Our consuming interest
By Linda Kulman

In the fall of 1783, having vanquished the British and delivered his farewell address to the Continental Army, George Washington's thoughts turned toward his Mount Vernon home--and his pressing need for a new silver coffee and tea service. The conquering hero preferred to buy American for items he could get "on tolerable terms," and he made a point of wearing an American-made suit to his swearing-in ceremony as president. But Washington's devotion to all things made in the U.S.A. paled when quality was lacking. "He demanded the best, and it was a matter of honor," says Richard Bushman, author of The Refinement of America .

America has double the number of shopping malls as it does high schools.

So just weeks after the United States and Great Britain inked their peace treaty, Washington sent to England for "1 large plain beaded plated Gallon Tea Urn" and other silver pieces. "He's the father of our country," says Carol Borchert Cadou, curator at Mount Vernon. "But he was also a shrewd consumer."

Though not America's first. His countrymen's need to consume was awakened nearly a century earlier as part of a drive toward gentility. It's the same desire, economists say, that today motivates us to supersize our television screens, splurge on a Kate Spade handbag, and line up at Starbucks for $4 lattes. Says James Twitchell, author of Living It Up: America's Love Affair With Luxury: "Consumption has become our currency and the lingua franca."

Although the phrase "conspicuous consumption" was coined by social critic Thorstein Veblen in his 1899 book The Theory of the Leisure Class, the idea that you are what you own began to spread in late-15th-century Europe, gradually fanning out to Britain and its provinces. By 1690, mansions had begun to dot the colonial landscape, and with them, Bushman writes, came "new modes of speech, dress, body carriage, and manners." Though the lives of the upper crust were polished to a high gloss, even the "middling people" could count a silver spoon among their possessions. By the mid-19th century the rising middle class were acquiring carpets, mahogany furniture, fine fabrics, books, and other trappings of refinement. "You have to have a market for capitalism," Bushman says, "and the aspiration to gentility provided that market."

As America became the economic leader around the turn of the 20th century, it also took the lead in consumerism. By 2003, personal consumption accounted for 70 percent of the nation's gross domestic product. Columnist Robert Samuelson points out in the Wilson Quarterly that Americans register a high level of personal spending partly because we foot the bill for more health and education costs than our counterparts in other advanced countries. We also work longer hours. "We're opting for income over free time, and that income gets translated into consumer goods," says Juliet Schor, author of The Overspent American . And if income falls short, Americans satisfy their wants by incurring debt, which now accounts for about 110 percent of personal disposable income.

Garbage. We are a nation that believes in having it all. In 1950, American families owned one car and saved for a second. In 2000, nearly 1 in 5 families owned three cars or more. And while some other countries pride themselves on thriftiness--any French cook worth her salt has the knack of transforming the leek in the back of the refrigerator into a bowl of vichyssoise--Americans shell out more for garbage bags than 90 of the world's 210 countries spend for everything. Indeed, America has double the number of shopping malls as it does high schools.

Why is our appetite for stuff so insatiable? For one thing, we have come to think that buying is an essential expression of freedom and individualism. As the old fast-food jingles went: "Gino's gives you freedom of choice," while Burger King lets you "have it your way." David Brooks writes in Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There : "You become the curator of your possessions . . . the Bernard Berenson of the mantelpiece . . . each item you display will be understood to have been a rare 'find.'"

Consumption is a competitive business, with a constant ratcheting up of expectations. We no longer measure ourselves against the Joneses next door but against people we know only from the media. Our friends on Friends lived--in spite of poor to middling incomes--in fabulous New York apartments Lucky is a women's magazine about shopping. J Lo's left hand is weighed down by an 8-carat diamond, which makes our own finger jewelry look puny. The piling on of such images gives us a sense that we need more and we need it sooner: Longing for the sensation of wealth, college students put pizza on the credit cards they are offered the first week of freshman year.

The normal pattern is "you get more money, you spend more money," says Cornell economist Robert Frank, the author of Luxury Fever: Why Money Fails to Satisfy in an Era of Excess . And yet since the mid-1970s, when almost everyone's income stopped growing, our spending patterns have kept expanding."It's not as if anybody is consciously trying to keep up with Bill Gates," Frank says. "He's not in the set we compare ourselves to. [But] it trickles down one step at a time." And it's difficult to drop out of the contest, Frank says. Real-estate values are tied to the quality of local education, so parents stretch on housing for fear that if they don't, their kids will fall behind.

Trading up. Those who have it often flaunt it. "We were always very fluid about [class] because we never had the same deep ancestry as Europeans," Twitchell says, "but up until the 20th century, we used what we had." That's changed. "Objects are now carrying the status weight that blood and religion and pigment used to carry." Which is to say that Americans not only "buy up" but wear their wealth on their sleeve--or chest. Indeed, with the coming of the Lacoste shirt in the 1930s and Ralph Lauren's Polo shirt in the 1970s, labels no longer hid discreetly inside the collar. Today Tommy Hilfiger's prized name can take up most of the shirt.

Much of our ferocious consumption arises simply from the sheer number of goods available. But, says Twitchell, mass branding also spurred us to shop. Take, for example, Ralph Lauren's description of the Polo philosophy: "What began with a tie . . . has grown into an entire world that has redefined how American style and quality is perceived." Now, says Twitchell, to curb our acquisitiveness we would have to debrand: "It's a scarf; it's not an Hermes scarf. It's a car; it's not a Lexus. You put it around your neck or on your feet or you drive it. It's carrying more freight than it really needs to."

And yet small luxuries help us feel that we've gotten at least a bite, if not a slice, of the pie. You don't have to buy an S-Class Mercedes, starting around $75,000. You can own a C-Class for under $30,000. You don't have to buy a vacation home; you can spend two weeks in Bermuda on a time share. You can spring for Godiva instead of Hershey, while you buy your toaster at a discount store like Target.

And after you get all the loot home, then what? Just as American as the need to buy, social observers say, is buyer's remorse. The backlash against American consumerism dates nearly to its conception--Henry David Thoreau got away from it all by retreating to Walden Pond. And then there was that countercultural movement of the 1960s. These days, our ambivalence and need to purge come in slick, packaged form: a magazine called Real Simple that specializes in unclutter. It can be yours for just $3.95.

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