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For American consumers, how much is enough?

Does self-restraint turn us into a bunch of low-expectation surrender monkeys?

By / May 18, 2007



Portland, Ore.

Imagine this: You drive to a neighborhood service station expecting to pay sky-high prices, but instead an attendant walks up and says, "We're having an unadvertised special. All gas is free today but only until we run out."

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What's your plan of action? Some people might simply fill up and drive on to the next errand like any other day.

Others would probably race home and come back with a load of empty gas cans and other storage containers. Would you call your friends and alert them to the bonanza?

This scenario is a compelling way to think about how much an average person needs to feel satisfied every day in 21st-century America.

Replace the gas station with a shoe store, home electronics outlet, or furniture showroom. It would be a great experiment for a college psychology class. Create a pile of goods, point it out to random bystanders, and say, "Take what you want." How long would the pile last?

But talking about this issue in schools can be tricky. Collective attitudes have changed a lot during the past 50 years.

When I was in third grade, the impacts of the Great Depression and World War II were still vivid in the national memory. And whenever our teachers, or any adult, had conversations with children, they often doled out advice about basing desires on practical needs, not being wasteful, and never asking for a second helping until you've finished what's on your plate.

These days, however, anyone who promotes such notions in a classroom might be accused of advancing an anticapitalist agenda that's secretly attempting to indoctrinate students with ideas meant to limit consumption and stifle economic growth.

I understand the dynamics of competitive commerce. I know the importance all manufacturers place on grabbing a big market share. And, as a consumer, I sincerely appreciate the vast quantities of material goods that surround me in every store I patronize.

What I want consumers to do every time they head off on a shopping trip is ask themselves this question: How much is enough? If you had an unlimited budget, is there a stopping point for the buying spree? Or does your satisfaction come from the acquisition process?

I would never presume to lecture anyone on lifestyle priorities or estate building. But for a free society to endure, I think some manner of self-restraint in everyone's economic activities is a positive element. Or is that wrong? Does self-restraint just make us into a bunch of low-expectation surrender monkeys?

While you've been reading this, it's possible gas prices in your area inched up again. Solving our energy needs and other resource issues is going to require a long-term effort and plenty of cooperation. Everyone wants something, and we all have different ideas about how much is enough.

Finding solutions will be really tough if too many of us are saying, "I want it all. And then some."

Jeffrey Shaffer writes about media, American culture, and personal history.

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