In the dumpster (in usable condition) were acharcoal grill, a headboard, a sawhorse, ancient downhill skis andpoles, a beret, a stroller, lots of mattresses, box springs, twolawn mowers, a step stool, a table, and a children’s plasticplayhouse (about four feet by four feet). Unfortunately, theyvisited the dump just after the swap area was cleaned out, so thepickings there were slim: a lawn mower, a lamp, a folding chair,cushions, a desk chair with rolling wheels, a tire, storm windows,a beach chair, pie tins, a sofa with cushions, window shades, aweed whacker, a baby car seat, a mattress and box spring, afireplace screen, a pot, old audio equipment, baby bassinets, aduffel bag, two cardboard shoe shelves for closets, a chest ofdrawers, a clothes drying rack, a baby bath chair, another sofa,rugs, carpeting, an adult bike, a child’s bike, a large glasswindow pane, a mailbox, a toilet bowl brush, and a rocking chairand desk that were taken while my assistants watched. The localdump lore has it that a woman once left a Volkswagen, complete withkeys, for someone to take. At the book swap, they found a greatvariety of stuff in “pretty good shape,” including NationalGeographics, old textbooks, SAT/AP test prep books, medicaljournals, old encyclopedia sets, several dictionaries, cookbooks,law books, travel guides, children’s books, and novels. Next to thecollection box for the Salvation Army, they found numerous baby andtoddler clothes, a crib quilt, a pacifier, children’s sweaters andpants, Playskool toys, water shoes for an adult, a bonnet, babyrattles, baby booties, and a functioning solar TI scientificcalculator. All of these items appeared to be of pretty goodquality and were clean, almost lie new. (They couldn’t see insidethe box.) At the Goodwill shack, they found a child’s dirt bike(almost new), a child’s scooter, a rotary telephone, an iron, abathroom scale, two leather suitcase, worn wicker bathroom shelves,as well as sheets, a wall-to-wall bath mat, a duffel bag, many,many clothes, many comforters, a bike rack, an afghan, a neckbrace, a nightgrown and matching robe (chiffon), a small “Oriental”rug, a leather briefcase (nice), a leather purse, wire coathangers, dress shoes (outdated style), hiking boots, ski boots on aboot rack, running shoes, cowboy boots, an electric pen sharpener,a plastic plate-and-cup set (for a beach house or picnic), awashcloth, a stuffed bunny, and a silk bow tie.
Of course, all this spending raises anotherquestion. What to do once we get the stuff home? Do we use it? Doseit live up to its promises? Do we have room for it? The sociologistColin Campbell has argued that one of the distinctive aspects ofthe modern consuming is that we have strong desires for productsbefore we have them, but once acquired they mean very little to us.Judging by consumer surveys of “post-purchase” regret, Campbelloverstates the case, but he does have a point. Even leaving asidemistake and faulty products, American consumers seem to accumulatelarge numbers of things in which they subsequently loseinterest.
The greater the weight people place on thesocial comparison aspect of their consumption, relative to otheraspects like function, aesthetics, or convenience, the greater thesocial irrationality of upscaling. If, as some have argued, thesesocial aspects become more important as basic needs are met and wegrow more affluent, then the system takes on an increasinglyperverse character. The problem is not just the more consumptiondoesn’t yield more satisfaction (as in the extreme case where allsatisfaction comes from relative position), but that is always hasa cost. The extra hours we have to work to earn the money cut intopersonal and family time. Whatever we consume has an ecologicalimpact, whether it’s the rain forests cleared to graze the cattlewhich become Big Macs, the toxins collecting in our bodies from theplastics that now dominate our material environment, or thepesticides used to grow the cotton for our T-shirts. Americansincreasingly resent paying taxes to buy public goods like parks,schools, the arts, or support for the poor because taxes areperceived as subtracting from the private consumption they deemabsolutely necessary. We find ourselves skimping on invisibles suchas insurance, college funds, and retirement savings as the visiblecommodities somehow become indispensable. In the process, we arethreatening our temporal, social, and biological infrastructures.We are impoverishing ourselves in pursuit of a consumption goalthat is inherently unachievable. In the words of one focus-groupparticipant, we “just don’t know when to stop and draw theline.”
Part of the reason American are selling andgiving away so much is that it’s getting harder to find room for itall. Downshifters frequently describe a kind of material overload,or what is known in those circles as “clutter.” As Beth Churchnoted, “Over the years people ‘collect, collect, collect,’ andalthough some of the things may be lovely, there’s only so muchspace-and emotion-that you can put into things.” One result hasbeen an explosion of self-storage facilities. And the amount ofstuff being transported around the country has also increaseddramatically: over the last thirty-five years, freight tonnage percapita has risen 40 percent.
Middle-class Americans began to experiencethemselves falling behind as their slow-growing wages and salarieslagged behind those of the groups above them. Their anxiety grew,and it became a commonplace that it was no longer possible toachieve a middle-class standard of living on the salary. At thesame time, increasing numbers began to lose completely therespectability that defined their class. Below them, a segment ofdownwardly mobile working people found that their reduced jobprospects and declining wages had placed them in the ranks of theworking poor. And the nonemployee poor fell even further as theirnumbers grew and their average income fell.
Thus, relative position has worsened for mostpeople, making it increasingly difficult to keep up. Theexcitement, convenience, or joy that households may haveexperienced through the billions in additional spending between1979 and the present seems to have been overshadowed by feelings ofdeprivation. Among the upper echelons, all those personalcomputers, steam showers, Caribbean vacations, and piano lessonshave not been sufficient to offset the anxieties inherent in arapidly upscaling society.
It’s difficult to quantify how much spendingfalls into this category. We don’t keep official statistics onitems redistributed through secondhand markets, garage sales,giveaways, flea markets, charity bazaars, classified ads, or thegarbage. But the volume of stuff eventually discarded isconsiderable. Of course, many perfectly good reasons for productsdivestment have nothing to do with impulse buying or loss interest.Your children grow up, your bad knee prevents skiing, you can’t beblamed for not liking a gift. But scouring the yard sales, we canalso see the telltale impulse items of particular eras (the Saltonyogurt maker of the 1970s, the cappuccino machine of the 1980s), aswell as the perennial throwaways: kitchenware, sporting equipment,knickknacks, books, and-the most common impulse purchase-clothes.Mountains and mountains of clothes. (This raises a disturbing pointof similarity between the purchasing habits of compulsive andordinary buyers, by the way.)
Stymied in the search for a quantitativeestimate, my research assistants spent a few days at the town dumpin a prosperous Boston suburb. They came back with lovely gifts foreveryone in the office. I got a three-volume color-plated Treasuryof Children’s Literature in perfect condition. Here’s what elsethey found:
The Social Irrationality of Upscaling
The current mood has led to nostalgia aboutthe older, simpler version of the American dream. There is apalpable sense of unease, a yearning for the less expansive, andless expensive, aspirations of our parents. In the words of oneyoung man, “My dream is to build my own house. When my parents grewup, they weren’t so much ‘I want this, I’ve got to have that.’ Theyjust wanted to be comfortable. Now we’re more-I know I am-‘I needthis.’ And it’s not really a need.”
Of course, relative positions do change. Somepeople get promotions or pay raises that place them higher up inthe hierarchy. Others fall behind. But these random changes canceleach other out. Of more interest is how the broad social groupingsthat make up the major comparison groups fare. From the end of theSecond World War until the mid-1970s, growth was relatively equallydistributed. The rough doubling in living standards was experiencedby most Americans, including the poor. In fact, the incomedistribution was even compressed, as people at the bottom gainedsome ground relative to those at the top. Since then, however, andparticularly since the 1980s, the income groups have diverged, as Inoted in the introduction.
See-Want-Borrow-and-Buy—Then Give Away?
What’s most impressive is that we arecomplaining about too much junk even as housing space per personhas risen substantially, new homes increasingly boast walk-inclosets, and garages are often used as extra storage areas. Butthen again, maybe that’s part of the problem. Why is it that allthose closets that were such an attraction when you moved in don’tseem all that spacious now? Like new highways, which just lead tomore driving, or household appliances that create extra work,storage space increases the propensity to acquire-yet anothervariant of Parkinson’s Law. Not to worry. If things get tight, youcan hire one of a thriving new industry of closet consultants, whowill teach you how to cram ever more junk into the hole in yourbedroom wall.
However rational it may be for individuals tokeep up with the upscaling of consumer standards, it can be deeplyirrational for society as a whole. Or, as one Chicago woman put it,“We’d all be better off if we cared less about what someone’swearing and what kind of a car they’re driving or where they’reliving.” Like standing up in a crowd to get a better view, it stopsworking once others do it too. In the end, the view is the same,but everyone’s legs are tired. The more our consumer satisfactionis tied into social comparisons-whether upscaling, just keeping up,or not falling too far behind-the less we achieve when consumptiongrows, because the people we compared ourselves to are alsoexperiencing rising consumption. Our relative position does notchange. Jones’s delight at being able to afford the Honda Accord isdampened when he sees Smith’s new Camry. Both must put in longhours to make the payments, suffer with congested highways and dirtair, and have less in the bank at the end of the day. And bothremain frustrated when they think about the Land Cruiser down thestreet.