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Magazine / Vantage Point

Living Large

How is it that such a widespread sense of deprivation and angst can exist in a nation of such abundance?

Shopping: A patriotic duty?(AP Photo/Andrew Burton)

photo of Kathy Kiely
December 1, 2011

Getting and spending
We lay waste our powers.”

William Wordsworth



After another year of high unemployment and unending partisan bickering, Americans have finally arrived at the blessed season of excess. Forget the Pilgrim’s Progress and the little baby Jesus. The next few weeks are really all about celebrating what America does best: overconsume.

On Thanksgiving, our turkey and trimmings barely gobbled, we pushed back from the groaning board and abandoned the family hearth for the latest twist on holiday shopping tradition—Black Friday-eve store openings.

It was our patriotic duty to line up for yet more bargains, right? More spending equals more jobs, and more jobs equal more spending. Ah, the cycle begins anew: As certain as January following December, the surfeit of food will yield a spike in gym memberships and the surfeit of shopping will be a bonanza for the credit doctors.

Here’s a radical prescription for our looming national dyspepsia: Maybe it’s time for us to learn how to be happy with what we’ve already got.

And what we’ve got is quite a lot, thank you very much. Juliet Schor, a Boston University sociologist, has spent her career cataloging her fellow Americans’ penchant for overwork to pay for their overspending. In her most recent book, Plentitude, she notes that per-person expenditures in 2007 hit $32,144 in the United States. That same year, the global average income was $8,500. Including all the fuel we use to fire up our high-energy lifestyles, Americans consume 362 pounds of material a day. Schor cites estimates that if everyone lived the way we do, we would need five Earths to sustain the human race.

As the title of her book suggests, Schor takes the optimistic view. Dire environmental consequences can be avoided, and the economic vise constricting the U.S. economy eased, she writes, by opting for slower growth and a new employment model that would have more Americans working fewer hours. She paints a vision of shared jobs, more-modest lifestyles, and richer communities and private lives.

Clearly, this woman has not spent enough time inside the Beltway. If she had, Schor would comprehend the impossibility of her dream. Because, of course, asking Americans to make do with less is not a politically viable option. Remember Jimmy Carter?

Let’s face it, when candidates extol the virtues of American exceptionalism, what they’re really promising to defend is American got-more-than-you-ism. Those of us baby boomers who now dominate the nation’s political landscape grew up with an image of the United States as an economic colossus towering over a pipsqueak world. We owed this dominance less to our own ingenuity, productivity, and genius than to the fact that other industrialized economies were still recovering from having been bombed to smithereens in World War II. But this truth is not something we care to remember, as we wallow in 1950s and early-’60s nostalgia shows such as Mad Men and Pan Am.

Even now, when other countries have gotten prosperous enough to send tourists to snap photos of us, Americans are still some of the richest kids on the block. According to the World Bank, per capita gross national income for 2010 was $47,000, more than five times the worldwide average of $9,100. How is it that such a widespread sense of deprivation and angst could exist in a nation of such abundance?

I suspect it’s because we’re recovering from a collective hangover. In her book, Schor catalogs the consumer boom of the 1990s and 2000s in which once-costly items—everything from apparel to appliances—became so cheap as to be disposable, with resulting dire consequences for our environment, both global and personal. It was the same era, she notes, that witnessed the birth of a new industry: closet organizers. Americans are being overwhelmed by their stuff.

We’re also overwhelmed by the bills, making us reluctant to take simple measures that would help the nation overcome the fiscal crises that lie ahead: raising the cap on wages subject to Social Security; eliminating tax loopholes (yes, even the one for mortgage interest); and asking millionaires to pony up a little bit more and some Americans to delay retirement.

So what if none of these steps individually solves the nation’s long-term financial problems? They lay the groundwork for doing so by creating a sense that we all have skin in the game. Right now, the ship of state feels a lot like one of those overcrowded holiday plane rides, the trip made all-the-less enjoyable by the sneaking suspicion that the person next to you got a better deal on that narrow seat. If we all felt we were ponying up a roughly fair share for our ride on the U.S. of A., our legs might not feel quite so cramped, and we might even enjoy the peanuts.

And is it really such a bad thing to ask Americans to husband their resources a little more and be more mindful consumers? In How to Cook a Wolf, a lyrical account of cooking well in the teeth of deprivation, M.F.K. Fisher explained why she cherished her hard-won knowledge that “butter, no matter how unlimited, is a precious substance not lightly to be wasted.”

“When we exist without thought or thanksgiving,” Fisher wrote, “we are not men, but beasts.”

At the end of the 2008 presidential campaign, I interviewed two sisters at a Barack Obama rally in a very Republican part of Missouri. They regretted their votes for George W. Bush four years earlier. As I questioned them, their stories came pouring out: One had a house on the verge of foreclosure. The other ran a family restaurant that she was thinking of closing after nearly 50 years in business because her customers could no longer afford to pay what she had to charge to keep it going. As I was about to walk away, one of them stopped me. “It isn’t just one president,” she said. “We’ve been living beyond our means in this country a long time.”

Maybe the change we voted for was in ourselves. It will take all 312 million of us to make it happen.

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