Do Americans shop too much? Maybe, but social critics fail to grasp the delights of stuff and the true causes of our nagging malaise.

Published May 11, 2000 4:00PM (EDT)

The other night, my 3-year-old nephew and I received an unexpected economics lesson in the form of a picture book called "Rainbow Fish." The plot is deceptively simple: Rainbow Fish is an underwater denizen distinguished by a set of unusually attractive silver scales. A small, blue fish asks R.F. to give him one of his scales and R.F. refuses. Shunned, as a result, by all of the other fish, R.F. consults a wise old octopus, who encourages him to reconsider. Give your scales away, the octopus advises. You won't be as pretty, but the other fish will like you and you'll be happy. So he does and he is. The end.

My nephew understood immediately that the book was about sharing, but he is also at the age of the perpetual "why?" and trying to answer his whys about R.F.'s epiphany, I felt queasy. It's important that children learn to share, but this clumsy little book's more prominent message is that people will like you if you give them your possessions, particularly the possessions they envy. The unwitting moral of "Rainbow Fish" is that you can buy love.

Anyone who reads to children knows that such ill-conceived homilies abound, but what's interesting about these sloppily reasoned kids books is what they tell us about our own atavistic beliefs. It seems to me that "Rainbow Fish" unwittingly exposes the confusion inherent in one of our most deep-seated convictions -- that materialism, the love and acquisition of things, is intrinsically evil.

In her interesting new book, "Do Americans Shop Too Much?" Harvard economist Juliet Schor laments what she calls the "new consumerism," a frenzy for "high-status" goods she attributes to the increased concentration of wealth at the top of the economic ladder: "Trophy homes, diamonds of a carat or more, granite countertops, and sport utility vehicles are the primary consumer symbols of the late 1990s." This rampant consumption is unfortunate, she argues, not only because it squanders environmental resources but because it forces people on the lower rungs of the income ladder to try to keep up.

Schor believes that we consume competitively, with an eye on the consumption habits of the proverbial Joneses -- except that the Joneses, who used to live down the street and were probably our socioeconomic peers, are no longer our frames of reference. Now, because of television, more sophisticated marketing techniques and the fact that most women are working in jobs, our new frame of reference, she argues, is "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous."

This, Schor says, explains one of the more disturbing trends of the past 30 years: that while our buying power has doubled, we are increasingly dissatisfied. Her solution? To limit consumption by taxing luxury goods. This, she believes, would take the pressure off those of us struggling so hard to keep up with all the new stock-market and dot-com millionaires.

But the urge to buy is so much more complicated than Schor -- perhaps limited by the brevity of her essay, perhaps by an academic discipline whose theories have often proved irrelevant in the real world -- even begins to suggest. Status is clearly not the main reason most people buy things. Just because I see the Joneses' SUV and think, "I, too, would love to own an SUV," doesn't mean that I am competing with them. It could simply be that I think owning an SUV seems like a pretty good idea.

Personally, I can't stand SUVs because they guzzle gas, block my view and represent a transportation menace. But I don't have children; both of my sisters, who own Chevy Suburbans, do. One borrowed a Suburban for a vacation with her husband, his mother and the couple's three small daughters and became addicted to all of that wonderful space. The other has a weakness for labor-saving devices and imagined easily carting her two sons and all of their friends to Little League games and having plenty of room in the back to stash their equipment.

Wanting to acquire the things that we see and like is as natural as breathing. Babies want to touch things, taste them, bash them against the wall. We appease them with shining objects, distract them with new toys. When one child sees another child playing with a toy, he or she wants it not because of envy of the other child's relative social position but because it looks like fun. When we see other people having sex, eating an ice-cream cone, setting a table with pretty dishes or using a clever new tool and want to do the same, it's not necessarily because we're jockeying for position. It could be that we, too, just want to have fun.

Of course, we do sometimes buy things with status in mind -- a nice suit for a job interview, a cool pair of shoes in junior high, a certain kind of car or house because we imagine it contributing to our allure. But the mundane truth is that things, especially new things, just please us. Examining something, taking it home, rearranging our homes to accommodate it -- it's all part of what social psychologists describe as the human need to affect (and be affected by) our surroundings. Even the urge to create is connected to the urge to acquire.

If, as Schor notes, "the level of income needed to fulfill one's dreams doubled between 1986 and 1994," it's because there are so many more interesting and relatively affordable things to dream about. Some of them didn't even exist in 1986, and others -- personal computers and cars, for instance -- are so much cheaper now. The most compelling reason to buy these new things is not the status they afford but their promise to make life easier and/or more fun. Parents are using pagers and cellphones to keep in touch with their teenagers. Teenagers are using them to keep in constant contact with their friends.

And if SUVs are mainly status symbols, why has there never been the same sudden widespread interest in acquiring Mercedeses? SUVs are more the equivalent of the 1950s station wagon, an updated version of a car with enough space to accommodate a family. With gas almost obscenely cheap and car companies building light trucks that are both comfortable and easy to drive, the popularity of SUVs seems in retrospect almost inevitable.

And if we are breaking records in running up credit card debt and declaring bankruptcy, isn't it less because we are trying to keep up with rich people than because credit has never been so widely available or collective economic optimism so high? One of the most profound cultural gaps in contemporary America is between my generation -- people in their 40s and 50s -- and our parents, whose formative experience was the Great Depression. A growing number of us have never experienced widespread poverty and unemployment without the security of a government safety net. If this were the fable of the grasshopper and the ant, we would be grasshoppers who had never experienced winter.

Schor calls for controlling consumption -- thus protecting us from the "new" emphasis on "luxury, expensiveness, exclusivity, rarity, uniqueness, and distinction" -- by taxing "high-end versions" of products. "Why not stand for consumption that is democratic, egalitarian, and available to all?" It's ironic that Ralph Nader is the author of an enthusiastic foreword to Schor's essay when the consumer movement he launched some 30 years ago is, along with the counterculture of the 1960s, at least in part responsible for our hunger for high-quality goods.

Paul Hawken, co-founder of upscale garden tool company Smith & Hawken, predicted in his 1983 book, "The Next Economy," both the growing gap between rich and poor and an increased demand (among the new rich) for quality. Should we penalize people for buying fine art when reproductions are so much cheaper? For buying hardcover books instead of mass-market paperbacks? For paying more for whole wheat when they could be surviving on Wonder Bread?

Of the nine responses by an assortment of scholars that follow Schor's essay, the most compelling are (unexpectedly) from an assistant professor of advertising at the University of Illinois, Douglas Holt, and an associate professor of marketing at the University of Wisconsin, Craig J. Thompson. Holt argues that it's almost impossible to control consumption anyway, given today's market in which companies compete to appropriate every new idea the instant it becomes popular. "The market would find the nonstatus values that Schor's agenda encourages and turn them into salable goods," writes Holt, citing businesses that have already exploited symbols of the counterculture, from Benetton to the Nature Company to Ben & Jerry's.

And in his essay, "A New Puritanism?" Thompson maintains that any "moral critique of consumerism is steeped in a phobia of feminization and an infatuation with puritanical asceticism. It effects a rejection of the sensual and emotive aspects of human experience and an extreme suspicion of 'unproductive' pleasures." He suggests that if sex sells at least in part because it is a forbidden pleasure, we might become less compulsive shoppers if we allowed ourselves to truly savor the shopping experience.

Yet the real weakness of Schor's approach is her assumption that happiness is a function of relative affluence and the pressure to consume. In Schor's world, Rainbow Fish can indeed buy happiness -- for everyone -- by giving up whatever he has that might provoke envy. (Never mind that people envy all sorts of things they can't buy -- good looks and good health, talent, confidence, charisma.) While it's clear that unfettered consumption is a threat to the planet, and it's well established that, despite our unprecedented affluence, Americans are increasingly unhappy, a far more satisfying analysis of this crisis is David G. Myers' "The American Paradox: Spiritual Hunger in an Age of Plenty."

A professor of psychology at Hope College in Holland, Mich., Myers helped pioneer the study of happiness (as opposed to the discipline's traditional focus on psychopathology), and he has spent most of his career deconstructing the components of psychological well-being. One of the most interesting things researchers like Myers have discovered is that the old saw is true: Money does not buy happiness. Subjective well-being has no relation to income once people can afford the basic necessities of life.

Myers argues that the true source of our new dissatisfaction is embedded in American culture -- and in the same free market that has made us wealthy. Both encourage a radical individualism that lies "at the heart of the American dream." On the one hand, he says, people who live in democratic countries that guarantee basic individual freedoms tend to be happier than people who don't. "Yet for today's radical individualism, we pay a price: a social recession that imperils children [Myers reports that the teen suicide rate has tripled over the past 30 years], corrodes civility, and diminishes happiness. When individualism is taken to an extreme, individuals become its ironic casualties."

In Myers' view, the problem is cultural, not economic, and therefore requires a constellation of social and political corrections. We have allowed the free market, which has benefited us in many ways, to determine values -- and the free market values only one thing: money. "Pretend some devil wanted to design a program to corrode families," he writes. "They might begin by lowering the job prospects and earning power of young men. To accomplish this they might encourage corporate CEO's to act like yesteryear's robber barons and redirect rewards to themselves. Justifying their actions with talk of freedom, they might also deregulate television, legalize gambling, structure taxes to penalize marriage, and shrink the value of the minimum wage (which was created to be a 'family living wage' that protected families and children)." Sound familiar?

Not that Myers wants to abolish the free market. "Capitalism, as Winston Churchill might have put it, is the worst economic system, except for all the others," he writes. But citing studies showing that people who believe in God and/or participate in community activities tend to be happier than people who don't, Myers sees the solution in an emerging communitarian movement that transcends the culture wars: "one that affirms liberals' indictment of the demoralizing effects of poverty and conservatives' indictment of toxic media models." People who feel connected to others -- through their churches and other community activities -- are more likely to take responsibility for one another and for the culture as a whole, he argues.

We have a long tradition of changing the way we do things even without market incentives, Myers points out. We do it when enough people come to believe that we are being hurt in ways that can't be calculated on a balance sheet. Thus, we've abolished slavery, regulated polluters and outlawed child labor and sexual harassment. Already, we've begun to encourage the auto industry to redesign SUVs to make them less dangerous to other vehicles, and we are moving to hold them to the same fuel efficiency standards that apply to cars.

Myers is an optimist, perhaps, but he sees people coming together "on the common ground of concern for our children and their future" -- more of them going to church, more (both liberal and conservative) speaking the same language when they talk about the family and about moral values. In Myers' world, Rainbow Fish would find happiness not by renouncing his material good fortune but by recognizing that (no matter his momentary status) he is inescapably responsible for and connected to all the other fish in the sea.

By Joan Smith

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