American Consumerism: When is Enough, Enough?

When is enough, enough?  This generally has two popular meanings: exasperation with something that’s gone on long enough; announcement that one is satiated, and can’t possibly have more.

There is another meaning:  although more is to be had and it’s enticing, but more is not needed, I have enough.

That kind of enough is never enough in an economy dominated by the perceived importance of consumer demand.  Consumer spending is a big measure of our national economic strength.   Business, industry, and government policy makers get nervous if spending isn’t increasing at an acceptable rate. Advertisers press home the point that one can never have enough.  Only more and better can make life truly fulfilling. The new and improved is sold as leading to good times, wealth, and greater personal intimacy.  The old must give way to the new, and as soon as possible.  Easy terms available to buy more without pain.  “You too can have what you’ve always wanted. No credit checks.”  Advertising isn’t a new thing.  It’s been around since street peddlers touted their wares from push carts. Sears and Penny’s began publishing tantalizing catalogues in the late 19th century. I couldn’t wait for the Sears Christmas catalogue to come, and knew exactly where to look for the fun toy section. I fantasized for hours about what I could do with each of the toys tempting a young boy. Oddly, fantasizing was enough, because I knew I would get only one, and that was enough.

Television took promotion of consumer spending to a new level.  We could see the promised dream of owning a new product acted out in video with announcers assuring that we could experience the reality of the dream, but time was short so purchase now.  Advertisers learned how to bring an unknown desire into the realm of must have need. Many were led to sacrifice family, quality of life and personal health in pursuit of another promotion, a bigger raise, a more generous bonus as if they were the only measure of success.  I went to an AMWAY promotion many years ago at which the opening gambit was “I know you would like to have more money, no one ever has enough, that’s the way I feel. Raise your hands if you are like me.” Almost everyone did.

The result is an American mindset that enough is never enough.  When an economy is dominated by consumer demand and spending, investment in the importance of fundamentals needed to sustain a robust lifestyle is diminished, sidetracked for more lucrative short term gains.

Old infrastructure suffers too much deferred maintenance.  New technologies find their greatest profit potential in consumer products, and more desperately needed applications are shunted aside.  Large corporations get more bang for the buck through financial manipulations like stock buybacks, and regulatory and tax avoidance schemes, than investing in employees, new plants and equipment. It’s what earns top executives huge mega salaries, while other employees are stuck reaping more meager pay from the real value of sales.

The fear is that the whole house of cards will come crashing down if consumer demand and spending flounders.  I don’t think it has to be that way.

An American public more comfortable with enough would not suffer a diminished standard of living.  Being satisfied with enough would not diminish the virtues of hard work and jobs well done.  It would not erode the importance of dedication to constant improvement.  It might erode the idea that competition is measured only by winners and losers, with the best tactic being to make sure everyone else is a loser by any legal means possible. I don’t know. I hope it would.

It would free up funds for greater investment in old and new, public and private infrastructure.  It would free up funds for massive improvements in education, health care, mass transportation, and recreational facilities.  It would increase incentives for developers to build more affordable housing, and city councils reasons to change zoning to be more congenial to it.

In short, the economy would not collapse for lack of consumer spending on wall to wall television sets or all new better than ever toothpaste. It would blossom with the kinds of jobs that pay real money. Top corporate executives would not be underpaid, neither would there be incentives for mega salaries based on financial and regulatory manipulation.

Would some people become billionaires? Yes. Would incomes and spending opportunities be greater for some than others?  Yes. But I doubt we would experience today’s obscenely exaggerated wage and salary differentials.

What’s needed for something like this to happen?  First, a seismic shift in government policies at every level that shuts the door on ultra free market libertarianism, and the silly notion that anything else is socialism. Of course it depends on candidates favoring that kind of change, and voters who understand the need.  

Those defending the way it is don’t care if the nation goes to hell, as long as they keep getting richer, with as little government as possible restricting their greed. They’ve done a superb job of selling fear that if things change, everything will fall apart. It’s been ingrained into the American psyche for almost sixty years.  The struggle to move public opinion in the right direction would be enormous. But failure would doom our democracy and the future of our material well being. 

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