Archive for Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Americans are more than just consumers

January 6, 2009


One of my New Year’s resolutions is to stop referring to myself as a consumer.

The idea for the resolution actually came from reader Tom Krohn, who suggested it’s not just the country’s spending habits that need to change for the better but the language we use to describe who we are.

“We Americans are so used to being referred to as ‘consumers’ that we comfortably fall into that role and do so conspicuously,” Krohn, a retired U.S. Navy submariner living in Arkansas, wrote me. “Imagine an epitaph that read, ‘Michelle Singletary — A Wonderful Consumer.’ Not very satisfying, is it?”

No, Tom, it’s not how I want to live, or die.

We use the word consumer interchangeably when referring to ourselves even when the topic isn’t about consuming. But look at the word consume. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, consume means to do away with completely, destroy; to spend wastefully, squander.

And yet we are no longer citizens but consumers. This recession has proved that things have to change, and still the message from many of our leaders continues to be that consumerism — consumers — will save the day. To be a consumer is equivalent to being a good American.

The American way

Consumerism has become a basic component of our American citizenship, contends Lizabeth Cohen in “A Consumers’ Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America.”

“By the end of the Depression decade, invoking ‘the consumer’ would become an acceptable way of promoting the public good, of defending the economic rights and needs of ordinary citizens,” writes Cohen, a Harvard professor.

We track closely the results of the Consumer Confidence Survey. Ever wonder why it isn’t billed as the survey of confidence among the American people — moms, dads, engineers, teachers, social workers, bus drivers, doctors, church-goers, etc.? It’s not billed that way because we’ve come to gauge where we stand — for good or bad — by people’s purchasing intentions.

Why is our confidence driven down by how much less we can spend?

Consumer spending accounts for about 70 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product. That’s bad because much of that spending was made possible by the overuse of credit — other people’s money. Our economy is in a mess today because too many people — individuals and corporate executives — believed it was financially savvy to use other people’s money. In many ways, the country has participated in a colossal Ponzi scheme. A scam we obviously couldn’t sustain. We ran out of other people’s money. That’s what makes a Ponzi scam fail. You can’t get any more cash.

‘Born to shop’

Since the Great Depression, we’ve embraced and celebrated our consumerism. We have mantras such as “I shop, therefore I am.”

I once was part of this madness. In my early newspaper career I had a column called “Born to Shop.” I defended my passion and the reason for the column by arguing I was bargain shopping and therefore saving myself and others money.

But you never save when you spend.


When you buy things on sale you are still spending money.

National holidays are celebrated by shopping. We have Veterans Day sales. That’s how we honor our servicemen and women — by shopping, by consuming more stuff.

And we are passing this legacy of consumerism on to our children. More children go shopping every week than read, go to church, participate in youth groups, play outdoors or spend time in household conversation, according to consumerism expert and Boston College professor Juliet B. Schor, author of “Born to Buy: The Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture.”

“Although children have long participated in the consumer marketplace, until recently they were bit players, purchasers of cheap goods,” Schor writes in her book. “That has changed. ... Children’s social worlds are increasingly constructed around consuming.” Schor adds: “Contemporary American tweens and teens have emerged as the most brand-oriented, consumer-involved, and materialistic generation in history.”

Rather than keeping things the same, why don’t we again become producers?

“Households and the country need investment, not consumption,” Schor says. “We need to invest in energy conservation, degraded ecosystems, a sustainable food system, education, community building, human connection, and skills for everyday living.”

Aren’t you weary of being a consumer with all the accompanied debt it requires to keep up this occupation? If so, make 2009 the year you stop defining yourself as a consumer.


Richard Heckler 9 years ago

ON FISCAL RESPONSIBILITIES in 2004Republicans advocated fiscal responsibility in government, saying, "we need to be wise about how we spend your money."[1] They however, signed into law a massive, $137-billion tax giveaway to corporate and special interests.[2]The tax bill was originally created to fix a $50-billion export subsidy that had triggered retaliatory tariffs by our trading partners. Instead of simply repealing the subsidy, Congress replaced it with a $77-billion giveaway to corporations, many of which never qualified for the original subsidy.[3] Italso provides $43 billion in tax breaks for companies operating overseas,[4] including a giant break to top corporations like Hewlett-Packard and Eli Lilly that allows them "to bring hundreds of billions of dollars in untaxed foreign profits back into the United States at about one-seventh of thenormal tax rate."[5]Lawmakers larded down the bill with pork for their favored special interests. The bill included million-dollar tax cuts for fishing tackle box manufacturers, Chinese ceiling fan importers, horse and dog track gamblers and Native Alaskan whaling captains.[6]Sources:1. "President and General Tommy Franks's Remarks at a Victory 2004 Rally in Morrison, Colorado," The White House, 10/11/042. "Payback on K Street," Washington Post, 10/12/043. "Senate Passes Big Tax Breaks," Los Angeles Times, 10/12/044. "Congress Gives Away The Store", New York Times, 10/12/045. "Senate passes $137 billion cut in business tax," Baltimore Sun, 10/12/046. " Congress OKs Corporate tax Bill" , Daily Herald 10/12/04

jonas_opines 9 years ago

tumbilweed (Anonymous) says…"Bankrupt China: Stop Consuming!"I don't suppose it would occur that we could start producing some things that the Chinese want to buy? Or perhaps that destabilizing (again) 1/5 of the world's population in some idea of competitive economics might be. . . unwise?

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