Tuesday, December 15, 2009

On American addiction...

The United States prides itself on being a capitalist country – the bastion of capitalism, actually. The U.S. also loudly declares that it is the land of liberty. And notwithstanding the horrendous recession it imposed on the world and that continues to wreak global havoc, the U.S. remains very wealthy compared to other industrialized countries. In 2007, for example, the U.S. GDP per person was nearly $44K, compared with around $38K for mineral-rich Australia and Canada and $36K for the U.K. and $33K for France. Only Norway, with its tiny population and huge oil reserves, appears to rank meaningfully higher ($53.5K):


In this wealthy, capitalistic country where people are supposedly free to do as they choose, shopping occupies a special place in the pantheon of national pastimes. Time not spent working, after all, must be passed somehow, and shopping as an activity complements the public’s voracious consumption of media. Television, movies, magazines and websites abound with images of products and the “lifestyles” they supposedly embody or facilitate. A seemingly endless stream of new and improved objects is constantly being touted with the goal of stimulating consumption and capturing market share. Ideally, a company’s product will become one that consumers cannot readily imagine living without. This despite the fact that thousands of years of human history offers abundant evidence that people can live without that newest new, new thing.

Those of us not completely on the band wagon of the headlong consumption that holds most of the U.S. population in its thrall wonder what drives all that consumption in the first place. Why do Americans so adore shopping and, in many cases, spend well beyond their incomes? If you google the phrase “why consumer culture” you will get 453 million links, so there is no end of theorizing about this social and commercial phenomenon. It is hardly a given that such theorizing serves any purpose more useful than shopping itself, but I’ll dip a toe in this topic with my eyes very much open to that paradox.

My personal (and highly unscientific) explanation of rampant consumer culture is that people simply need something to do with themselves in their non-working hours, and consumption is the path of least resistance. Shopping – both the activity itself and debates among families about where to shop, what merchandise should be bought and what merchandise should be returned to the store because it wasn’t satisfactory – burns up a lot of unstructured time and requires little to no reflection on so-called deeper subjects. It can be distinguished from creativity, which does require the expenditure of mental energy and, when done with passion, also entails delving into psychic areas that can be quite uncomfortable. Shopping is also readily combined with eating (at shopping mall food courts, for instance), an unhealthy symbiosis that is driving U.S. obesity statistics into the stratosphere (two-thirds of Americans are overweight or obese, with 34% in the obese category).

In addition to burning up lots of time in an undemanding fashion, shopping also closely aligns the shopper with mainstream American society. Put another way, shopping is an expression of conformism on the one hand and of insecurity on the other. The insecurity stems from worry about social position and respectability – the image-conscious consumer worries that worn-out trousers or an old, dented car make him look poor, clueless or otherwise socially undesirable. The subtext pitched by all marketing is that buying new products can inoculate the shopper from the pain of social ostracism. The more expensive the product, the more complete the shopper’s immunity from embarrassment and pain and the greater the prestige acquired by the shopper.

Insecurity about appearances and the social position they imply is nothing new – a poem by Wang Fan-chih (590-660) explores the theme of poverty compared to wealth in a humorous way:

When the rich pass proudly by

on big, smooth horses,

I feel foolish

riding my scrawny donkey.

I feel much better

when we overtake

a bundle of sticks

riding a bony man.

Consumer culture peaks during the so-called holiday season, and in that season of consumption there is no day more closely tied to shopping frenzy than “Black Friday.” This day, immediately following on the often highly dysfunctional Thanksgiving holiday, traditionally sets the pace for the peak shopping weeks of the year when retailers make most of their annual profits.

In the early morning hours of Black Friday 2008, a temporary worker named Jdimytai Damour was trampled to death by shoppers at the Wal-Mart in Valley Stream, New York. It’s worth noting that Mr. Damour was not a frail man – he stood 6 foot 5 inches tall and weighed 270 pounds, measurements that testify to the degree of frenzy among the roughly 2,000 people stampeding into Wal-Mart when it opened at 5am that morning. You can read an article about this event at the following link; I recommend browsing the reader comments that appear below this article:


In a very real sense, Mr. Damour was sacrificed at the altar of American insecurity – he died because people worried that they wouldn’t be able to obtain the objects they needed to evidence their social position or aspirations, to display their wealth and to assuage their guilt at not being able to give even more lavish presents to their loved ones. In the war to protect the self at the expense of others and to push away introspection and difficult feelings, Mr. Damour made the ultimate sacrifice. As such, he should be buried at Arlington National Cemetary. Unfortunately, public attention moved on quickly after the initial reports of his death, and no press coverage that I could find relates the location of Jdimytai Damour’s grave.

I did not see any reports of fatalities associated with Black Friday 2009, though there was a report of fighting at a Wal-Mart in California. The fighting forced the store to close so that civil order could be restored at the discount emporium. As with the article cited above about Black Friday 2008, the reader comments are more interesting than the press accounts to which they relate:


Aside from costing people their very lives, this mania for shopping is bankrupting the American population. Many people simply cannot control themselves and have run up large debts that, until recently, fueled fat profits at financial institutions. Now many of those debts have gone bad, in parallel with the home mortgage debacle, leading to huge losses on bank credit card portfolios (over 10% of credit card debt outstanding is now believed to be a total loss). It turns out that loan portfolios inflated by the banks’ wondrous financial “innovations” have had consequences every bit as disastrous as the shopping for “innovative new products” facilitated by those loans. And much of that shopping furnished homes that people could not afford and never should have been given the financing to buy. Recklessly easy credit fueled the home mortgage debacle and a tidal wave destructive shopping, blowing up our economy. The economic dislocation has exposed the interdependency of media, credit and consumption. Large social dislocations and political problems have ensued.

Despite the problems caused by the credit bubble's collapse, progress in the political realm to induce change has been almost nonexistent. This is because real change – not the faux change that makes for glib political sloganeering the world over – would be incredibly difficult for our society. The Obama administration is working diligently to revive the economy by encouraging banks to extend ever more loans to consumers and businesses, and by engaging in deficit spending with complete abandon. The irony that this economic “cure” is worse than the “disease” of recession itself seems lost on Timothy Geithner, U.S. Secretary of the Treasury and Ben Bernanke, Chairman of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System. These two are being hailed in the financial press for their “bold, unorthodox” response to the financial crisis, despite the fact that it was their lack of regulatory vigilance that permitted the crisis in the first place. A court-mandated restraining order should be passed forbidding this hapless duo from stepping within 100 yards of any government office building, financial institution or school.

Congress also bears plenty of blame for the financial crisis. Predictably, though, there have been displays of outrage from these elected officials decrying the excesses over which they blithely presided. Legislation is being debated in the House and Senate to reform the financial system, but the likelihood that real reform will be passed before the 2010 midterm elections is increasingly slim. You can be sure that financial institutions will donate unusually large sums to the congressional campaign funds in this midterm election cycle, hoping to buy the compliance of legislators and stave off any real reform. Even before the election bonanza, the banks have been remarkably effective at squelching government efforts to correct their excesses and protect our economy from their predations. As Bloomberg News wrote in a recent article, “Two years after the start of the deepest recession since the 1930s, no U.S. or European authority has put in force a single measure that would transform the financial system, based on data compiled by Bloomberg. No rule- or law-making body is actively considering the automatic dismantling of banks that Volcker told Congress are sheltered by access to an implicit safety net.” You can read more on the lack of financial reform progress in this Bloomberg article:


Meanwhile, one year after the apex of the financial panic that followed the bursting of the credit bubble, we are said to be in a recovery. Of course, the term “recovery” is not being used as it would in the context of addiction treatment, in which addicts stop the addictive behavior and remain on permanent guard against its return. Instead, “recovery” is being promoted as a frank return to the practices that drove our economy over a cliff to begin with: more liberal credit combined with low private savings and unsustainably high consumption. Rather than crafting policies that will put America on a more secure economic footing by curbing the longstanding excesses in credit and consumption, the Federal Reserve and the Obama Administration (very much like the Bush Administration) are doing everything possible to restore the old status quo. Their desperate attempts have led to a frightening increase in the federal debt load ($7.5 trillion at 3Q09, up 30% year over year), debasing our currency and speeding America’s commercial and strategic decline.

So, is there a solution to this nightmare? With government, the media, the financial industry and the retailers fiercely resisting any meaningful change to the system, the only potential source of change would be consumers themselves. Fearful of job losses and staring into the abyss of bank accounts woefully inadequate to meet long-range commitments like retirement funding, are consumers borrowing and spending less? Here, the data are more mixed than one would expect given the gravity of the crisis. In November 2009, retail sales rose 1.9% from the prior year – the first year-over-year rise since August 2008. This is surprising since the unemployment rate was 10%+ in November 2009, far above the 6.8% unemployment rate in November 2008. Household debt fell a bit (-1.8% yoy in 3Q09), but most of this decline may well stem from bankruptcies, foreclosures and defaults rather than actual debt repayments by consumers. Personal savings rose by $490 billion, but dollars saved were down $100 billion from 2Q09. See tables F.8 and F.100:


The picture of American consumer behavior that emerges from these numbers is one of mild retrenchment in the face of dire conditions. Despite a scarcity of jobs, sharp losses in home equity and depleted savings accounts, Americans continue to shop religiously. This is the face of addiction, writ large across the 308 million people living in this country.

Is this shopping addiction a “high class problem” compared to the plight of the very poor in American society? I’ve written in an earlier blog entry about the very poor and their marginalization in the U.S., as well as their relative inability to participate in our intensely commercial economy. I’ve characterized their lack of choice as painful because of cultural conditioning and the social ostracism noted above. And extreme material deprivation – the lack of access to a safe, private space in which to eat, bathe and rest – causes tremendous suffering among homeless people. However, I’ve also alluded in a prior post to one positive aspect of severe poverty: the very poor aren’t stuck on the treadmill of endless, empty consumption that holds the rest of the country in its thrall. No scrawny donkeys for them, let alone sleek horses...they carry a bundle of sticks on their bony frames, making the rest of us look “good” as we pass by with our heads full of schemes and plans to deck out our bodies, houses and cars with the latest and greatest, whether we can afford it or not.

I don’t know for sure, but I suspect most homeless people don’t opt out of consumer society because they want to, but rather because their material circumstances dictate that they must. It seems probable that, given the means to do so, many homeless people would behave as their wealthier counterparts by consuming briskly and saving little to nothing of what they earn. But without access to income or credit, and without a safe private space to store personal possessions, the homeless are forced to do what the rest of our society could, but can’t, do: go cold turkey on shopping and borrowing. In an addictive society, the neediest cannot get their “fix” and in this crucial respect they are healthier than the rest of us.

With the holidays in full swing, I feel tempted to wish for an end to poverty and the America's rampant consumerism. It does sound appealing... no more haggard faces beseeching indifferent passersby to throw a coin in their cups, or at least to acknowledge their existence. No more “doorbuster” stampedes or fisticuffs, no more giants like Jdimytai Damour slain by stampeding swarms of product-addled ants. No more “experts” telling us where the stock market will go tomorrow and what we must buy if we want to be happy, secure and socially proud, no more Ben Bernanke or Tim Geithner or Wal-Mart.

But the problem with my wish would be that it’s a wish... something to cling to, something that excludes aspects of reality I find inconvenient or offensive. Like the heedless consumption my wish would abolish, it is a denial of reality, an attempt to parse good from bad and to perfect a world that, despite its obvious flaws, contains everything we need. The world is perfect, just as it is; we merely need to see clearly, to pay attention, and to drop our ideas and preconceptions about how things ought to be in order to recognize that perfection. Wanting to change reality to suit our individual tastes is just an addiction – in fact, it is the mother of all other addictions. And the mother of all battles is to drop the need to discriminate between superficially separate phenomena – good and bad, expensive and cheap, homebound and homeless – these and myriad other dualisms are the addictions to which we are all subject. Go cold turkey on this addiction, and everything will fall into place. As Seng T’san, the third Zen patriarch wrote in his “Verses on the Faith Mind”:


The Great Way is not difficult

for those who have no preferences.

When love and hate are both absent

everything becomes clear and undisguised.

Make the smallest distinction, however,

and heaven and earth are set infinitely apart.

If you wish to see the truth

then hold no opinions for or against anything.

To set up what you like against what you dislike

is the disease of the mind.

When the deep meaning of things is not understood,

the mind’s essential peace is disturbed to no avail.

So, was this blog posting a waste of my time and yours? Yes! No! Maybe!