Looking for optimism

Posted by Rob Walker on October 6, 2008
Posted Under: America,Buying In (the book),Consumer Behavior,Optimism

Well, after last week’s posts here on optimism, and pessimism, and optimism vs. pessimism — it’s looking pretty grim out there! As I type, the Dow has fallen 600 points below the 10,000 mark. Other lousy economic news abounds, and the presidential race is disintegrating into bitterness and tomfoolery.

The NYT’s story on how consumers are faring is not exactly shocking: “Full of Doubts, U.S. Shoppers Cut Spending.” Looks like consumer spending for the third quarter will be down 3 percent, per projections, “the first quarterly decline in nearly two decades.”

“The last few days have devastated the American consumer,” said Walter Loeb, president of Loeb Associates, a consultancy, who said he worried that the constant drumbeat of negative news about the economy was becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. “They all feel poor.”

No surprise, then, that the post here last week that got the most response was the pessimism one, which also happened to ask: “Is Main Street a bunch of spoiled overspending babies?” More specifically, I brought up some comments from a Sunday chat show in which some observers contended that one of the issues America is going to have to work through is that many Americans have been living well beyond their means for years, and in denial about it.

The comments were mixed, to say the least. However, I wanted to follow up in a general way to make a broad point that’s not aimed at any of those comments specifically. I basically agree with both of the general arguments that emerged (it’s individuals’ fault vs. it’s Wall Street/Washington’s fault), because I think if you take the widest perspective it’s so easy to find evidence to support either case that the only conclusion is that there’s plenty of blame to go around.

In light of that: What now? And that’s a question that I mean to be asked on an individual level.

In interviews connected to Buying In, I’ve been asked a couple of times whether or not I believe in free will. I find this stunning. Maybe it’s because so many interviewers don’t read to the end of the book, where I’m most explicit on this score, but it’s also possible that the questioners think that because the book has a lot to do with how we can be misled by marketers — or, crucially, by ourselves — into making unsatisfying consumption decisions, then I must be suggesting that we have no control over our own behavior, or something.

No. We do have control — but we have to work to exercise it. The point of the book isn’t to give the reader a free pass by saying we’re all dupes. It’s the exact opposite: To give readers a different, smarter, more informed framework for making consumption decisions. That does involve facing up to situations where we think we have more “control” than we do, and recognizing what’s really going on. But it’s my very strong belief that the more you understand about how commercial persuasion works in the 21st century, and about how the human mind has pretty much always worked, the better off you are. The better, the more satisfying, the more useful, your decisions will be.

So lately what I’ve been wondering is whether — on an individual level, at least — there is a perverse sort of opportunity in the current ecomomic gloom, which is that it will force us to think about our consumption differently. I don’t know, really, how bad things will get, or really how much of the present gloom is actually overdone and exaggerated. But I would suggest that either way it gives us a reason to reconsider what really matters, and what really doesn’t, in our material lives — in a way that a mere book cannot.

What I’m trying to do here, in other words, is find some rationale for optimism, in a very pessimistic moment.

Further diversion may be found at MKTG Tumblr, and the Consumed Facebook page.

Reader Comments

“What I’m trying to do here, in other words, is find some rationale for optimism, in a very pessimistic moment.”

Here’s one, and one that actually gives me, erm, hope. As a look at much of his economics team suggests, Barack Obama is definitely influenced by/a believer in behavioral economics. I think one thing that can be expected in an Obama administration is a much larger focus on the government creating market incentives for citizens to make rational economic choices – opt-out 401(k)s are the most-mentioned example, but there’s going to be substantial room for maneuver, here, in what will be a very uncertain situation come January 2009.

There’s no one solution of course, and I think the real economics story of the next several years is going to take place at the state and local level, where instability will make people more open to innovation and especially as it relates to consumer protection measures.

Basically – right now it’s pretty easy to make bad decisions. That’s part of a free market but it’s also part of a poorly regulated market. What I think needs to happen – and what I think will happen – is for people to start thinking about how to create circumstances where it’s easier to make good decisions than bad ones. How exactly to do that varies widely and I certainly don’t have all the answers, but I think that ought to be the general thrust.

Written By jkd on October 6th, 2008 @ 6:12 pm
Written By Supermarket on October 10th, 2008 @ 9:40 am


  1. Rob Walker « Continuous Thread  on October 12th, 2008 @ 10:56 pm

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