A broader critique of the American style of capitalism is offered in Juliet B. Schor's The Overspent American: When the Cost of Lifestyle Overtakes the Value of Life. Six years ago, Schor, a Harvard University economist, made a big splash with the best-selling The Overworked American. In it she lent academic credence to a gut feeling shared by many but not widely articulated at the time: that Americans across a broad swath were being asked to devote more time and energy to work in a pattern that many found less rewarding and more exhausting. In this latest book, Schor takes on hyper-consumerism and less successfully (for one thing, this book's themes are more familiar) makes the case against competitive buying.
Schor writes that an upscaling of competitive consumerism has settled on the land. Many people no longer merely try to keep up with the Joneses (they lived down the street and didn't have much more money than us, anyway). Now, Schor posits, we compete with idealized “friends” we meet on television or through advertising. The lifestyle depicted and of most influence is decidedly upper middle class. This leads to buying beyond our means, leaving stress, too many possessions and too little satisfaction.
Even in an up economy, it's a no-win, circular game. Schor writes: “The more our consumer satisfaction is tied into social comparisons . . . the less we achieve when consumption grows, because the people we compare ourselves to are also experiencing rising consumption.” Schor also spends some time with “downshifters,” people who have chosen to step off the perceived work-and-spend merry-go-round. They'll accept less income and fewer things for less stress and more time to smell the flowers. Schor aptly points out that such choices aren't automatic entrees into carefree, more genuine lives. One woman, for example, frets that she can no longer spend as much as other family members on holiday presents.
Give Schor credit for swimming against the tide. The buoyancy of financial markets combined with many years of low-inflation economic growth has many Americans feeling pretty complacent about their finances. They'll happily indulge the urge for another wide-screen TV. But Schor offers a counter-argument to the recent glories of the gross domestic product. She writes that the GDP “fails to factor in pollution, parental time with children, the strength of the nation's social fabric, or the chance of being mugged while walking down the street.” But what happens to economic growth if everyone takes Schor's advice and significantly cuts consumption? After all, two-thirds of the GDP consists of consumer spending. Schor devotes a few pages near the end of the book to argue not all that convincingly that growth and much lower consumer spending can co-exist.
Reviewed by Neil Lipschutz.