Comparative Consumerism & Consumption

In response to the subject of a post-consumerist society, NewDealer writes:

What is an economy that is not built on consumerism? What is the alternative?

This is a serious question. I am not saying that being a consumer all the time is good but critics of consumerism have yet to come up with an alternative model that I consider to be sustainable and/or pleasant.

Most critics of consumerism seem to be filled with Freshman 101 sort of rebellion. As I once joked about on facebook but got a lot of likes, one day these people “will want nice things to”. In other words, most of them will end up just as middle class as the backgrounds they came from and are currently rebelling against.

The modern notion of a vast middle class is more or less based on consumerism and is a continuation of the Victorian Industrial Revolution’s ability to take former luxury items and make them affordable for the masses. Now we do it with clothing, electronics and vacations and restaurants instead of chocolate, candles, and soap though.

I was listening to NPR’s Planet Money once and they were interviewing a very thrifty woman who basically urged everyone to stop buying anything new (furniture, books, clothing, electronics, etc) and also to stop going to restaurants. If everyone took her advice, the economy would collapse and we would all be more miserable. Plus life would be really boring without restaurants.

That being said, I agree we should think more in terms of sustainability over growth, growth, growth that creates boom and bust cycles. But I will still take post-consumerist talk more seriously when I hear a serious proposal about how to do so in a nation of 300 plus million people. It is not sustainable to imagine every American becoming a hippie on a commune and that is what many anti-Consumerists [seem to] want.

It is comparatively easy to be against consumerism, at least in the abstract. When we’re not careful, we typically mean the poor consumption decisions of others. I mean, I don’t think of myself as particularly consumerist, but I have a whole boatload of electronics that would beg to differ. I love electronics. I don’t know that they make me happier than I would be if they did not exist, but given that they exist I would rather have them than not have them. Is this worthy of criticism? I’m not sure. But I doubt it’s going away.

Of course, the real enemy is status consumption, as far as that goes. This is an area where I do reasonably well. In a way, though, it’s at least sometimes a form of image-making in and of itself. It was hard for me to mentally go from that guy who owns an aging Ford to that guy who has a relatively new Subaru. I bought the latter out of utility, and with more than a little bit of discomfort. That tells me that my previous consumption habits were at least a little bit about self-image. Not all self-image consumption is created equal. Even conspicuously opting out of a material arms race has pluses, and maybe minuses, compared to the waste created by an unwillingness to make do.

The arms race, though, itself has material repercussions. This is where any sort of post-consumerism is going to get really difficult. Our houses don’t need to be as big as they are in the absolute sense. There is utility in having large houses, as well as costs, but one of the driving factors isn’t about absolute size, but relative size. Big houses don’t just give you more space, but they price undesirables out. The comparative importance of this, for a very large section of the population, can scarcely be overstated. There is the natural desire to live amongst one’s peers. There are concerns about crime. There are lifestyle clashes that occur across economic lines. There are schools to consider if there are children involved.

The notion that large numbers of people might opt out of this strikes me as extremely unlikely. The collective action problem here is immeasurable. The most that could be hoped for is to change the parameters. That involves, among other things, having less to spend money on. Or, alternately, having less money to spend. The end result, though, is not a significantly less consumerist mindset, though the end result could be less waste and more “sustainability.” The hard part would be accomplishing this without adversely materially affecting the bottom. I have enormous difficulty figuring out how you accomplish that. I have a lot of difficulty envisioning it.

Will Truman

Will Truman is the Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. He is also on Twitter.


  1. A great post, but probably because I don’t have much of substance to say, I’ll write a self-indulgent comment about ME! because what the blogosphere really needs is to learn more about Pierre Corneille (the pseudonymous commenter, not the playwright):

    I think I tend to be happier with fewer rather than more goods. However, I think this is largely because I already have pretty much everything I need for now and because I have much more than that. Also, I do like the idea that a lot of things I might want are less expensive in large part because of mass production made possible by mass consumption. I probably don’t *need* a $30 DVD player, but I generally like the fact that I can buy one if I want to (I actually own one already).

    I buy almost all my clothes at thrift stores. I do it primarily because it’s cheaper. In short, I would rather buy my clothes at Target, but that’s not in the cards right now. I don’t do it primarily as a status thing, although among my fellow grad students, there is a certain hipsteresque cachet with getting one’s clothes from thrift stores and I sometimes play to it when it’s to my status advantage among them. (I’m also lucky. The thrift store I go to has a lot of the type of clothes I like.) One thing I’ll say about buying things used is that they are generally available and cheap(er) in large part because of mass consumption/production. The clothes I get at the thrift store are so plentiful and cheap in large part because those who donated them can get other clothes new. I’m not therefore independent of consumer society; I’m a beneficiary.

    But as I said, I’m generally “happier” with fewer things, although perhaps with the caveat that I have what I need and much of what I want and might not be as “happy” if the level of my material possessions didn’t meet that threshold. I would probably be more “unhappy” with a surfeit of goods–it’s a question of clutter and losing myself in my possessions….and when I think of, say, owning a house or a car, I thing principally of the costs (maintenance, etc.) and not the benefits–but I should also say that it’s not a measure of happiness I’m willing to prescribe for others. I depend to much on the general system to want to change it radically and although I have some sympathy with those who want “sustainability” and “smart growth,” in the end and for perhaps selfish reasons, I prefer only to tweak the consumerism and not call for any sweeping reform (which neither you nor New Dealer, nor Michelle to whom New Dealer was responding, seem to be too much in disagreement with).

    • Veblen’s hierarchy of needs is instructive here.

      First, as you note, you need enough stuff to meet your actual needs. Now, this turns out to be not a whole lot of stuff compared to what consumer society urges people to have, as your experience reveals.

      Second, there’s the matter of comparing yourself to your peers. I suspect that since you’re a graduate student, most of your peers are, too. You likely don’t think you’re too far behind most of your peers in terms of possessions and money and lifestyle.

      And finally, at some level you must be aware that you are actually in an elite stratum of society as part of the academy, engaged in an interesting and self-selected field of study instead of, say, rendering manual labor all day long. I don’t claim the academic life is stress-free, but it’s better than a lot of other things you could be doing!

      • I agree pretty much with most of what you say here, especially the last paragraph, any of my frustrations with academia notwithstanding.

    • Interestingly I have a hardtime buying clothing at thrift stores for various reasons:

      1. I am shorter than the average American male by about three inches. Most of the clothing I see at thrift stores is sized for guys in large. I need small, sometimes medium.

      2. Most of it is aesthetically unpleasing to me and smells like it has been in grandpa’s closet and surrounded by mothballs for decades. I am sure there is good stuff but I don’t have the patience to go through the racks.

      3. Inherited from both my parents, I like really nice clothing. I appreciate the aesthetics of good design. Perhaps this is also why I partially became a lawyer over a techie. There is something neat about wearing a really nice suit and pair of shoes every now and then. I would not want to wear suits everyday but neither would I want to wear jeans, t-shirts, and a pair of chucks every day either.

      • I’ve lucked out on my particular thrift store. It’s in a gentrifying neighborhood (about one block away from where Oprah had her studio….in fact, the studio is still there).

        I prefer larger clothing. I keep telling myself it’s not because I’m getting (ahem) more robust in girth, even though I probably am. Rather, I like larger clothing because, well, I like loose-fitting clothes. I like wearing a large or extra large shirt even though a medium would technically fit. (My girlfriend/fiance vetoed one of my thrift-store choices, however. It was an XXXL pair of sweatpants.)

        Most people who know me would say I don’t have very much fashion sense. I’m just not a sharp dresser. I’m very very lucky that my current part-time job, at my university library’s archives, permits me to wear the type of techie-esque clothes you probably wouldn’t like, even when I work the reference desk. When/if I graduate/run out of extensions, I’ll gleefully take any honest job I can get, whether it requires a suit and tie or, um, a uniform. But my preference would be to have a job where I can wear my extra large clothes.

        • Wouldn’t XXXL sweatpants just fall off your waist?

          I don’t like super tight clothing but I don’t want it to look baggy either.

          • It would if I wanted to wear them outside the house. But when I’m just sitting around watching tv or blogging, they’re adequate. These pants were more of a “I need sweatpants and these are the only ones I could find at the thrift store” situation than a “I really want these sweatpants” situation.

  2. “Big houses don’t just give you more space, but they price undesirables out”
    … and people say living in the city is dumb! You buy a big house, you sign up for WAY bigger maintenance costs. Me, I got a small house and high priced land.

    • Maintenance costs are… errr… costs of course, but they do serve to keep separation.

      High priced land can do the same (Hello Jackson Hole!), but it depends on either having a lot of land (sprawl!) or having land where there is a scarcity either due to geology (JH) or development.

      In some cases, though, it’s the size of the house that still helps keep people at bay. For example, there are a couple innerburbs in my home city. A house of 2,500sqft will cost you about half a mil in a metro where that’s somewhat unusual. They don’t have small houses, though, because part of the advantage of living there is living around people who can afford houses that cost a half a million dollars.

      Maybe there’s a collective action problem where you could have houses that are 1,500sqft and lot sizes that are less than 9,000sqft. But you’d have to find a way to do that while keeping the schools good and having neighbors with similar SES.

      Anyway, whether looking at house size or lot size (both of which are large in innerburb), these things are kept bundled together. Making it look like people are being opulent. And they are, in a way, but there are also some very distinct advantages to having these things bundled.

      • Compare: my 1930’s neighbors built their houses to hold their entire family, but most of the zoning is for zero-chicken lots (as chickens were seen to be lower class) — small lots

        Why’s it good to have neighbors with similar SES?

        I have expensive land — that’s cause it’s in a nice neighborhood, not because it’s large (two chicken house, for what it matters, but it’s on a hill, so the backyard goes up)

        • Compare: my 1930′s neighbors built their houses to hold their entire family, but most of the zoning is for zero-chicken lots (as chickens were seen to be lower class) — small lots

          I’m not following…

          Why’s it good to have neighbors with similar SES?

          It’s what most people want. Their SES or higher. There are issues of schools, property crime, community norms (noise, cars on cinder blocks on the front lawn), and so on. Or at least the persistent perception that these are issues that are more likely to track with race.

          It’s a perception that’s hard to combat. Even if you look at crime rates within an area, it’s not evenly distributed. Even if you are looking at schools as input determining output, the perception is that schools matter and the preference that Junior go to school with “better” kids.

          My wife and I may have to temporarily relocate here for a couple months before we move. We’re talking about what kind of place we could live in. Trailer parks and mobile home parks came up. There’s no issue with living in that kind of housing, but there is an issue living in a park full of people living in that kind of housing. My wife’s primary source on it is… the people who live there and what they tell her.

          We actually live on the “wrong” side of town at the moment, though our house itself is nice. I mean, we love the house. We might even buy it, if we could and we were staying. But the neighborhood is a concern. The other neighborhood across town with lots of houses like ours would be nicer. This is despite the fact that the school situation is completely off the table – as are any concerns with being in a minority racial/ethnic group for our area.

          We’ve lived in lower-SES places before. We’ve made a habit of it, actually. A product of our thrifty nature and that Clancy has historically worked at downtown hospitals. It wasn’t too bad, in the overall, but it’s unlikely that we would be raising a family in any of those places. Unless it’s an outlier house like this one, we’d probably be living somewhere in a “nice” neighborhood, which has significant SES implications. Also, would likely result in our having a nicer and bigger house regardless of our personal preferences.

          I’ve gotten into this with libertarian-types before, and others, when the subject of houses being larger comes up (and the believing that this should mitigate things when we talk about “the cost of housing.”) It does mitigate the cost of housing argument somewhat, but only somewhat. Because now people have to by a bigger house in order to have the sorts of neighbors that they want. So you’re getting more space, but if you bought a house with a similar amount of space before, you’re likely getting different neighbors. At least, this is true in the boomtowns with which I am most accustomed.

          An upper middle class neighborhood is likely to have some working class people in it as well as some thrifty upper class folks. A working class neighborhood, while having mostly working class people in the majority of plurality, is going to have some middle class people, but is also more likely to have some lower working class people in it. So people are going to gravitate towards the higher class housing they can find. Generally speaking. That housing is going to come bundled with some degree of opulence. Some people are going to be there for the opulence. Others are going to be there to be with people that can afford it (or are concerned enough that they are stretching themselves to arrange it).

          I don’t doubt that there are a lot of exceptions to this. Particularly in older cities like yours and those with more stagnant populations where there’s not such a housing race. Sometimes you also see land and location that is so desirable that there is a lot of pushback and neighborhoods with more modest homes in previously problematic areas are “re-claimed” by well-to-dos. But there is enough of what I am talking about to move the needle, to drive a significant amount of our bigger-is-better housing mentality, the push to suburbs and newer developments, and so on.

  3. It seems to me that there is a continuum of luxury itemness. On this end we’ve got things that are “you get what you pay for” kinda things. On that end you’ve got vestigial evolutionary signalling or something.

    There are a lot of luxury items are just silly and wasteful. Those figurines that you put in a cabinet. Tchotchkes and knick-knacks and things that just sit there. Ugh. Silly luxuries. Luxuries that say “I do nothing but sit here” are luxuries that strike me as little more than signalling “I have enough time to dust this”.

    In contrast, I didn’t have a luxury mattress until I was 36 years old.

    OH MY FREAKING GOD PEOPLE YOU NEED TO GET YOURSELF A LUXURY MATTRESS. Seriously, you spend one quarter of your life on that thing, maybe more, you should have a mattress that reflects the amount of time you spend on or near it.

    The luxuries like fluffy cloud mattresses and red pepper jelly goat cheese sandwiches that are now in reach of schlubs like me indicate a triumph of consumerism. Hell, even rent to own allows for stuff that, once upon a time, would only be available to billionaires now being available to anybody with a 470 credit score.

    I can’t wait to see what the market will have available when I’m 60.

    • Having a house that won’t lose half it’s value in the next 10-20 years seems to be a luxury that most folks are unwilling to pay for.
      Grasshoppers happy about what they can score for cheap, living on air.
      The ants shake their heads sadly.

    • I used to buy really cheap sneakers. They were fine. People kept telling me I needed to get fancy ones, because they had this and that but mostly because they were so comfortable. Eventually, I gave in and paid three times as much as I was used to for a pair, and, geez, people were right. They were amazing. It was like walking around barefoot on a nice thick carpet where before I’d been barefoot on concrete.

      I’ve been wearing that kind of sneaker for decades now. They’re fine.

      • I did the same for dress shoes. I find that $300 dress shoes last more than 3 times as long as $100 dress shoes and more than6x longer than $50 shoes. So it’s a good deal even if they felt and looked the exact same. However, they look and feel 10x better. Comfortable shoes that I wear 50 hours a week 50 weeks a year is worth spending more, even though you’re spending less.

        • Agreed. Though I tend to wait until I can get a really good sale deal like 40 percent off or more. I’m very good at this.

      • I have a friend who runs marathons, and when his running shoes are no longer good for running but still good for walking, he mails them to me. It saves me on my shoes-costs.

          • It really has been a god-send for me. I used to buy shoes for about $20 a pair at Payless and walk them into oblivion within 3 months (I walk a lot), and my friend’s shoes last me at least that long. I haven’t bought shoes in almost two years.

    • “On that end you’ve got vestigial evolutionary signalling or something.”

      There are two types of this kind of signalling. You have the obvious “luxury” brands that everyone knows are expensive and can be easily spotted a mile away. This is stuff like Coach, Prada, Louis Vuitton, etc. Very obviously branded stuff.

      The real signalling comes from brands that are quality and expensive but more conspicuous. They either are produced in smaller batches and/or have non-obvious trademarks. Sometimes they are designed to look cheap/shabby/industrial but really are not. The Japanese like to make expensive clothing inspired by classic American workwear.

      I am going to disagree with you about the figurines. Most of them are not to my taste at all but they are not silly and wasteful. People generally want their homes to look warm and inviting and not like a student dormroom, monk’s cell, or antiseptic hospital room. This is where art and furniture comes in. It expresses our personality and also shows a level. I am a 32 year old newly minted lawyer with a decent starting job. I want my apartment to match this part of my life. I am a bit too old for Ikea and posters.

      • There’s one thing that Andy Warhol pointed out that BLEW MY MIND.

        If the Queen wants to drink a Coke, she drinks the same Coke that you and I drink. (She drinks Beefeater now, of course, but back when Andy Warhol was still alive, she drank Cokes from time to time.)

        Extrapolate out: Michael Jackson drank the same Pepsi you and I did. Ben Affleck drinks the same Starbucks you and I do. *BRANDS* have become something that even the rich and famous partake in because they’re the *BRANDS*.

        I’ve never managed to sit through the entire movie of Andy Warhol eating a Whopper but I think I understand what he’s going for.

        • are you sure she drinks the same Coke? Coke differs by bottling plant. (And that’s not even Carribean or Mexican Coke).

        • True enough to a certain extent but there are brands and there are brands.

          Some brands are popular based on on history/name alone and are not necessarily a good quality product.

          Others are still brands and known but do make a good quality product. I find that Jeans by Seven For all Mankind are more comfortable than a pair of Levi’s for 50 dollars or a pair of Gap Jeans. I also agree with Mike and Mo about dress shoes.

          It is also not a good comparison to compare soft drinks and coffee to clothing. You might drink the same coffee as someone who is really rich and famous but are you buying the same shoes, clothing, and furniture?

          • Depends on the really rich. The superrich? no. but they’re buying more expensive shit just for the laughs. not because it’s better, but because it costs more and they’re dumb.

            The rich? The self-made millionaires? They shop at costco and buy furniture from Ikea. How else do you think they made money?

          • at Kim:

            I somewhat disagree. Yes everyone shops at costco but there are plenty of well-off people who are not being thrifty by continuing to get furniture at IKEA. These are not the super-rich by a long shot. Many make salaries in the high five to mid-six figure range.

            Most of the professional types I know take it as a point of pride when they are no longer buying IKEA furniture because it means not being a “student” anymore.

            Who are these millionaires who buy at IKEA? How do you differentiate between the upper-middle class types who like the Design within Reach stuff? What sort of world are you living on?

          • New,
            Yeah, you’re making my point, not breaking my point.
            I cited costco because it’s got the highest % of millionaires shopping there.

            Plenty of folks want to be told what to do by the Television.
            Plenty of folks live outside their means…

            Ikea Millionares are Quants, so your Wozniaks and not your Jobs. (and we’re assuming you’re getting the quality stuff from Ikea, not the junk).

      • none of this is for the rich. Rich don’t do branding at all. If you’re rich, you’v eput the time and effort into knowing when someone’s wearing custom clothes.

        Branding is cheating, and cheating is for busy middle class folks.

        Figurines are just like everything else. People are told to buy them, told that their too large houses need something to fill the too empty shelves, and they buy things to convince themselves that they have “made it”. and express their individuality.

        MY art is faux stained glass, that serves as a privacy curtain while letting in MUCH more light than standard window dressings (particularly in teh bathroom!). Functional AND pretty.

          • Okay. Brand one of the Koch brothers. Pull me a picture and name the brands on him. Bonus: name his tailor.

          • I’m not talking about that level.

            I’m talking about people who are professionals and make high incomes which is what I think most of the upper-middle class and above is.

          • I don’t know very many rich people. Those I do know tend to fall into a very specific category. Namely, a chemical plant near where I grew up went public and a lot of the engineers became millionaires overnight. I don’t know where they shopped. I do know that a lot of them bought newer and bigger houses (moving out of our neighborhood, their former residency within being how we knew them). Even if they shopped at Target, that might just as much have been a carryover from their previous life.

            When we talk about the wealthy, and what they do, it does matter to talk about how long they have been wealthy, and what they were already doing before they were.

          • at Will.

            I grew up in an upper-middle class suburb with Boomer parents. Most of my classmates also had boomer parents. Our parents were mainly professionals: lawyers, doctors, consultants, a few engineers but more on the law/medicine side. Most of our parents grew up as part of the initial suburban middle class of the post War years. My dad was a bit odd in that he was born in 1947 but grew up in NYC. The parents of my cohort were firmly middle class but encouraged by their parents to go to university/grad school and might have been second generation college students. Three of my four grandparents had some college education or more.

            Were the people in my hometown as wealth as the Koch brothers? No. But my hometown was largely in the top 10 percent or above in terms of income and there is no IKEA shopping. There are thrifty people of vast wealth but I think Kim is going more for a myth. I doubt the Koch brothers by cheap suits at the Mall.

            Of course we can get into a whole debate about income wealthy vs. capital wealthy. I grew up among the income wealthy (Lawyers and Doctors making 6 figure salaries) and perhaps this creates different consumption habits.

          • I have a friend who became quite wealthy when his company went public. He told me once that his family stills eats at Taco Bell sometimes, and when they do they still share one all-you-can-drink soda.

          • NewDealer,
            Millionaires will tell you that anything under 6million isn’t wealthy. And they’re right. Below that, you’ve got your bourgeiosie, the folks who work for a living — and even if working for a living is being a CEO, they’re good at their job.

            Doctors and lawyers buy branded suits off the rack.

  4. Thanks for the shout out.

    I think you bring up a good point that when people become critical of consumptive consumerism , they are almost exclusively talking about people who buy stuff (and are willing to pay a premium) for stuff that does not interest said person. We almost never think of our fun purchases as being consumerist. So a techie person might see a fashionista as being consumerist. The person who only needs IKEA furniture might see the Herman Miller/Design within Reach fan as being consumerist. Consumerist is good short hand for vapid, shallow, and superficial.

    There are two strains of anti-Consumerism. The Freshman 101/radical kind that sees consumerism as a form of corporate control. These are bright and slightly bohemian college students with big ideas, big plans to change the world and want to find more meaning than getting a corporate job and starting a family. It is entirely age appropriate if somewhat to very hypocritical at times. Most indie types are rebelling against their upper-middle class upbringings in my experience. For some reason that I have not been able to figure out, they feel inauthentic because of their upper-middle class roots.) Most people eventually grow out of this as they get older and discover nice things are good. Some people stay radical/communal though. The hypocrisy part comes from these people probably have lots of electronic type goods that are attached to their hips even if they wear thrift store clothing and dabble with veganism.

    The other type of anti-consumerism is the thrifty woman on NPR. This I suspect is still connected to a kind of Calivinism/Puritanism. Being thrifty is a moral/categorical imperative to these people. Sometimes they do out of of necessity but others have all the money in the world and are still thrifty and basically miserly. This form of anti-consumerism strikes me as being too dour. There is a healthy balance between being a spendthirft and being miserly. I don’t see why purchasing second hand and not eating out are issues of morality. These people bring out the great line from Shakespeare’s 12th Night to me “Does thou think because thou art virtuous, that there shall be no more cakes and ale?

    As for changing sustainability, I think it is going to require serious education and a long-term plan with a light touch. Tout the benefits of buying an older, smaller house over a big and new McMashion. Get people to feel pride in having a house with “history”. Tell people that antique furniture is better than something new and cheaply made. Teach people about quality over quantity. Europeans seem generally better at the quality over quantity aspect.

    • Yeah, sure, if you can save 50% of your paycheck, do as you please with the rest of it.

    • Changing sustainability is all about teaching folks how to “buy rich”. disposable stuff generally sucks, and breaks whne it’s least convenient.

    • Changing sustainability is all about incorporating externality costs into the actual price of everyday transactions.

      But people think they have a FSM right to cheap gasoline and cheap electricity. Woe be to the politico that gets in the way of that. (but praise be to those that assist that end

    • I have some friends who fall into the second category (the more ascetic sort) and have a great admiration for them. I could never do it myself. It’s dour, but I have an appreciation for people who can genuinely live by a moral code. Someone who preaches sexual purity may or may not be living up to it – I have no way of knowing – but it is easier to verify when someone who can afford better electronics than I have, loves electronics, but keeps it to a real minimum. (I use electronics as an example.)

      My aesthetic tastes in some ways tend to fall more along anti-consumerist lines. Our current house was built in 1908 and we love it. I was salivating when I was looking at houses in New England and there were a lot of old ones. The problem is that there are a number of logistical drawbacks. The amount of money required for some of the houses to get them up to the place where I would want them (particularly in terms of wiring), not to mention the size and dimensions, make it kind of tough.

      In another context, I have mentioned working in a town that has past its prime. There are a ton of neat old buildings, but they are in a state of disrepair. Whether in such a state or not, though, if a major employer were to move to the area, I suspect that they would find it more economical to build anew rather than move into one of those buildings.

      • I’m not opposed to thrifty or ascetic living. I’m opposed to people who see it as a moral/categorical imperative and look down at those who want to live otherwise.

        Though from an armchair sociological standpoint I think certain things are labeled consumerist more quickly than others. It seems very easy for people to get snooty about clothing, accessories, and furniture on consumerists v. anti-consumerists lines. But
        I’ve never heard someone be called a consumer for spending lots of money on electronics and video games or media stuff.

        • Though from an armchair sociological standpoint I think certain things are labeled consumerist more quickly than others.

          I think this is broadly true, though I would say that there is a significant overlap between asceticism and luddititry. The two people in my own life that I most associate with it aren’t luddites, but are relatively thrifty when it comes to electronics. One went without broadband because he could hook his laptop up to his phone (he had no desktop, the phone wasn’t even a smartphone). They don’t go without, but they also don’t do what I do (which is stock up on computer stuff, albeit usually on discount). They don’t get high and mighty about it (and one is generous in spinning my own consumption habits as being okay because I buy used and second-hand), but I do get the sense that it’s a moral issue with them.

          But when I think of these people collectively, I think of a step further into luddititry in the sense that I think of them as being against television and against video games more broadly. I suspect most own smartphones (both of the aforementioned do) but not smartphones plus tablet plus desktop plus laptops.

          For my own part, I am generally inclined towards muttering about the electronic asceticists most of of all. One way to get me on my high horse was the “I don’t own a TV” crowd. Scratch below the surface, and the existence of advertising, and what that represents, plays a role in their thinking at least sometimes.

          • Interestingly, I was not making that association but I can see it being true.

            I used to belong to another internet community and got a fair bit of heat (but also props) f0r being into clothing as we have talked about before. I like and notice quality clothing that costs a bit of money. There was often an attitude of “Why can’t you be happy just buying jeans, t-shirts, and a hoddie from Target or Thinkgeek?” in most of the group.

            However, they spent a lot more money on electronic goods than I do and did not see those as consumerist.

          • ND, I don’t doubt it. I take pride in my thriftiness in a number of respects and to glance skeptically at some forms of extravagance. But I also have a smartphone, a tablet, four operational desktops (two retired ones that I still possess), an unseemly number of laptops, and so on. These things were purchased on the cheap, but it wouldn’t be hard for someone to critically say “Do you really need all those laptops?” The answer is no, and in a different financial system I wouldn’t have them.

            Most of us, except perhaps the truly devoted, have blindspots. Things that are important to us. Sometimes there is the tendency to be defensive about it. If someone talks about their new Rolex, I will probably come to some unfair judgments. Yet, at least a part of it would be because I would assume that they are looking down on me for having the goofy (and cheap) watches that I do.

            I don’t get that sense from you. I mean, you have aesthetic standards – but I agree with those at least to some degree – and don’t have any silent grunts at the fact that you apparently have not only a formal wardrobe, but apparently a really nice one. Someone else talking about these things, and I might have to fight off uncharitable assumptions.

          • I used to be a “I don’t own a TV” and in short order transitioned into “I have a TV and don’t like,” and in shorter order transitioned into “I have a TV and I like it and I would buy cable if I could afford it.” But when I was anti-TV, it tended to be more along the lines that I read more and did more active things and I thought (and still do) I was in many ways a better person for it.

            However, the last time I was TV-less, the internet had happened and I spent about as much time on the internet as I had used to on TV, and although the internet can be intellectually stimulating, there is still something about it that I think is unhealthful for me, even though I read blogs all the time and enjoy it.

            When it comes to cell phones, I used to be a “I would never get a cell phone” and in short order became a “I have a cell phone and don’t like it” and now I am a “I don’t have a cell phone anymore and am glad I don’t.” I think for all of their beneficent uses,* their role in my life so far has been largely to complicate it and make it more stressful. When I think of a smartphone, I can think almost only of the potential costs, not just the price of the “data package” and the same stress one gets with cell phones, but also the stress of having something so valuable that can be so easily lost, misplaced, or stolen.

            That said, when I am back on the job market, I shall probably get a cell phone for interviews and follow ups and whatnot, and I can also imagine a future in which I would ease myself into the smartphone market.

            *This isn’t a throwaway concession. I don’t deny how useful they can be, and if I were so inclined I would list them.

          • I’m one of the “I don’t own a TV” crowd. I got two server-grade desktops at home, and a speaker system that is just barely too soft to be used as a sonic weapon. What the hell do I need with current TV?

            No smart phone, my cellphone remains currently locked in the off position (husband does NOT want his work following him…)

          • Pierre,
            yeah, cell phones are a dream if you’re coordinating five errands at once with five people.
            When was the last time you needed to do that? 😉

          • Kim, if you have a screen, and you watch TV shows on it, “I don’t have a TV” is almost a distinction without a difference. I had a TV but didn’t have a TV in a sense before we moved out here. I had a CRT TV set, but didn’t watch OTA or have cable. Rather, I simply piped a computer into it. But in the real sense, I had a TV whether that was a CRT TV or computer monitor. At least, that’s my way of thinking.

          • Cell phones are awesome if you want to be away without having to worry about someone trying to reach you. For some people, they’re a ball-and-chain. For me, they are quite liberating.

  5. This post touches on an issue I am working on at the moment.

    We know in contemporary times that overconsumption of food is unhealthy, and we have slowly developed ways of curbing excess consumption. We still lust after food, we just have developed a culture that scorns obesity and rewards thinness with status. Given how flooded our society is with cheap calories, what is amazing isn’t that many people are obese, its that anyone isn’t.

    But it wasn’t always this way- if we were to try to explain to someone from say, the Middle Ages that we limit our calories to 2000 per day, and deliberately run 5 miles to burn off as many as possible, they would look at us as madmen; they lived in aworld where calories were so hard to come by that even the idea of gluttony was only a concept for the average peasant, it wasn’t anything they could wrap their minds around.

    Its like that for us; the idea of deliberately limiting our consumption of stuff, is seen as an eccentricity, a strange aesthetic form of self-flagellation.

    I would put forward the idea that a culture that rewards asceticism and scorns overconsumption is possible. Not imminent, just possible.

    • That depended on the harvest. The Supersizers Go was a cheeky buy factual series on the BBC that covered various years of English cuisine including the middle ages. They had some historians on to talk about how peasants ate. During years of good harvest, peasants ate around 5000 calories a day. They of course also did serious physical labor.

      I suppose I still don’t see why asceticism and thrift are natural goods. This is partially because I am a secular-agnostic bordering on the atheistic with no belief in an afterlife. I believe that one should consume in a way that is not harmful and promotes sustainability/stewardship towards fellow people and future generations but this stops well before promoting asceticism as a virtue. I associate ascesticism firmly with a kind of religious morality that firmly believed in an afterlife and that you would be damned to hell for material pleasure and joy.

      Can you provide a secular reason why we should be ascetic? Or are we largely agreeing but using different words. To me asceticism is about denying yourself pleasure because it is a moral good to do so. The Buddha was an ascetic and an underconsumer/denier of pleasure. Sustainable consumption and pleasure are different.

      Can you provide a secular reason for this kind of purposeful denial of pleasure?

    • Again how do we define overconsumption? Is it by debt? need? both?

      A hypothetical:

      Sam is a 38-year old professional living in a Northeastern city. Sam is not married, does not have children, and it is uncertain whether Sam will ever get married and start a family. Sam has been renting the same apartment for 12 years and is tired of the young college grad partying that is associated with the neighborhood.

      Sam decides it is time to buy a place for Sam’s own. Sam falls in love with a historic four-bedroom townhouse. One that has always been occupied by families with children.

      Sam has a good income and can easily afford to put 20 percent down and pay for the rest with a standard 30-year mortgage. Sam purchases the townhouse.

      Is Sam overconsuming? You can argue bothways. On the one hand Sam is not because the house is within Sam’s economic range. On the other hand, it is more house than Sam needs. Should Sam live ascetically in a studio or one bedroom apartment for the rest of his/her life especially if he or she does not get married and start a family?

      • Lets begin here:

        “I believe that one should consume in a way that is not harmful and promotes sustainability/stewardship towards fellow people and future generations ”

        There is a movement within the architecture/ city planning world called The Natural Step

        Which promotes a series of principles that allow industry and business to manufacture goods and services that are sustainable. There are communities in Europe that have embraced this ethos on a city-wide scale.

        Starting with the idea of a consumer culture that is sustainable, i.e. one that does not progressively deplete or foul the soil, air, and water is something that nearly everyone can embrace, even if there is disagreement over what constitutes “sustainable”.

        The most basic principle of sustainability is that nothing disappears, ever. Everything we make is extracted from the earth, used a bit, then either buried, burned, or recycled into something else. So sustainability looks at the entire lifecycle cost of goods, and judges the degree of harm they produce to the community.

        The secular argument is that the community can defend itself from individual actions that cause harm. The definition of “harm” is of course a pretty wide ranging discussion, with many different answers.

        But the first step is acknowledging that our purchases and disposal of consumer goods has a direct affect on others.Right now our consumer culture is based on a myth, that what I buy, use, and dispose has no effect on anyone but me.

    • Liberty,

      I get what you’re saying about obesity and will take it in the spirit that it was intended, though I did want to say that the entire discussion around obesity in this country is itself infused with class issues (and ultimately counterproductive). Anyway, on to the guts of your comment…

      Sometimes I feel a bit self-conscious about the degree to which I have nice things. It’s not that I can’t afford them or am over-leveraging myself. But I feel, at times, that I am partaking in a dirty game. It’s kind of hard to describe. For appearance sake, I wish I had purchased a run-down used car. I take pride in the plainness and discounted nature many of the things I have. Yet that has a consumer value all its own, doesn’t it? It’s a separate form of self-image and braggery.

      Yet, I cannot look at these two consumer habits as being consequentially equivalent, even if both are the product of the same vanity. Leaving aside ecological concerns, I believe this country would be a better place if people were more self-conscious about their extravagances their their thriftiness. If, image-wise, I am more concerned about how it would look to buy a new Forester rather than keeping the life going on an old one. I might still buy the new car (I mean, we did), but only after I could justify it on more practical grounds. Even there, of course, there are cultural externalities. The more people who own new things, the more people that can’t afford them also want to own new things. There is, I guess, only so far down this rabbit hole we can go even as a psychological exercise.

      • The more people who own new things, the more people that can’t afford them also want to own new things. There is, I guess, only so far down this rabbit hole we can go even as a psychological exercise.

        This is probably true, but at least sometimes and with some goods, the decision to own new (and more expensive) things means that older, less expensive things are now available for poorer persons that otherwise wouldn’t be.

  6. Instead of a facile condemnation of the Consumerist Culture, we might more accurately damn it through analysis of the advertisers. Some goods and services are plain and forthright, we look for bargains on the coupon sheet in the grocery store. But when a product is advertised on the basis of status enhancement, sex appeal, wish fulfilment and other such considerations, the informed buyer waxes postmodern and tries to look past such siren songs. But how well do we manage to get past all those glamorous flirtations?

    Steve Jobs knew most people pretty well. He made products which had something the Japanese call shibumi. The article under that link doesn’t fully describe what’s implied by shibumi. The Apple products weren’t merely aesthetically pleasing, they worked well. Think of your favourite kitchen implements, especially that one chopping knife you like, or that one frypan. My Swiss Army knife is shibui. Apple just licensed the Swiss railway clock.

    If we’re to evolve beyond consumerism, we need better vocabulary for why we buy things, beyond strictly utilitarian considerations. We’ve got words such as Gaudy for excesses and Chintzy for lack of this shibumi business, the Greeks put meden agan, nothing in excess on the doorway to the Temple of Apollo… but what do we call this happy medium. Shibumi doesn’t quite capture what’s meant here, either. Any suggestions?

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