About Me

Ithaca, New York
MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Sorry, I'm back!

Nope, not stopping at 100 -- sorry. I am, however, taking suggestions for next year's challenge. One of the many 100 best novels lists? If so, which one? A year of books only from my own library? The mind boggles.

Anyway, my 101st book of the year was The Overspent American: Why We Want What What We Don't Need, by Juliet B. Schor (HarperPerennial, 1998). And y'know, I'm really starting to feel like I'm repeating myself here. Schor's book is definitely more scholarly than Affluenza or Simple Prosperity, but since I'd already read both of the latter, I don't feel like I learned much new or different from this one.

The book seems to be an outgrowth of Schor's earlier work, The Overworked American, in which she argues that Americans are working more and more hours in search of higher and higher incomes because they're trapped in what she calls "the cycle of work and spend." Here, she tackles the "spend" side of that cycle, addressing the following questions:
"Was cutting back feasible for middle-class American consumers? What was driving their spending? How does spending affect the quality of life for people who are materially comfortable? ... What were the difficulties of living more simply in our high consumerist culture?"
Schor argues that in recent decades, the all-American culture of spending -- keeping up with the Joneses, defining your identity by what you own and consume -- has intensified. We base our expectations on what we want and need less on friends and neighbors, and more on the upper-middle-class lifestyles we see on TV. The end result is increased consumer debt, less national saving, and less willingness to fund such public goods as education, parks, and libraries. Most of the book is devoted to unpacking this phenomenon: what are its dimensions, how does it manifest itself, and why do we buy into it?

There is a slightly out-of-place chapter on "downshifting" -- making a voluntary lifestyle change that entails earning less money -- which seemed like something out of Affluenza et al.. This was interesting, I guess, for those new to the subject who wonder what the alternatives to hyperconsumption might be, and to Schor's credit, she doesn't sugar-coat the difficulties of living on a dramatically reduced income, particularly in high cost-of-living northeastern cities. It seemed to me, though, that to do this subject justice really requires an entire book of its own, and a single chapter (read years after the simple living movement went semi-mainstream) only scratches the surface.

I was most intrigued by the penultimate chapter, in which Schor outlines nine principles for "[getting] off the consumer escalator." These include becoming aware of and reining in one's desire to spend (read: don't hang out with shopaholics and/or at the mall); redefining conspicuous consumption as uncool; making a habit of deconstructing ads; and decommercializing some of our favorite holiday rituals. I've read a number of books which address something that's lacking or has gone awry in contemporary culture, and usually, the "what can you do about it?" chapter feels like an afterthought; this is a nice exception.

All righty-o, then. On to yet another entry (home with a sick kid today and not accomplishing much), and to put Overworked American back on my still-not-diminished wanna read list.

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