Julie Schor's The Overspent American
Reviewed by Theresa ForsmanThe Overspent American:
Upscaling, Downshifting, and the New Consumer
Juliet B. Schor
Basic Books, 1998
253 pages; $25.00
How does buying a BMW, a Rolex, or a golf club membership affect your life and others' lives? You might say the car is safe transportation, the watch is a reliable timepiece -- one you've wanted since graduate school and that you've earned with all those late nights at the office. You might see the golf club membership as necessary for someone in your line of work, where deals are done on Saturdays at the 19th hole. Few of us come right out and admit, even to ourselves, that what we're buying is status. And few of us have calculated the true price of such status symbols.
In her book, The Overspent American: Upscaling, Downshifting, and the New Consumer, economist Juliet B. Schor discusses the cost of what she calls competitive spending. What does the individual pay -- in time spent earning the money to buy such goods? What does society pay, in terms of needs that aren't financed?
Schor's book is an examination of why we buy the things we do, and why we are so willing to trade our most valuable, non-renewable resource -- time -- in exchange for them. Because of Madison Avenue, because of the phantom lives of TV characters, because of America's consumerist culture itself, many of us believe we are what we buy. If you doubt that status plays a big role in such decisions, note the difference in brand consciousness between socially visible and socially invisible products, Schor advises: We care more about the brand of jacket we wear or coffee we drink than about the brand name on the furnace in the basement or the life insurance policy in the file cabinet.
The Overspent American is Schor's response to a question raised by her earlier book, The Overworked American. A woman in the audience at a public lecture on the former book, which showed that Americans are working more and enjoying life less, wanted to know how to get out of the "cycle of work and spend." Schor said she felt certain that one part of the answer was "work less," but the idea of spending less raised questions: Was cutting back feasible for middle-class Americans? What motivates our spending? How does spending affect the quality of life for the middle class? If you can negotiate with the working world the shorter hours, can you negotiate the "lifestyle obstacles" standing between you and a lower income?
The long-term health of our world, ecologically and socially, depends upon America's ability to break the work-and-spend cycle, the author believes. Schor talked with people who have made the decision to "downshift," consciously backing away from deeply ingrained consumerism -- not into poverty, but into a way of life more consistent with their values. "Downshifting often involves soul-searching and a coming to consciousness about a life that may well have been on automatic pilot," she says.
Automatic pilot, indeed. The author discusses the role of denial -- psychological, not material -- in our consumption patterns. Denial not only keeps us spending, it helps us manage the moral conflicts, Schor says: "Most of our cherished religious and ethical teachings condemn excessive spending, but we don't really know what that means. We have a sense that money is dirty and a nagging feeling that there must be something better to do with our hard-earned dollars than give them to Bloomingdale's. As our salaries and creature comforts expand, many of us keep alive our youthful fantasies of doing humanitarian work, continuing the inner dialogue between God and Mammon. Not looking too hard helps keep that inner conflict tolerable. Squarely facing the fact that you spent $6,000 on your wardrobe last year and gave less than one-third of that sum to charity is a lot harder than living with a vague sense that you need to start spending less on clothes and giving away more money."
Schor concludes that "the costs of status consumption in the U.S. economy are considerable. . . The extra money we spend could arguably be better used in other ways -- improving our public schools, boosting retirement savings, or providing drug treatment for the millions of people the country is locking up in an effort to protect the commodities others have acquired. But unless we find a way to dissociate what we buy from who we think we are, redirecting those dollars will prove difficult indeed."
I recommend The Overspent American to those who recognize themselves in the title and, perhaps especially, to those who don't.
Theresa Forsman, a native Nebraskan who has lived on the East Coast for more than 20 yars, is an editor for The Record newspaper, Hackensack, N.J. She is a member of the Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County.
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