December 24, 2007

Dazed and Consumed

author_karen By Karen Sternheimer

You might have noticed that the news the day after Thanksgiving is almost always the same: people waiting in line all night to get into stores, and then pushing in a feeding frenzy when the stores open. Not exactly about giving thanks…or the supposed spirit of the holiday season (Peace on Earth?).

No, but the holiday shopping season is perhaps the most quintessentially American aspect of celebration. Our custom has grown into gorging ourselves on food one day and buying a lot of stuff the next. Those of us who do neither are often looked upon with confusion, as I was after I told people who asked that I had a normal-sized dinner on Thanksgiving and stayed home the next clip_image002day.

On “Black Friday” (so-called because retailers hope to get in “the black,” or make a profit), shopping becomes competitive, even ruthless, in order to get as many bargains before someone else takes them. (Forget the pilgrims and Native Americans sharing a feast; think Ayn Rand instead).

I went shopping the day after Thanksgiving exactly once in my life, and it was extremely unpleasant. We had a long search for a parking spot, then once in the mall were part of a sea of humanity that barely moved. I found it very stressful, and I can’t be the only one who did. I am always perplexed when somebody asks me if I have gotten all my shopping done with the same complaining tone you might expect if they asked whether I had filed my income tax returns.

Shopping is a tricky thing: on the one hand, it can be fun—we might get stuff that we really like that (momentarily) makes us feel good. We might even succeed at choosing the right gift for someone else that they also enjoy (or at least claim to enjoy). 

But lots of us Americans have the tendency to overdo it. The average American household has more than $8,000 in consumer debt, much of it from holiday shopping. As the Los Angeles Times reported, one nineteen-year-old who had just purchased a plasma TV for his father knew he couldn't really afford it. “I’ll be making monthly payments on my credit card until this time next year. But it’s the holidays. You do what you have to.”

That’s just it. So many of us think we “have to” that it belies the notion of giving (which, in theory, is voluntary). Have you ever thought about why buying stuff for people has almost become a requirement? 

Consumers are vital to the American economy; if we stopped buying things that we can’t afford, the economy would be in serious trouble. Think about it: forecasters sound the alarm when our purchasing rate is only slightly higher than the year before, even if the last year was a very profitable one! Capitalism is all about growth though, and slow growth or no growth is hardly acceptable.

But we’re not entirely pawns of big business either, so it would be wrong to say that we are just lemmings that do what everyone else does. As a college professor waiting in a pre-dawn line with his son to enter an electronics store told the Los Angeles Times, "No one's waiting here out of necessity. It's all supplemental to their lives. It's just fun because it's kind of like a cult and a bonding opportunity."

The problem starts when we want to “join” a community of consumption so badly that we make decisions that are not in our best interests--like taking on a large amount of consumer debt, for instance. The “bargains” lose their value if it takes a year to pay for them at a 19% interest rate. But the economic engine keeps humming this way.

One of the biggest purchases most people ever make, a home, is also one of the best ways to achieve status and literally become part of a community. It seems okay for people buy well beyond their means, until they can’t pay their mortgage. And if a lot of people can’t pay their credit card bills or the monthly mortgage (a reasonable predictable outcome when people buy things they can’t afford), it can seriously hurt the economy, as it has recently. So over consumption isn’t always a good thing for American corporations.

Opting out of the lure of consumption is a possibility…but there are often social pressures that make this a challenge. Having new stuff is very tempting, especially if other people seem to be enjoying their new gadgets that you don’t have. It’s also hard not to buy gifts for who buy them for you, lest you seem cheap or a “scrooge.”

And most importantly, much of our day-to-day existence requires us to buy things, like food, gas, clothes, and other essentials. But most of us buy way more than we actually need. That’s why Buy Nothing Day proponents and "downshifting," (buying only the bare essentials), have appealed to some people. Others even "dumpster dive," or find food and discarded items in the trash.

These kinds of groups are often vilified as part of radical fringe element; going through other peoples’ trash seems unappealing to a lot of people (particularly the aromatically sensitive among us). But marginalizing these groups has less to do with sifting through slimy garbage and more with the threat their ideas pose to the consumer marketplace. Maybe we won’t all go through the garbage or stop shopping, but even thinking about consuming less spells trouble for our buy-more-than-we-need economy.

I’m certainly not beyond the lure of shopping and consuming. I can get excited about new things just as much as anyone else (especially if I think I got a bargain). But the thrill wears off pretty quickly.

clip_image004Some people have suggested that we re-evaluate the way in which consumption has taken over holidays like Christmas and Hanukkah. Christmas wasn’t a federal holiday until 1870; the ultra-observant Puritans didn’t take the day off for Christmas, and certainly would not indulge their children with piles of presents.

Rather than “pure” celebrations in the past, historian Gary Cross describes how these holidays took on prominence in the United States after making them “children’s” holidays in the nineteenth century; part of infantilizing the celebrations included promoting toy giving. Retailers then had a large incentive to promote the idea that these were in fact important holidays. And so they are.

So we need to remember that traditions have, and can, change. Rather than buying nothing or totally depriving ourselves of new things, I suggest consuming critically—thinking about why we buy.


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I like the article, it is very informative. the day after thanksgiving is trulh hectic.

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