitly draws on also script the fantasy that led borrowers astray, the idea that homeownership is necessary to legitimize a family, and a home is the proper place to stage the well-ordered domestic life depicted in the media and the marketing materials Barber castigates. Consumerism doesn’t undermine traditional values; it co-opts them and turns them into selling tools or products themselves, which is why that can’t serve as a sound basis for a critique.

The noisiest aspects of the culture industry remind us of all that is easy to find repugnant about consumerism: the obsession with brands and youth, the suggestions that you owe it to yourself to be selfish and narcissistic. But much of what we deride as consumerist turns out to be the everyday life of people we don’t understand or want to belittle. To distinguish between inevitable consumption and consumerism, between what is necessary and what is frivolous—the basis upon which to restrict growth and develop alternative values—one must eventually move beyond taste to something ostensibly objective. Perhaps it’s inevitable that serious critics of consumerism inevitably become environmentalists.


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