The disposable culture

by Rob Horning

12 January 2006


This report comes from and is filled with fun, frankly stated facts. American households spend on average nearly $1,500 a week, and their aggregate weekly outlay is greater than the yearly GDP of Finland. Why so much spending? Part of the success must be humbly claimed by the advertising business, whose desperate attempts to keep Americans in debt have worked like a charm. Says ad man Peter Francese: “The fact is we desperately need consumers willing to spend every dime they make and then some on items such as $50,000 SUVs and million-dollar vacation homes. If Americans ever started saving money like those prudent Japanese consumers, countless industries besides our own would be on the ropes.” Those foolish Japanese make the silly mistake of saving too much, thinking erroneously that there is something virtuous in it rather than consuming incessantly and driving demand for more disposable junk with which to deplete the planet’s resources. And isn’t marketing an admirable calling? Knowingly making sure people buy things that can’t really afford and don’t really need?

It’s also a good thing, Francese tells us, that American households are spending more, because there are fewer of them, and the new ones being generated are in the lower classes. The problem with these lower class people is that while ads are often as successful in making them want to spend as they are in making their betters, the poor don’t have anything—like overinflated real estate—to borrow on. “The danger going forward is that the formerly large middle class is shrinking, and we are depending on a relatively small fraction of affluent households to provide the bulk of future consumer spending growth. If the affluent, but aging, baby boomers begin saving more of their income for retirement, consumer spending could take a big hit. Also, consumer spending has kept growing in the recent past in large part because homeowners across the income spectrum have been able to borrow heavily against their homes’ rapidly rising value. That strategy may not work in the near future if home values flatten, interest rates rise and banks get more cautious about consumer lending.” The on-paper equity many have acquired during the housing bubble is what has allowed America to indulge itself with a negative savings rate. But if loan defaults trigger a rash of necessary home sales, the flooded market could see prices forced down and that equity vanishing into thin air.

Another threat to consumer spending: the fact that more women than men are going to college and acquiring the jobs such an education prepares you for. What’s the difference? Women make less money than men across the board, meaning the more women employed in high-income jobs, the less money distributed to them in wages that could fuel discretionary spending—the hidden costs of sexism.

It’s worth considering the many ways American culture commemorates waste and demonizes savings and thrift and while still pretending it’s a virtue. One of the reasons I’ve always been a skeptic about recycling is because it really serves as a rationalization on the personal level for systematic waste. It’s okay to drink 18 16-ounce bottles of Diet Coke because look! I’m recycling them! Recycling is an alibi, a gesture that brings peace of mind for particpating in the disposable culture. That’s not to argue that one shouldn’t recycle, but it does seem like a token gesture.

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