American Consumerism: Pro

Holidays are dreadful. For me, they are family obligations, like weddings and anniversary parties. I don’t abhor family gatherings, but if the NFL chose not to air a marathon of football games during every holiday, then perhaps I’d be less annoyed. But what irritates me more than our culture’s acceptance of aggressive masculinity is the rhetoric over consumerism.

I cringe every year because of the preachers and the doomsayers. The peppy, holiday shirt-wearing crowds lamenting over our loss of humanity. They preach that our consumerism has derailed society from the true meaning of the holidays, the messages of “It’s about family” and “It’s about giving.” It’s as though, for a few sporadic days out of the year, people transform into Ned Flanders, minus the green sweater and “Okely dokely, neighborino.”

Then there are the pessimists who think that because they read an intro to philosophy book and watch documentaries on Chomsky that they have some awe-inspiring insight on society. They spout the usual anti-conformist rhetoric, “The American holiday is just commercialized happiness forced upon the masses by corporate America, so that we buy, buy, buy,” or “We are manipulated children being force-fed materialism whilst forgetting our humanity and making the rich man richer.” These are the same people who try to argue that Valentine’s Day and marriages are institutionalized displays of love.

Apparently to both crowds, consumerism has infected our veins, pumping designer jeans and expensive electronics through our hearts. We have surrendered to greed and forfeited our commiseration for iPods and Macs, thus becoming less human and more like the material things we supposedly cherish.

I can agree with almost any argument that industrialization has had negative effects on our communities, but consumerism is not a problem. We haven’t consumed our way into debt, nor have we lost a sense of philanthropy. We have not changed into self-obsessed, all-consuming machines aimlessly wandering through a meaningless artificial existence.

On the contrary, we consume fewer goods than our forefathers did and remain a nation of givers rather than selfish spenders.

There is no ascension towards affluenza, but we are ascending towards debt. Elizabeth Warren, an American bankruptcy law expert, Harvard Law School professor and the U.S. Senator-elect for Massachusetts, wrote “The Over-Consumption Myth.” She argues against America’s supposed rising consumption of consumer goods. When comparing American expenses between the 1970s and the 2000s, we actually spend 21 percent less on clothes, 22 percent less on food, 44 percent less on appliances and 30 percent less on furniture.

Warren’s findings reveal a more troubling truth about what exactly is consuming our money. We spent 68 percent more on mortgages, 90 percent more on healthcare, 58 percent more on cars, 100 percent more on childcare and 38 percent more on taxes. She states that 75 percent of money earned goes to recurring monthly expenses like tuition payments, mortgages and credit card payments. There has also been a 255 percent increase in foreclosure rates, a 430 percent increase in bankruptcy rolls and a 570 percent increase in credit card debt. And as Warren states, the credit card debt is not attributed to consumer goods but instead to the buying of food and necessities.

We haven’t become consumed by consumerism. We are being overwhelmed with advertisements either online or through TV commercials, but we have not turned into their sheep. We are not buying more to feel better; we can buy more because it’s cheaper. Mass production and cheap labor has allowed companies like Walmart and Target to sell us a pair of shoes for $30, which 60 years ago would have cost $60 or $70.

If Dick and Jane want to go to a Black Friday sale and fight the raging crowds to buy a flat screen for $100, so be it.

Perhaps we should be more concerned that these stores are allowed to offer Dick and Jane a credit card while they wait in line to pay for their flat screen. Or that their bank has just given them a bad loan that will drain their monthly income.

We may be a nation full of debt and who owns the must-have electronics of the year, but we have not lost our philanthropy. Funded by the Charities Aid Foundation, The World Giving Index (yes, there is such thing) measures how much every country donates to charities, does volunteer work and helps a stranger. In 2010, the United States was rated fifth, beneath the Netherlands and Ireland, with Australia ranked number one. In 2011, we jumped to the number one spot, being the first nation to receive a score of 60 percent. According to the report, 65 percent of Americans donate to charities, 43 percent do volunteer work and 73 percent have helped a complete stranger.

We are not being force-fed materialism; rather, we are being force-fed a false reality. We may have a consumerist economy, but we don’t seem to think or behave like consumerists who buy, buy, buy. There is a charitable, caring side to our society that is hidden behind the flashy advertisements that appear after every video and every show.

Lastly, there are 365 days in a year, and if we honestly choose to believe that a handful of holidays define a nation’s characters, then based off of Cinco de Mayo and St. Patrick’s Day, we are not only greedy consumerists, but also raging alcoholics.

Nidia Sandoval is a fourth year history major. She can be reached at nidias@uci.edu.