Brooks: who could possibly be responsible for encouraging Americans to consume so much? by mattsteinglass
July 23, 2008, 2:09 am
Filed under: Economics, United States

David Brooks, “The Culture of Debt”, July 22, 2008:

On the front page of Sunday’s Times, Gretchen Morgenson described Diane McLeod’s spiral into indebtedness, and now a debate has erupted over who is to blame….

America once had a culture of thrift. But over the past decades, that unspoken code has been silently eroded.

Some of the toxins were economic. Rising house prices gave people the impression that they could take on more risk. Some were cultural. We entered a period of mass luxury, in which people down the income scale expect to own designer goods. Some were moral. Schools and other institutions used to talk the language of sin and temptation to alert people to the seductions that could ruin their lives. They no longer do.

Norms changed and people began making jokes to make illicit things seem normal. Instead of condemning hyper-consumerism, they made quips about “retail therapy,” or repeated the line that Morgenson noted in her article: When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping.

McLeod and the lenders were not only shaped by deteriorating norms, they helped degrade them. Despite all the subterranean social influences, there still is that final stage of decision-making when individual choice matters. Each time an avid lender struck a deal with an avid borrower, it reinforced a new definition of acceptable behavior for neighbors, family and friends. In a community, behavior sets off ripples. Every decision is a public contribution or a destructive act.

And now the reckoning has come.

Now, what could possibly have transformed a culture of thrift into a culture of debt? Who could possibly have been out there irresponsibly encouraging Americans to celebrate their propensity to consume? Who could these malign actors be?

David Brooks, “Our Sprawling, Supersize Utopia,” NYT Magazine, April 4, 2004:

Suburban America as a comfortable but somewhat vacuous realm of unreality: consumerist, wasteful, complacent, materialistic and self-absorbed…These criticisms don’t get suburbia right. They don’t get America right. The criticisms tend to come enshrouded in predictions of decline or cultural catastrophe. Yet somehow imperial decline never comes, and the social catastrophe never materializes. American standards of living surpassed those in Europe around 1740. For more than 260 years, in other words, Americans have been rich, money-mad, vulgar, materialistic and complacent people. And yet somehow America became and continues to be the most powerful nation on earth and the most productive…If we’re so great, can we really be that shallow?

…Born in abundance, inspired by opportunity, nurtured in imagination, spiritualized by a sense of God’s blessing and call and realized in ordinary life day by day, this Paradise Spell is the controlling ideology of national life. Just out of reach, just beyond the next ridge, just in the farther-out suburb or with the next entrepreneurial scheme, just with the next diet plan or credit card purchase, the next true love or political hero, the next summer home or all-terrain vehicle, the next meditation technique or motivational seminar; just with the right schools, the right moral revival, the right beer and the right set of buddies; just with the next technology or after the next shopping spree — there is this spot you can get to where all tensions will melt, all time pressures will be relieved and happiness can be realized.

This Paradise Spell is at the root of our tendency to work so hard, consume so feverishly, to move so much. It inspires our illimitable faith in education, our frequent born-again experiences. It explains why, alone among developed nations, we have shaped our welfare system to encourage opportunity at the expense of support and security; and why, more than people in comparable nations, we wreck our families and move on. It is the call that makes us heedless of the past, disrespectful toward traditions, short on contemplation, wasteful in our use of the things around us, impious toward restraints, but consumed by hope, driven ineluctably to improve, fervently optimistic, relentlessly aspiring, spiritually alert and, in this period of human history, the irresistible and discombobulating locomotive of the world.

Oops! Our locomotive discombobulated your world. Sorry about that!

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