the season to consume


Lauren Greenfield

At the end of a session of looking at Lauren Greenfield’s work on consumerism nationally and globally, I felt the not so faint urge to vomit. I mean no disrespect to her work at all, but the content is overwhelming. Six year olds waiting for manicures, rich folks surrounded by mountains of stuff, new money in China following the path of Bling. Women who spend hundreds of dollars each month on beauty products, women who have dehumanizing plastic surgeries to look more like Photoshop perfection, little faux-boutiques with buying packages to train barely pre-teen girls in the consumerist “must be beautiful” lifestyle. And her subjects are mostly women. Maybe because of faintly sexist trends that still continue or because of bombastment with advertising, consumerist impulses somehow seem to center around women. I can’t say that I really understand the social forces behind any of this, but it hits me in the gut.

Lately, my reading has been trending in this direction since I picked them up for free (ain’t it amazing!) from the review pile of a local magazine. Falling Behind: How Rising Inequality Harms the Middle Class is a short, somewhat academic text about how people buy progressively larger and larger houses, feel impelled to buy more and more, not because of greed but because Stuff has always been a marker of social status, and in order to stay “middle class” or send your children to a good school, you must move into a relatively high priced neighborhood, and in order for a neighborhood to be considered better in the suburbs, the houses are likely bigger.

Basically, keeping up with the Joneses becomes bankrupting and unrealistic when media and internet technology, mass advertising of luxury items and the lives of the very rich set people’s sights much too high. Meanwhile, inflation-adjusted incomes haven’t dropped, but also haven’t increased at all for the poor or very much for most people except for the very rich, who’ve achieved huge gains (5-10 times more than what they used to make in the past), especially since Bush’s tax cuts. So savings rates drop as people go into debt trying to keep their social status by buying.

That might be a bit of simplification, but I think there’s a lot of truth in it. (If you want to read a dryer but shorter version of the book, the author gave recorded testimony to Congress.) I remember reading an article in the Times six or so years ago that pointed out the dropping rates of American scientific findings and publications in proportion to Europe and Asia’s. It does feel like most young people are talking about having fun and affording the next new gadget instead of about what they want to do with their lives, aspiring to uncover something about the world, to contribute to the world’s wellbeing, to be a scientist or teacher or policymaker. A few seem to fall into it, but most consider that “work,” which is distinct from that which is enjoyable.

Well, we’ve certainly “funned” our way into a giant hole. I read a fluffy but depressing book, Money For Nothing (I wouldn’t recommend it) about the lump sum industry, which preys on irresponsible lottery winners who’ve spent all their annual winnings and need a cash advance to sell significant portions of their future checks. Enough winners blow what they’ve won to fund an entire industry of many different competing companies.

I think it’s time to turn a critical eye to our economic system and consumerist desires. Will the costly things we plan to buy really improve our lives or increase our happiness? Is it so bad to rent and use what money we save on better food, time out with family and friends and charity? (After all, until you pay the last penny on your mortgage, buying is no different from renting, since the bank is your landlord, but you have to do all the maintenaince work.) Is an ownership society really what we should be aiming for?

And in light of the financial crisis, how can we base the measure of our national wellbeing on perpetual economic growth when infinite growth is obviously impossible? Economics, for all the theorizing and jargon is simply, after all, tied to finite physical resources. More pointedly, why is the measure of our national wellbeing how much profit corporations are making? I don’t know why this has never occurred to me, but it suddenly seems very obviously illogical. Hopefully, I will actually find some answers to these last questions in the book I’m starting now – The Great Delusion: A Mad Inventor, Death in the Tropics, and the Utopian Origins of Economic Growth. At least I hope to. For all the awesome freeness of the review pile, the quality of writing is unfiltered and unvouched for.

You’ll excuse my diatribes. For all that, I actually really enjoy the holiday season. Buying gifts for friends is a positive thing and it cheers me up to see many people walking briskly on the streets toting bags of things they will surprise other people with. Gifting is fun! I get to think about what my friends would like and mentally sift through all the enjoyable books and films I saw this year since I almost always give books, films and CD mixes. (Maybe I have it easy since I’m the type who only has a few close friends.)

I’ve also been trying to shift gears over the past couple of years. Instead of filling their houses with stuff and agonizing over cheaply made crap in a crowded mall, we spend money instead on time together – a movie, a concert, a hockey game… It’s still spending, but at least we’re getting something memorable out of it, a good time, an experience, not just the impending decision of where to put it or how to return it without being rude. Plus, if you manage to choose a local indie venue or organization, the money stays in the local economy instead of being siphoned off into some remote corporate office. (Refer to the chapter on Walmart What’s the Matter With Kansas?)

More importantly, the buying research time is spent finding an activity that you’d enjoy and then doing it with friends rather than looking at mass produced objects. It’s a good thing this is the season for cheesiness and sap, because I’m about to pop a corny one: recently I’ve realized that time is the most valuable thing you have. You can always figure out how to make a living or squeeze pennies out of your budget, but there’s no way you’re getting the past ten minutes back no matter how hard you try or how much you pay (so I hope I haven’t wasted it!). Before making the decision to take photography seriously, I gave serious thought to the argument that I could always complete my biology degree as planned and do photograpy on the side until I am ready to go full time.

It’s good advice for most people, safe advice, but some unexpected things have happened to me in the last few years and I don’t think we are all guaranteed a full life. Shit happens, life doesn’t go as planned and at the end of it there are no do-overs! So every moment that I have from now on, I want spent on building the life that I want. I don’t want to fall into the trap of putting it off and off and off, of thinking I have more time for one year after another until a decade passes and I am still nowhere except at the 9-5 that’s taking up all my energy. To come full circle back to consumerism, I don’t want to spend my time making money.

To end on a more entertaining note, a fitting article for the times: Living on a £1 a day.

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~ by Jin on December 20, 2008.

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