Consumerism in America

To Consume or Not To Consume

Politicians and economists love talking about how the “consumer”  is the main engine of the American economy.

Keep in mind that if they are Congressional politicians, they are probably making around $170,000 a year.

If they’re an economist being quoted by a newspaper, there’s a strong possibility they are a tenured professor at a university; on a speaker circuit; doing consultant work for the government; and on their fourth or fifth unreadable book.

On the other side of the coin (no pun intended), the religion I was brought up in taught me that materialism is not conducive to a spiritual life, that the “poor” will indeed “inherit the earth.”

So, my friends, the dilemma: Should I shop for things I really don’t need, or should I live on the fringes of society and only buy what I need to survive?

Or, since I can’t afford what the 1% affords, should I go for what I call “fashion lite”—a used BMW with over 150,000 miles; a winter Florida trailer five miles from the ocean; name brands at Marshall’s or TJMax.

In spite of the conflict between wanting to support the economy on my senior-citizen fixed income and my better self warning me to live simply, I am inside the American culture, lock, stock, and credit card.

The American Mall: The Parable of Consumerism

Recently, I made a dry run (I bought nothing) to a popular local mall with a younger friend. She needed to buy clothes for work.

As I was sitting on a bench outside the store, I began to take in the crowds of people, who seemed to come at me like slow-motion marathon runners, swishing by on both sides of me as if I were a stationary movie camera.

I was surrounded with consumerism. People carrying multicolored shopping bags dangling from their clutched palms, customers gently looking at price tags, young parents pushing a baby carriage with a package of new shoes underneath, teenagers hanging out in threes and fours probably waiting for the matinee show to start at the Cineplex. And then the inevitable AT &T booth in the middle of the mall’s main corridor.

An older guy came over to the bench and sat next to me. He was carrying a small container of pink frozen yogurt

“You from Buffalo?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said.

“I come here on the weekends. Get tired of tv. It’s always the same shit. You from around here?”

“Yes, I’m from Buffalo.”

“Where you from, again?”

“From Buffalo,” I said, again.

“Me too,” he said. “Ain’t the city in terrible shape. Used to be real nice when I lived there. I now live around the block. Come here on the weekends. Get tired of tv. I’m retired. And the price is right. Where you from again?”

“Buffalo,” I said.

“Yeah, I forgot. Nice talkin’ to you.” He stood up, looked straight ahead, then shifted his body to the left and trailed off into the crowd in back of me.

In spite of not knowing anyone in the mall, he could count himself among the living because he was moving in a crowd. And any movement among other people moving is better than the alternative—one more night in his small suburban house with the television on.

He is not unlike many teenagers who hang out in malls. They are inside the circle of consumerism as a kind of comfort zone depending upon somebody else shopping while they get their social needs met by being in the loop of human activity.

In some sense these teenagers could be considered mime artists imitating what real consumers do in a mall as they engage themselves in consumerism foreplay before they actually spend their first earned pay-check coming back to the mall and actually buying something.

The bored senior citizen and the empty-pocketed teenager are certainly at the extreme ends of the consumer chain. One has outlived the adrenaline of a purchase but still wants to live off the carcass of consumerism with the other ant-like consumers.

The other—the teenager—is prepping themselves for the real deal when they get their chance to push a baby carriage through the mall while purchasing new baby clothes or a set of dishes.

Both can certainly tell us something about the consumerism environment in a typical mall–wandering around a house of goods; window shopping (“un coup d’oeil,” as the French would say); checking out price tags; tossing around choices in one’s head; putting an object on hold (“don’t need that blue shirt right now, but it would go nice with those gray slacks”); finding excuses to buy something (“I haven’t bought anything in a couple of months” and my particular favorite, “Had a rough week at work, I could use a new shirt”).

Consumerism and the Broader Culture

In the broader culture, outside the mall, consumerism seems to be embedded in our psyches. In case you may have not noticed, America has generally spelled out the generic rite of passage through that cave of consumerism:

  • Get an education. Post-secondary education, of course, costs money. Loans are out there. And loans feed into the economy because some entity or person is earning interest from a school loan. Higher education is supposed to give you an advantage in a capitalist society because it, ideally, increases your value as an employee.
  • Get married. Marriage increases the possibility that you will  need more “goods and services” as a married couple—a new car, a home (mortgage with interest), furniture, other domestic accoutrements,  and a good school district for the anticipated child or children (public school revenues, ideally, come from real estate taxes in the school district you have chosen for your child or children).
  • Plan for your retirement and inevitable assisted living care.

This particular rite of passage gets tricky. But, as a consumer, you are supposed to be keeping an eye on the value of your home and your ability to save some money through other investments or a savings account so that you can comfortably consume a retired domicile somewhere after you’re completely exhausted from working forty or fifty years—the inevitable “new normal,” given our increasing longevity and rising legal age to cash in on Social Security benefits.

If no part of this consumerist scenario appeals to you, you may want to seriously think of alternatives before choosing to drop out of a system that from this old guy’s perspective seems to be the fatalistic reality of anyone who wants to succeed in this culture.







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