By Beth Griffin
NEW YORK (CNS) — The consumer culture in the United States, though hobbled by the current economic crisis, has the potential to re-emerge as a positive force if it embraces new values and balances the inequities caused by the global redistribution of wealth, said panelists at a Sept. 15 forum in New York.
The comments were made during a fast-paced discussion called “Consuming America: What Have We Done to Ourselves?” The event, attended by more than 300 people, was held at Jesuit-run Fordham University.
The panelists generally agreed with an oft-quoted statistic that consumer spending accounts for 70 percent of the gross national product of the United States.
Lizabeth Cohen, who chairs the history department at Harvard University, said the country’s emergence as “a consumers’ republic” can be traced to the period following the Second World War. As the nation’s manufacturing converted from war production to the mass production of consumer goods, there was cultural encouragement to spend money to thwart a return to economic depression, she said.
Cohen said ownership of a newly built single-family home in the suburbs was a defining ideal, one that was equated with improving the lives of the owners, their families and their community.
She cited magazine advertising from the 1950s that portrayed consumption not as a personal indulgence, but as an act for the common good. She said the rationale was “As everyone benefits economically, everyone will be on a more even footing.”
She recalled that President George W. Bush urged Americans to shop in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks to “prove to terrorists we are not bowed.”
George Ritzer, a professor in the sociology department at the University of Maryland in College Park, said consumption and production cannot be divorced from one another. He said “prosumption,” the combination of production and consumption, has been the predominant model in American society.
Ritzer said the U.S. government bears a tremendous responsibility for consumerism. “It has become and remains our duty to America to consume,” he said.
“There is a fundamental contradiction here,” he added. “The government appears to abhor the causes of recession, but cannot accept lower taxes, so it has to stimulate the economy.”
Ritzer said the country will return to hyper-consumption, where consumption is seen as more important than production. “Wal-Mart has replaced General Motors,” he said.
He predicted a global redistribution of wealth, saying, “Greater global equality is welcome, but new inequalities are emerging.”
He said hope for the future of the American economy lies in the creativity and ingenuity of the people and the possibility of changing values. He cautioned, “I’m never optimistic about values changing on their own. It would be opposed by the government, producers, retailers and consumers. Values will change when we are forced to change them, as by the global redistribution of wealth.”
Vincent Miller, associate professor of theology at the University of Dayton in Ohio, said the structures and practices of contemporary America prevent people from considering the relationship of the economy to the common good.
He wondered aloud, “Why do Catholics, with their rich tradition of Catholic social thought — the common good, solidarity, participation, the dignity of labor, preferential option for the poor — get along so well with what some have called the ‘tschotschke’ economy?”
Miller said Americans have no idea of what is their fair share of consumable goods. “Global commodity chains deprive us of any feedback concerning the conditions of production of what we consume,” he said. “We have no idea what consequences our choices have for the environment or the laborers that produce our goods.”
He said because the things individuals need are both cheap and abundant, people have a hard time imagining what tradeoffs are possible or required on a societal scale. “Tax cuts, investing in our deteriorating infrastructure, investment in education — we don’t see any connection or need to choose among them,” he said.
Miller said the single-family home “is in some ways the primordial space of consumer culture. It is a space where only a very narrow range of moral obligations can appear, and responsibility is easily diminished to one’s own and one’s immediate family’s life projects.”
Miller said the market system is a very powerful force as long as it is serving a broader goal. He said consumption can be seen as an act that creates common good. “Public spending produces public goods that are shared by more than one person.”
Cohen said the economic crisis holds opportunities for grass-roots promotion of a different set of values. As an example, she said the single-family housing idealized in the post-War period led to inequalities in services such as public education and transportation and in energy consumption. A post-recession alternative might encourage more density in residential living, more attractive rental options and increased public investment in mass transit.
“This doesn’t change the rules of the game,” Cohen said. “We can tweak things so we can be more beneficial and less destructive.”
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