from The Worldview Literacy Book   copyright 2009            back to worldview theme(s) #26


#26A: Consumerists are those who believe in the fundamental importance of the role that purchasing goods and services plays in either their own individual lives, national free market economies, or both.  While the term is generally applied at the individual level—as in the above worldview theme description —one can imagine the term's increasing use at the national level.  Just as monetarists are those who stress the importance to a nation's economy of changes in the money supply, replace "money supply" with "consumer spending" and you've defined a consumerist at this higher level.  In the USA—with 4.5% of the world's population but 20% of global economy activity, with consumer spending having grown from 61% of national gross domestic product in 1980 to over 70% in 2009—most  economists are consumerists.  Not surprising given demand created by household buying drives >70% of economic activity.

     Where does demand come from?  Critics charge that much of it is artificially created by advertising—an industry whose annual U.S. expenditures are ~$150 billion (or $500/person), representing 37% of global ad expenditures.  By 2008 it was clear that American consumers could not afford much of what they bought. U.S. household debt as a percentage of disposable annual income had grown from 70% of national gross domestic product in 1980 to over 136%. 

     Continuing discussion of consumerism at the national level might first find us talking about consumption functions, marginal propensity to consume, discounting the future, and later shift to global topics like purchasing power parity, the growing U.S. trade deficit, globalization and the explosive growth of Chinese and Indian consumerism.  Despite that growth, in 2007, on a per capita basis, American consumers still outspent their counterparts in China and India by sixty times!  Instead of continuing the discussion at that level, instead imagine yourself as a dedicated American consumerist.

***************************************************     While perhaps one could say that I'm happiest when I'm shopping, I am sensible about it!  I don't do "shop until you drop!"  I am careful to avoid getting maxed out on a particular credit card, and generally try to use them to save money: getting discounts, rebates, coupons, frequent flyer miles or whatever for my purchases.  I try to distinguish "needs" from "wants!" Yes, sometimes when I'm down I reward myself and indulge in "instant gratification," but I avoid impulse buying!  I'm not addicted to shopping, nor a "prisoner" who does what advertisers want: I'm certainly able to resist the majority of those "pusher" attempts to hook me!  Especially TV propaganda— can you imagine listening to all that?   My hat is off to whoever invented the "mute" button!  I've been told 15% of TV time in the 1960s went for commercials and now it's 30%!  Years ago I heard that the average household encountered 1600 advertising messages per day—today I bet it's far more!  Can you imagine life on the internet without spam filters?  While I prefer shop-ping malls, during the Christmas season I will shop online to avoid crowds.  Given what parking lots look like, I believe that "Sacred Santa" stuff about how important Christmas sales are to the economy!  But shopping as a religion?  For me?  No way!  *************************************************** In many respects, today's consumers have it much better than shoppers of a half century ago.  (See Figure #26b.)  Consider some consumer history.  As the 1960s began, a movement to protect American consumers, both from health and safety dangers that products or services might pose and from unfair business practices such as fraud, misrepresentation, and collusion, was building.  By 1962 President Kennedy identified certain rights (to safe products, to file complaints, etc.) that latter, when expanded, formed The Consumer Bill of Rights.  Parts of it have become law.  By 1985 the United Nations embraced consumer rights and identified eight (see Figure #26a).   


   #26B: From its beginnings, America identified with abundance. Jeffrey Kluger (in a Time with "Our Super-Sized Kids" on the cover) tells the story as follows. "Settlers fleeing the privations of the Old World landed in the new one and found themselves on a fat juicy center cut of a continent, big enough to baste its coasts in two different oceans.  The prairies ran so dark with buffalo, you could practically net them like cod..."  It celebrated "big" (which often included arrogance, excess and waste) and "macho."  It put down "small" (which could mean humble calls for restraint) and "wimpy."  Its heroes were Paul Bunyan, the giant mythical figure in logging camps, Buffalo Bill, despite his being a latecomer to the slaughter of millions of Great Plains buffalo, Horatio Alger rages to riches characters, etc.

       While 1920s' conspicuous consumption was tempered by depression and world war, since then American consumer excess has soared to new heights: super size drinks, an obesity epidemic, McMansions, roads full of huge SUVs, big screen TVs, Christian televangelists preaching God wants you to have abundant wealth, outlandish corporate executive pay packages, and an increasingly "Winner Take All Society."  "Small is beautiful" was regionally popular in the 1970s, but it was no match for "more is better!"  When  President Carter urged shared sacrifice—turning down thermostats, putting on sweaters— in responding to the energy crisis, he was widely ridiculed!

     The frontier closed, but the individualistic frontier spirit that made America great is still alive, some say.  Critics counter that the country is like a child who never grew up!  Like a parent soothing a child hurt in a fall with candy, after the horrible blow on 9/11/2001, President Bush urged Americans to go shopping.

They did--spending record amounts--and by 2009 America was battling economic crisis.  Critics like Peter Morales connected.  the two.  "In the US and much of the world we have worshipped the false god of consumerism.  And this crisis is the result."

Figure #26a

Fundamental Rights of Consumers*

the right to the protection of health and safety

the right to the protection of financial interests


the right to the protection of legal interests

the right to representation  and participation

the right to information and instruction

* internationally accepted and recognized by the  European Union as constituting objectives of its consumer policy

Figure #26b: How to Treat Customers: Words of Wisdom from Marketing's Great Success Stories

Marshall Field: "The customer is always right!" (Field (1834-1906) or employee Harry Selfridge is usually credited with this.)

Sam Walton: "Exceed your customers expectations...Give them what they want—and a little more.  Let them know you appreciate them...Stand behind everything you do.  The two most important words I ever wrote were on that first Wal-Mart sign: 'Satisfaction Guaranteed.'" (from Sam Walton—Made in America, by Sam Walton (1918-1992) with John Huey)

Jeff Bezos: "Try to give your customers the biggest selection at the best prices, delivered cheaply and easily." (the mantra of Amazon's chief as paraphrased in Time May 12, 2008)

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