The Daily Quote: The Mass Consumption Society

>> Monday, August 4, 2008

A couple of months ago, I began reading The Poverty of Affluence: A Psychological Portrait of the American Way of Life by Paul L. Wachtel. A lady on my van asked what I was reading, and I showed her the book. I told her it was 25 years old as it was first published in 1983. To which she said, "Oh, that's outdated. Everything's changed." I didn't say anything in response, but I thought to myself, "No, it hasn't." I offer the following passage as evidence.

"Any attempt to cut down on consumer spending for the sake of increasing public expenditures might easily plunge the economy into stagnation or recession. Even maintaining current levels of consumer living standards would not suffice to do the job. It is precisely the wanting and striving for improvement in private living standards that forms the solid basis of American prosperity. Only if the so-called private opulence increases still further can we hope to overcome public poverty. The question is not one or the other; it is both or none." (George Katona, The Mass Consumption Society, p. 65, 1964)
Paul Wachtel follows (p. 58):
"The idea of a steady-state economy--not to mention one in which we maintain a comfortable standard of living even while cutting back on production in order to conserve resources or reduce pollution--seems completely ruled out in such a view. We can't decide to spend on schools or social welfare efforts instead of video games and car stereos and a new wardrobe every season. Unless we make and buy the latter--and keep dreaming up new things to make and buy and want--we won't have any schools or hospitals at all. Growth, in this view, is the furthest thing from irrationality; it is the only way to have anything at all.

However accurate this may be as a description of our economic system as currently constituted, there is, I would like to suggest, another quite different source of our preoccupation with growth, both in economics and more generally in our culture. Our obsession with growth is the expression of neither inexorable laws of human nature nor inexorable laws of economics. It is a reflection of particular features of our culture, deriving from particular historical circumstances, which in turn derive from a distinct set of prior choices. It is a cultural and psychological phenomenon, reflecting our present way of organizing and giving meaning to our lives. Moreover, whatever value it once had in promoting a basis for a substantial degree of affluence and autonomy, it is now maladaptive."
The above applies to American society today as much, if not more, today as it did 25 years ago. Today we build sports stadiums for privately owned professional sports teams with tax payer money rather than spending it on public infrastructure.

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