The Overspent American, by Juliet Schor

After a talk describing the thesis of her book The Overworked American, an upper middle class woman (hospital administrator) asked Juliet Schor about the work and spend cycle—or, to be more specific, she acknowledged that she was deeply caught within it and asked how it was possible to break out of it. As she tried to respond to the question, Schor realized that an adequate answer required a much deeper understanding of the drive to spend. She set about studying the matter, and wrote up her results in her book The Overspent American, published in 1998.

This is an important book, not so much for the analysis it presents but because it makes an honest attempt to understand a pervasive, deep seated, and highly corrosive aspect of modern life: we are driven to spend far beyond our means, and catering to that impulse seems to further inflame it. Most people who take note of this tendency explain it away with pat observations about basic human nature—we are greedy, or we are competetive status-seekers, or contentment does not come to us naturally. Schor’s book shows that not only can one delve much deeper into the matter, but that a significant cultural change has taken place in the past hundred years which makes our modern-day acquisitiveness a new and different thing.

Even though I think this is an important book, I can only recommend it if you have an ongoing interest in the subject; if you read only this book, you will probably come away more puzzled than ever. But if you read it together with books about advertising and marketing and consumer credit and globalization, it will provide some important pieces for a puzzle that you will have to assemble for yourself. It can also serve as a gentle introduction to books that I think probe more deeply but are also in starker opposition to conventional wisdom, such as Naomi Klein’s No Logo or Stuart Ewen’s All Consuming Images.

For those who aren’t likely to read the book, here is my favorite insight. Schor notes that conspicuous consumption has long been with us, in the sense that people use the things they own to visibly demonstrate their status. Until very recently, though, the competition was limited to people of roughly the same economic class. Television and other mass media changed this by bombarding the audience with images taken from the highest economic strata, with the result that people were no longer trying to keep up with the Jones down the street, but with the beautiful and wealthy creatures they saw on TV and in movies and magazines. Everyone is now competing with an ideal that is far above them economically.

Schor also conducted an interesting study to help determine whether luxury items were valued more for their (supposed) intrinsic benefits or for their implied status, involving women’s cosmetics. She found that women were much more likely to buy an inexpensive brand when the product was something that she wouldn’t use publicly, such as facial cleanser. The idea for the study came when she noticed that friends and colleagues would pull out lipsticks after a meal, and out of curiosity she would ask each person if they recognized the brands of the other lipsticks being used, even from a quick glance across the table. Recognition was very high. After more probing, she learned that it was quite common for women to carry two lipsticks, an inexpensive drugstore version to use in private and an expensive brand which was only employed in public.

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