Book Synopsis

THE OVERSPENT AMERICAN

by Juliet B. Schor
Basic Books (Perseus Books), 1998

The good news is that we already know the bad news. Americans are spending more, saving less and working longer hours than ever before, all in a maddening effort to keep up with the Joneses. The bad news is that the harder we try to keep up with the Joneses, the farther behind we fall. In fact, says Schor, we're not keeping up with the same Joneses as the previous generation.

Back in the good old days when women stayed home, it was they and their backyard fence social circle that defined the family's reference group. The Joneses were people on the same street. Now that mom and dad both work, the family's reference group tends to be the workplace and is economically broader. The trendsetters, members of those groups who define the tastes, are going to be the wealthiest members of that reference group, and those tastes are likely to be far beyond the means of most of the members of that group.

And if you don't feel any such social spending pressure from your real-life friends, just turn on the television and look at your virtual friends. Look at all the neat stuff they've got! On average, America's television reference group will be way above average in earning and spending power.

So we "see-want-borrow-buy" and get sucked into the vortex of extravagant status spending. Madison Avenue studies how to push our buttons and they push our buttons shamelessly and frequently. They get at us through our children, changing fashions and updating technologies that simply must displace the old. In the end, we take on crippling personal debt and work ourselves sick, becoming strangers to our own family in the process; and at our most patholigical, we commit crimes in order to obtain the high-status items.

At the root of all this is our willingness to define everything in monetary terms which are more symbolic than real. Make this much and you're a success. Spending less than so much on a birthday gift is inappropriate. I've got the "big" Rolex so I'm more important. This causes us to spend extra for certain brands without getting a commensurate increase in quality. The nasty trick is that once you've got all the right labels in your closet, the trendsetters change their mind about what's cool and what's lame (after all, the point of their buying all that stuff was to distance themselves socially from YOU) and you go back to the store with your credit card.

Schor examines two strategies for dealing with this foolishness, downshifting (taking a cut in pay with a cut in hours, taking a lower-paying job, declining a promotion) and simple living (living on $6k to $15k a year, bulk buying, gardening, making your own clothes, making home economics a way of life). She's Director of Studies, Womens Studies at Harvard, so most of the case studies she quotes are from the womens point of view, but downshifters are roughly split down the middle male/female. They're also likely to be college educated. By the way, people who get demoted or laid off or downsized are also considered downshifted and are included in her studies.

In the end, Schor gives us nine suggestions which can help us break the cycle of status spending.

  1. CONTROLLING DESIRE: Become conscious of the tricks that cause you to spend irrationally and overcome those tendencies.
  2. MAKE EXCLUSIVITY UNCOOL: Attatch new and unflattering symbols to consumerism.
  3. VOLUNTARILY RESTRAIN COMPETITIVE SPENDING: Dollar limits on Christmas presents, etc.
  4. SHARING: Communal ownership of certain items like lawnmowers, gardening equipment, childrens toys, etc. Schor recommends setting up lending institutions on the model of public libraries.
  5. BECOME AN EDUCATED CONSUMER: Know the real cost of what you're buying. Make rational purchasing decisions.
  6. AVOID "RETAIL THERAPY:" Don't spend money to reward yourself or make yourself feel better.
  7. DECOMMERCIALIZE THE RITUALS: Ten thousand dollars for a wedding? Are you insane!?
  8. MAKING TIME: Is time spent working to make money to buy a meal equivalent to time spent cooking yourself a meal? Analyze those trade-offs and consider doing things for yourself.
  9. THE NEED FOR COORDINATED INTERVENTION: Schor recommends taxes on luxury and name-brand items to discourage us from buying them.

She sums up with assurances that changing our national lifestyle will not ruin the economy, citing the Netherlands as her prime example. She says the decrease in consumption will be offset by the middle class worker's willingness to work fewer hours, demanding a smaller slice of the employment pie as well as a smaller slice of the consumer pie in exchange for more time for himself and his family.

Well, maybe.

Your Host comments:

Comparing the economies of the Netherlands and the U.S. is like comparing a mouse to a mastadon. It just ain't the same animal. Although, I will concede it's probably the best modern comparison the Author could have come up with.

Points 1,3,5,6,7 and 8 can be lumped together in one point labelled "Become an Educated Consumer and Don't Fall for the BS." These are all things you can do on your own to protect yourself economically from the Marketing Wolves. These measures have the advantage of not requiring legislation or even the cooperation of neighbors who might disagree with you.

Point 2 recommends associating consumerism with pathetic ostentation, inventing a whole new symbolic vocabulary to insult those who buy high-priced goods. Sounds good on the surface, and we've already got a model system to give us some idea as to the degree of success we can expect from this strategy. I'm sure there are plenty of old Soviet propagandists who know every bend in this road.

Point 4, communal ownership of lawnmowers, leaf-blowers, gardening equipment, snow-blowers and so on. The lending library system. I doubt if community storehouses of such equipment would be any less effective or any more efficient (or even any cheaper) than an equipment rental business. I know of instances where a couple of relatives partnered on a bass boat or a gas lawn edger, and there was always friction over who was responsible for repairs, who broke what, who bought gas last. Try getting fifty people on your street to decide on what kind of snowblower to buy. Plus, on the day YOU need a snowblower, so does everybody else. Seriously, lotsa luck. You can try it if you want, but there's no way in hell it's going to work.

Point 9, Schor suggests "coordinated intervention," in the form of taxes on luxury items. That's not going to play well in America, especially to General Motors, makers of Cadillac and contributors to political campaigns. Companies would certainly revolt at the idea of their sales taxes being related directly to the desirability of their company logo. Likewise, many companies would probably prefer that some government agency not have the power to decide arbitrarily that the sales tax on this pair of britches will be double the sales tax on that pair of equivalent britches.

I'm not suggesting luxury taxes wouldn't work. Certainly the behavior of us human cattle can be manipulated by taxation. I do however question the right of government to use taxation to impose the economic values of the downshifter (or of Dr. Schor) on the rest of us.

And paradoxically, for those caught in the vortex of status spending, the tax-related boost in price might make the luxury item even more desirable. In addition to that, the purchaser assuages his guilt by paying the extra "status tax." If our present problems are caused by our irrational purchasing motivations, introducing an artificial, fluid and arbitrary status tax isn't going to make things any better.

The Overspent American is a nice literature review about our spending habits and motivations tarted out for the mass audience. Reading the whole book might help you organize your thoughts concerning your own consumer values. The author's personal-level solutions are more workable than her suggestions for larger scale coordinated social action.


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