Culture of consumption

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Mark Brown wishes his clients would think more about the future. But when deciding whether to buy a new Chevy truck or to set aside $300 a month for retirement, they more often opt for a pickup over peace of mind.

Mr. Brown, owner of the Brown Insurance Agency in Biddeford, Maine, says even people in this blue-collar town, who have struggled to make ends meet for most of the past century, have little instinct to save.

"Unemployment is higher and incomes are lower, but they still want to use the money now," says Brown, "and they can't foresee a day they might be sorry."

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It was against this backdrop of day-to-day consumer behavior that Brown viewed President Bush's successful push to cut Americans' taxes by $350 billion over the next 10 years.

And it was with disbelief that Brown listened to Bush consistently say the tax cut would, first and foremost, allow consumers to go to malls, department stores, and car dealerships - and spend.

"My fear is we'll continue to borrow and borrow and spend," says Brown, who expects to use the $800 he'll receive this summer in child tax credits to pay for his oldest son's college tuition. "It's not part of our political culture now to tell people to tighten their belts."

And yet many experts believe the call to spend might be sounding increasingly hollow. With the US boldly deciding the fate of nations overseas, and assuming record levels of debt at home, the temperament of the nation, say experts, seems more suited to a message of fiscal prudence.

"As a country, we also have an ethic of frugality," says Robert Bixby, director of the Concord Coalition, a nonprofit group that advocates balanced budgets. "Americans always feel you should pay your bills, and I think this tax cut was pretty much forced on them."

Without calling for an immediate downshift in spending, some observers are growing increasingly critical of what they describe as the nation's knee-jerk culture of consumption.

Business and government have come to portray consumption as a panacea for a variety of public ills. Consumer-confidence data, which many economists say are at best ambiguous, are now examined like tea leaves by marketers and media.

More important, the spending boosterism has ensnared, in part, a record number of Americans in bankruptcy and debt.

In response, experts are reexamining the context in which the nation's consumer culture was born, and asking whether it might be time to shape a more balanced ethic of saving and spending in America.

"This pattern isn't sustainable even in the short term," says Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a liberal think tank. "There's a lot of anxiety [among the public] over how consumers are spending their money."

For the most part, they are spending too much, say some experts. Consider the drop in Americans' personal savings. In the 1980s, consumers saved about 10 percent of their disposable income. Last year, they tucked away only 3.7 percent.

One consequence: Personal debt has soared. Consumers owed an average of $8,940 in credit-card debt last year, up from $3,275 in 1992. Overall, they owe more than $1.7 trillion in credit-card bills, up from $1.1 trillion in 1995.

Partly as a result of tax cuts to fuel spending, the federal government's debt also is growing dramatically. Between fiscal years 2003 and 2005, say observers, the government will accumulate about $400 billion in added debt.

The endemic fiscal risk-taking probably exceeds many Americans' level of comfort, say experts. "It's all very disquieting for people who have traditionally believed in the importance of balancing their accounts," says Mr. Bixby.

Western notions of frugality and fiscal prudence have held a significant place in American intellectual thought from the 17th century to present day. Adherents of the ethic often make their voices heard on the public stage in cycles. Many observers cite the 1992 presidential campaign of Ross Perot, fueled largely by public distress over government debt, as one of the most prominent contemporary examples.

This temperament of austerity intensifies during conflict. During the Vietnam War, when President Lyndon Johnson promised America could produce both guns and butter, the antiwar movement still took a strong anticonsumption turn.

"During war, people often don't want business as usual," says Lawrence Glickman, a professor of US economic history at the University of South Carolina.

Even during peace, Americans have never easily accepted the ethic of consumption. In a recent study of American literature, Professor Glickman found very few examples of writers who celebrated spending money and buying products.

"You would think this would be a great American genre," says Glickman. "But there's a sense in America that consumption couldn't be an unmitigated good."

And yet the idea that steady and even rising spending by consumers is vital to the well-being of the nation has been generally accepted by many Americans for more than 50 years.

"The idea that we have recessions because of insufficient consumer demand still has a vise-grip on the way Americans think about the economy," says Stephen Moore, an economist at the Cato Institute, a free-market think tank. "Almost every newspaper article you read about the economy implies that consumers have to keep spending or the economy will sink."

Experts point to the theories of early 20th-century economist John Maynard Keynes to explain contemporary America's infatuation with consumer behavior.

Keynes said that the economic depressions that rocked the US and Europe during the 1930s resulted from a lack of consumer demand. To keep the economy strong, he argued, governments should stoke consumption.

Once the nation's factories were at full strength following World War II, US officials began implementing Keynes's theories, shaping a consumer culture in which families were capable of buying all that American factories could produce.

The new era of consumption, say experts, grew out of a coordinated effort on the part of leaders across a broad swath of American life, from Pennsylvania Avenue to Madison Avenue.

"Various groups in power and authority came together around the notion that they could build a prosperous economy based on the idea of mass consumption," says Lizabeth Cohen, a Harvard University historian and author of "A Consumers' Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America." "It was a strategic, concerted effort to get people to buy."

Spending as patriotic duty

Part of the consumer revolution required businesses to convince Depression-wary consumers that spending was not entirely selfish. Even then, many did so by arguing that consumers had a patriotic duty to open their pocketbooks.

Professor Cohen found a post-war bridal-magazine ad, for example, with text that reads like a primer for new consumers. "It tells the reader that when you buy things, you not only get the material goods you want, but you also help the nation," says Cohen.

As tools for investment became more sophisticated, Americans devoted more of their income to buying goods and services. Vital assets like common stock, mutual funds, and real estate have rendered traditional means of saving unfashionable.

Consumers have had little reason to let money sit in the bank, when buying a house enabled many to accumulate thousands of dollars in additional wealth.

"We had the peculiar situation when people would go further and further into debt [to buy a home], and at the same time their wealth was increasing," says Michael Lehmann, an economic historian at the University of San Francisco.

Many families have drawn on home equity to finance a slew of spending over the past decade. Since 2001, refinancing has put about $300 billion into the economy, almost all of which consumers have spent, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association.

But the strength of the economy's cash-growing tools appears to be waning. The stock market has flagged, and home values are already falling in some overheated markets, thereby cutting off most consumers' primary source of extra cash.

Many experts thought the housing market would have begun to drop by now, prompting Americans to save more, according to Mr. Baker.

But without that kind of drain on wealth, Americans seem to have little instinct to voluntarily cap their spending. According to a recent Monitor/TIPP poll, 27 percent of Americans plan to spend the money they get from the new tax cut, compared to 18 percent who will save.

Part of the reason might be hesitancy on the part of political leaders to encourage fiscal prudence. Washington has shied away from uttering anything negative about consumption ever since many Americans bristled at Jimmy Carter's 1979 address to the nation, in which he said: "Too many of us now tend to worship selfindulgence and consumption."

But what if Americans cut spending?

Economists disagree on what effect a reduction of spending would have on the economy. Many argue that it would be devastating.

"If consumers were to reduce spending for a sustained period of time, very little about that would be OK," says Milton Ezrati, senior economist with the investment firm Lord, Abbett & Co. in Jersey City, N.J. "Business would cut back spending, it would feed on itself, and that's where recessions come from."

Others suggest that the overall economy would benefit from a sizable uptick in consumer savings, because businesses would be the primary beneficiaries.

"With saving and investment, there are many more mechanisms for expanding growth than short-term shopping sprees," says Moore.

Mark Brown says he does not want to see people stop spending money. Indeed, after the terrorist attacks in 2001, Brown made a special trip to New York's Chinatown just to help support the economy.

But every year he sees clients go into serious debt because of a failure to save. He says he needs to work harder at convincing them to plan for the future.

"My job is to help people prepare for the unexpected," he says, "and we all need to do a better job of that."

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