Observing Alex

Casually organized thoughts

My un-researched theory on American consumerism

July 26, 2021

In the late-70s, the U.S. saw a push away from Keynesian economics to a more laissez-faire approach, with a wave of conservatism that, seemingly contradictorily, encouraged greed. Corporations, think GM and GE, shifted their focus away from being institutions set in the goal of lasting lifetimes and upholding American prosperity (which sounds like it should align with conservative rhetoric). Instead the conservative movement pushed traditional values alongside a ruthless form of capitalism that disregards the interests of the nation as a whole, in favor of myopic gains—such as investing in stock buybacks rather than R&D or higher worker wages.

At the same time, Silicon Valley was getting its footing. The kids of hippies were coming of age, and while many in the rest of the country turned to traditional religion, these others leaned toward gnostic spirituality. They also did some of the most difficult work creating an economic powerhouse of influential companies, which seems to require a tremendous amount of personal clarity.

What if the rise of conservatism aligned with a loss of genuine spiritual belief, which manifest for many as a return to traditional habits in hopes they would reignite the faith, while at the same time, distracting ourselves in consumerism? On correlation that comes to mind is the advent of Black Friday, which first began in the mid-60s and was mainstream by the 80s.

I find it increasingly common to hear people take a more secular, agnostic, value-based approach to spirituality. In one episode of DAVE on FXx (I can’t remember the exact episode), Dave and GaTa are discussing spirituality, and GaTa notes how it’s easy for Dave to be okay with not knowing because he hasn’t faced any hardship. In a society were credit can mask the hardship of material lack, perhaps this comfort with the unknown will become widespread. With this change, as people become clearer on their true, personal values, maybe we will, as a country, shift away from the conspicuous consumption of the past decades?

I can’t see this change being dramatic. Material comfort is something people can value. I certainly do. But I can imagine a more nuanced approach to the cost-benefit analysis that could help break down the discomfort of “keeping up with the Jones’.” I think we’re already seeing the start of this. More Americans than ever are considering moving jobs to ones that align better with their values. The pandemic has forced reflection on the vast majority of people. Though, the tightest restrictions on life, in the U.S., occurred in places with the highest economic productivity. For those whose faith is faulty and lack material stability, distraction is everything.