Bell Curve The Law Talking Guy Raised by Republicans U.S. West
Well, he's kind of had it in for me ever since I accidentally ran over his dog. Actually, replace "accidentally" with "repeatedly," and replace "dog" with "son."

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Consumerism, Americans and Their Critics

Outside observers of American culture are fond of criticizing consumerism in America but they seldom if ever direct the same criticism at their own lifestyles.  I'd be willing to listen to that kind of thing from someone from Haiti or rural India or rural China.  But from anyone living in an industrialized environment, it's a case of the pot calling the kettle black.  

For example, guess which country has the most cars per 1000 inhabitants?  Is it the US which takes at least 3 or 4 days to drive across and has no passenger rail system to speak of?  Nope.  It's Portugal which is about the size of small to medium sized US state and where a quarter of the population lives in the same city.  Even Australia, Germany, Italy, Switzerland and New Zealand have more cars per 1000 inhabitants than the US.  With the exception of Australia and maybe New Zealand all these countries have such small distances and dense populations that you can virtually go door to door anywhere in the country by public transit/passenger rail.  

This goes way beyond whether people buy one big bottle of gin per year or three smaller ones (it's not like gin goes bad - besides you can buy vermouth in much smaller bottles because you need so much less of it).  People in ALL OECD countries are living the "good life" and spending money on stuff right and left.  Comparing Americans to Western Europeans or Australians or New Zealanders will reveal that they are a lot more like each other than any of them are like people living in developing countries.  Even in the most rapidly developing parts of countries like China, consumerism is the norm.  Our friend Bert Q. Slushbrow has told me stories of his in-laws in China driving the same kind of cars middle class Americans do, owning several condominiums and generally living the life of Riley.  

In my travels in just under half of the EU member states, I have seen shopping districts bursting with useless doo dads.  I've seen mega stores with huge parking lots and I've seen highways choked with cars.  Indeed, if you just think about the types of stores, its difficult to tell the difference between Grafton Street in Dublin and the Santa Monica Promenade (although the grey sky and rain is usually a dead give away).

My point is not to claim that the US is not consumerist.  It clearly is.  Furthermore, it is fair and right to point to the problems this consumerist life style poses for the environment and the people living in it.  But it is not fair to set this up as some kind of American problem.  Doing so may make middle class intellectuals from other OECD countries feel better about themselves but it lets too may people off the hook (most especially the middle class intellectuals in question).  We are all in this together.  Consumerism is an appealing lifestyle that we all partake in to a great extent and it is very pervasive around the world.  We need to find a way to modify this lifestyle and adapt it to the realities of a sustainable environment.  But if ONLY Americans change their lifestyles the world will still be on a bad path.  We ALL have to change.  So let's ease up on the "horrified" reactions to Cost-co etc, shall we?


Anonymous said...

As an East Coast transplant who lives on the West Coast, I think the comparison of American and European consumerism is analogous to regional variation in the US.

On the East Coast of the US, upper-middle-class status is properly expressed by driving a battered Volvo with parking stickers for an exclusive area (Cambridge, Cape Cod) and/or a prep-school window sticker. On the West Coast, a perfectly detailed BMW with an Obama sticker serves the same function.

Big diamonds are tacky in Boston but "appropriate" in Beverly Hills (if you can't see it from across the room, why wear it?).

My East Coast sensibilities make me look longingly at some aspects of European living - reliable public transportation, universal health care (esp. the post-partum visiting nurse), a smaller house to clean, large expanses of countryside free of ticky-tacky McMansions, etc. But frankly, it's the difference between LL Bean and Juicy Couture. In both cases, you wind up with pricey sweatpants.

-Seventh Sister

Raised By Republicans said...

I should point out that part of my "bit" for the environment is that I don't buy vermouth at all anymore. Straight gin with an olive thank you very much.

The Law Talking Guy said...

How social status is expressed through material goods does vary across the country. But let's not forget that in the East Coast, one has a house at the Hamptons or Newport, another at the Cape, and a yacht. On the West Coast, it's just a fancy German car and a McMansion. East coast wealth has live-in help; west coast wealth is less likely to. Social classes are also much more rigid in the East than the West.

But there are many more regions than the two coasts. In parts of Arizona, I recall, social status had more to do with connections than money. Older hispanic families had more clout than newer wealthier anglo familes. In much of the mountain west, you find prominent ranchers and business people heading the social registers. This is true in New Mexico in Spades. The midwest is like the East in many respects, particularly in its aversion to the more vulgar displays of wealth, but it has a different set of status symbols, prominent families, and exclusive locales. It also suffers from the fact that its status symbols carry little weigh in the East. The South is all about social connections above all, with a unique emphasis on exclusive clubs, sororities, fraternities, and the like.

Of course, one could go on like this. The point is that regional variation in the United States is very, very underappreciated outside these shores, and even within these shores.

It is a common thing for Americans on the Coasts to be ignorant of what counts as status in the middle of the country. Similarly, it is not uncommon for midwesterners or southerners to think that Easterners naturally accord the same prestige to their academic or cultural institutions as they do (they don't). Even "the coasts" are not uniform. Where I work, we have two people who went to Penn. Most of the interviewers (all well-educated lawyers) thought this was akin to UConn or UW. Angelenos often have no idea which suburbs of Detroit or Chicago are supposed to be prestigious. Similarly, denizens of those towns think Beverly Hills (or even Hollywood) is "the place" to live in LA. New Yorkers open business offices and law firms in downtown LA because they assume (based on their own cramped island) that downtown must be the only place to be. It's not.

And, of course, Texans have absolutely no conception of how Texas is viewed from outside Texas, and non-Texans gasp to learn that Texans think their state is the center of the known universe.

The Law Talking Guy said...

Given how little we understand our own country, is it any wonder we understand the rest of the world so much less?

USWest said...

It is interesting to me, as well, how people from recently "developed" countries act when they come to the US. I have several friends from lesser developed countries, and I see how they buy stuff, trash it, and buy new stuff right away. Sometimes, they buy new stuff when there is no need whatsoever, they just want something new. My one set of friends are constantly tossing their cell phones around carelessly, letting the kids get a hold of them, watching their kid drop it in his milk and laughing at that. They lose them and replace them constantly. They do this primarily with electronics - computers, TVs, digital cameras, even power tools. It amazes me. But I am told that this is typical. They don't really value these things. They value their ability to acquire them. They are like kids in a candy store! Why worry when you can get a new one cheap! But these are also the same people who save money and pay cash rather than use credit. They have 20% down payments for their homes.

My other friends, from places like Germany and Switzerland, buy the top of the line. They also shrink from credit. And they hate the aisles and aisles of choices we have here. (Seriously, how many different types of drills or flashlights or DVD players, can you manufacture?) But they buy it once. They don't replace their stuff every 2 years. They would have a fit if their kid dropped their cell phone in his milk.

It's also generational. Older generations are not consumers. My parents were always more likely to have something fixed than to replace it. They bought warrantees and insurance policies on items (like video cameras) and actually used them.

I hate shopping. And the more expensive the item, the more it stresses me out. So once I buy, I don't want to have to do it again for awhile. I find warrantees to be a hassle and I hate rebates. I am the type who will upgrade the computer for 7 years before I replace it.

USWest said...

This also reminds me: when I was living in France, I had a Portuguese roommate from Lisbon. Her parents were paying for her year in France. They were former colonists on Angola, where they still had a home they hoped they could one day return to. I was on a scholarship. My parents had never colonized any place but Cooper Street. And then, they bought it fair and square.
She kept insisting that I was rich because my parents own a house. And she took every opportunity to remind me that she came from a "poor" country. She was always on about the poverty in Portugal. Why you'd want to present your country in such light is beyond me. She took great pleasure one evening when the communist landlord had us for dinner. She looked on with this grin on her face as the landlady spent the entire time telling me how horrid and America was, although she had never been to the USA. She had friends who had gone there, and they saw homelessness. Of course, I pointed out that there were plenty of French homeless in the plaza two streets over. Of course, I remained polite and did NOT point out that anyone with "proprietorship" status over starving students had little right to discuss the excesses of American capitalism.
When I mentioned this experience to my French host mother, she practically spat out, "Communists! The bitch is a communist!" That cracked me up and made it all better.

Pombat said...

RbR: No, I am not going to "ease up on the "horrified" reactions to Cost-co etc", no matter how patronisingly or condescendingly you address me. I was horrified by Cost-co, I remain horrified by how consumerist some people are, how they can just buy stuff, and stuff, and stuff, and seemingly not care about where the resources come from to make all this crap that they don't actually need, and I refuse to apologise for that. For the record, I'm not just horrified at consumerism committed by Americans, all consumerism horrifies me, I'd just never witnessed it on that scale before.