Myths about the consumer

The American consumer is back in action, credit cards flapping, leading us out of the recession. Or so we are told by the economists. One poll finds ''consumer confidence'' at its highest point since 1972, and consumers have the debts to prove it - up $42.3 billion in 1983, compared with a mere $18.3 billion in '82. In fact, the Wall Street Journal has felt obliged to warn in a headline: ''Consumers May Be Becoming a Little Too Confident.'' Just for the record, a reader assumes - then on with the recovery!

Economists tend to approve of conspicuous consumption. Moralists tend to deplore it. But both agree on the central point: Americans, if nothing else, are talented, passionate consumers. We may no longer produce goods the way we used to. But by golly, nobody in the world can give us lessons in their consumption. We are the most dedicated, the most single-minded shoppers civilization has ever known. We are, in fact, The Consumer Society.

A new anthology, ''The Culture of Consumption,'' edited by Richard Wightman Fox and T.J. Jackson Lears, implies by its title that consuming has been a national distinguishing trait from at least 1880 on. The documentation is plentiful. A consumer of 1906 frets about the ''imperative duties galore'' imposed upon him by insistent advertisers. Alas, he feels helpless. If he does not buy, he complains, the world ''finds me wanting.''

We are all, it seems, ''manipulated'' into being ''acquisitive'' - the nasty words appear again and again in these pages.

The familiar argument, almost as old as consuming itself, simplifies to this: Americans are superficial people who try to create the vulgar equivalent of aristocracy by improving their ''standard of living'' - by more than ''keeping up with the Joneses.'' I am what I buy - this is the law said to govern our calculated purchases of the clothes, automobiles, houses (and addresses) esteemed by our peers. Or as one of the essayists puts it, the goods we acquire become ''the unacknowledged reference points for the accounts we give of ourselves.''

Who is exempt from this shallow, posturing materialism? Only the professors, it might appear, who write essays about the awful vice. And of course they're not free from the curse, either. Intellectuals, it is no secret, have their own fads, too, and they can become very concerned about displaying the correct consumer credentials for their friends. Only, so as not to be mistaken for crude materialists, they think of themselves as connoisseurs rather than consumers. It is an irresistible expression of good taste - don't you see? - when they buy fine wools, imported cheeses, or crystal glass. Every purchase, from the Bach in their record cabinet to the bay leaves in their spice cabinet, bespeaks their passion for quality.

Are all these fastidious affidavits of style any less an act of conspicuous consumption? Lewis Lapham, the editor of Harper's, has observed that some readers ''expect their magazines to clothe them with opinions in the way that Halston or Bloomingdale's dresses them.'' As if to confirm Lapham's suspicion, Christopher Lasch, one of the contributors to the same issue, concludes, in effect, that elitists are entitled to manipulate mass consumers toward a preferred style of consumership. ''We know more about the good life,'' he writes , ''than they do.''

It is a tense statement. Highbrow, middlebrow, or lowbrow - whether the object of consumption is a shiny new car or an opera ticket - one senses a certain anxiety among American consumers.

In spite of our reputation, we are really inept at the pleasures of consuming. We worry about what other people will think. If we live too modestly, will they think we're failures? If we live too gracefully, will they think we're snobs?

In a democracy every purchase is like casting a public vote.

And we're such puritans! If we buy a gorgeous red sports car, it has to be because of its gas mileage. If we buy a home computer, it's for the sake of the kids. If we buy a summer cottage overlooking a sandy beach, it's only because it's such a good investment.

If we really were the consumers we're cracked up to be, would we feel all this embarrassment, all this guilt, all this heavy care? Would a lot of Americans so dread retirement - the supposed Eden where everybody becomes pure consumer?

For better and for worse, the American consumer is not nearly as complacent, as materialistic, as either the economists or the moralizers tend to assume. The American consumer is only the original American idealist in a peculiarly clumsy disguise - trying to remember, by trial and error, what we all wanted, as a country and as individuals, when we were young and penniless and starting out.

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