Jewish World Review March 10, 2004 / 17 Adar, 5764
America's materialism keeps world in tune
Some say shopping is our national pastime.
Others say it's more like our state religion. Or our national disease.
But whether you cherish the wondrous fruits of our materialist society or feel guilty about them, consumerism is -- let's face it -- as American as Gucci or BMW.
That's the larger point made by "Shopping and the American Way of Life," an interesting three-part cover package in Wilson Quarterly, a scholarly magazine that usually discusses weighty global things such as the perils of nation building.
In his article "Shop 'Til We Drop?" Robert J. Samuelson, Newsweek's excellent in-house economist, explains how and why America's 100-year spending spree keeps our economy and the world's humming.
We have so much, spend so much and produce so much stuff, he says, because we invest our savings smartly, we're incredibly innovative, we've "democratized" credit and we're more given to the practice of free enterprise.
Samuelson warns, ominously, that our ravenous national appetite for buying stuff might have peaked with the aging and retiring of Baby Boomers, although they ultimately might defy history and just keep on spending until they die.
More interesting to the average shopaholic in housewares is "Inside the Machine" by Paco Underhill, a "retail anthropologist" by profession who studies people while they shop.
Underhill's piece goes fairly deeply and interestingly into some of the tricks of shopping malls' designs -- for example, the best stores are never near the entrance, because you need a "decompression zone." And he reveals why department store cosmetic counters are always near shoe departments -- women need something to do while the salesman fetches a dozen pairs of shoes.
Even more enlightening is a sidebar on Victor Gruen, the Austrian architect who fathered the enclosed shopping mall. His original design for the first one, built in 1956 in Minneapolis, included adjacent houses, apartment houses, schools and parks, but these great ideas never materialized.
Gruen bitterly blamed the greed of developers for the shopping-and-parking-only palaces that malls became. But foolish suburban zoning ordinances that segregated commerce from residential areas also played a part.
Part 3 of WQ's shopping package, "Buyer's Remorse," provides sensible arguments for why we shouldn't feel so guilty for what we have or what we buy. The cultural scoldings of zillionaire hypocrites such as John "imagine no possessions" Lennon are not the source, Daniel Akst says.
It's more likely based on G-d, religion and the age-old tension between concern about the afterlife and the pleasures and comforts we can buy today at Target or Best Buy.
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JWR contributor Bill Steigerwald is an associate editor and columnist at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Comment by clicking here.
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© 2002, Bill Steigerwald