Are “we” ready to cut back on all “our” extra cars and TVs?

Posted by Rob Walker on March 27, 2009
Posted Under: America

Kurt Andersen, who is as well-known as a writer can be and still deal with his name being consistently misspelled (I’ve seen it rendered Anderson three times in the last month), has a very readable shot at Big Think about the current economic cultural moment in Time Magazine. Check it out here.

Two bits I want to highlight:

If you want to feel encouraged about our economic near future — not this damned decade but the one to come — ignore the stock traders and go talk to some venture capitalists. They aren’t quite giddy (after the ’80s and ’90s and ’00s, beware all giddiness), but they are optimistic about an imminent tide of innovations in technology, energy and transportation.

I think this is true (certainly consistent with conversations I’ve had over the last few months) and very much worth keeping in mind.

And then there’s this:

Yes, we must start spending again, and we will. But we’ve all known people who, having survived the 1930s, never lost their Depression habits of frugality. And so it will be again. We don’t need to turn ourselves into tedious, zero-body-fat, zero-carbon-footprint ascetics, but even after the economy recovers, deciding to forgo that third car or fifth TV or imperial master bathroom or marginally cooler laptop will come more naturally.

This I’m less certain of. It’s the final bit that stops me. How many of “us” were buying a third car and fifth TV in recent years? I think this kind of generalization is actually what drives a lot of Americans crazy about media thinkers (maybe it’s even why the idiotic notion of the “media elite” is so persistent).

But apart from that, I also just think such overgeneralizations really fail to capture how complex this situation is.

Many Americans, it seems to me, are not reacting to this economy by saying, “I need to stop being so greedy and materialistic.” They didn’t buy a McMansion or a Hummer or a fifth TV (or, dare I say it, even an iPhone) — but they got laid off anyway. Or they’re scared that they will be soon. Some simply feel cheated. Some are quite angry, and what they are saying is: “Where’s my bailout?” I think for a lot of people, the issue isn’t that “we must start spending again,” but rather that “we” must find secure employement again.

I could go on, but basically, for a whole bunch of reasons, I just don’t think everybody out there is feeling like they need to repent for 25 years of mindless and greedy overspending.

Do you?

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

Reader Comments

off topic, but my candidate for ridiculous overgeneralization by an elite media thinker comes from Michael Lewis in his new Vanity Fair piece. comparing Iceland to New York since the crash, he writes:

Walk around Manhattan and you see empty stores, empty streets, and, even when it’s raining, empty taxis: people have fled before the bomb explodes.

a typically lyrical Lewis line, but one that’s simply not true.

Written By Brian Zabcik on March 27th, 2009 @ 4:29 pm

YES YES OH GOD YES! I am a year out of [state-U] college, paid for my education, drive an 11 year old Honda Civic, buying ALL store-brand foods..and here I am, in my second week of unemployment despite all my hard work and conservation.

So media a-holes (and other country a-holes) was not the GREED of the common man that put the US in this suckhole.

Written By Manya on March 27th, 2009 @ 4:36 pm

Think that everyone thinks they should repent? Or think that everyone should repent? I feel powerful making such judgments, even on a blog.

Deep breath…here goes. Everyone should repent.

Look, not everyone I know owns a McMansion, a Hummer, and a fifth TV. But just about everyone I know owns 2500-3000 sqft suburban castle, a BMW or Volvo, and watches the Office weekly on one of their *three* TVs. Bailout candidate?

Not to diminish the real employment crunch and the genuine financial worry of many Americans. At least in middle-class suburbia, a little repentance might not be a bad idea.

But as for Andersen’s comparison to what’s happening now with the Depression, it doesn’t work. Depression era attitudes were changed by soup kitchens, tents, and hungry stomachs, for most Americans. I know logging into Schwab and seeing an IRA lose 30% is depressing. But I don’t know anyone who’s relying on chickens to lay eggs in their backyard, so they can eat. I doubt attitudes will change much, unless things get dicier.

Hopefully before that happens a few more people (politicians?) repent.

Written By Dave Bruno on March 27th, 2009 @ 5:09 pm

Dave Bruno:
I was intentionally slippery in the wording, but here’s another way you could interpret the question: Do you think YOU should repent?

(Totally agree about Depression comparison btw.)

Written By Rob Walker on March 27th, 2009 @ 5:12 pm

I think it’s easy to think it’s just someone else that is too “greedy.” We did a recent study of people’s mindsets and behaviors around money and it was common for people to normalize their past behavior while trying to distance themselves from it. And hope to go back to it again, actually. So it doesn’t mean that they were greedy or failing but they were living too high off the hog – having too much fun, buying too many toys.

Me, in 2006 I bought my first new car ever. My previous used car was 11 years old and I’d had it for 9, so it was probably time for another car, but I went down in mileage efficiency and I went new. Probably something I could have done without.

Written By Steve Portigal on March 27th, 2009 @ 5:39 pm

Oh yeah. I’m biased though, cause I sort of already am repenting, hence my 100 Thing Challenge.

I don’t own a TV or a BMW and my house is only 2100sqft :-) The thing that’s driving me to repentance is that even though I’m kind of a model simple-living sort of suburbanite, I’ve still totally indulged over the years.

I like your “unconsumption” idea. We need to stop participating in consumption. Not just by replacing light bulbs and shopping farmers markets (both good ideas), but by being…being… shoot that’s hard to finish. Being unconsumers? Non-participants?

Written By Dave Bruno on March 27th, 2009 @ 5:46 pm

Glad you (mostly) liked the piece.

More than 21 million U.S. households own more than 2 cars. The number of TVs per U.S. household has increased since 1992 from 1.6 to 2.25 — 40% in 16 years. And of course, it was people at all levels of the economic scale who bought houses they couldn’t afford, and who increased their indebtedness and stopped saving.

I don’t think we need to repent. I don’t think we need to do anything religious — just the opposite, in fact. I think we need to be more reality-based.

Written By Kurt Andersen on March 28th, 2009 @ 1:05 am

Note to readers: The obvious question about that last comment would of course be: Is that really Kurt Andersen? Why is he slumming on

I don’t actually know for sure, but the points are reasonable and deserve an airing either way.

SteveP: Yes, I would say that’s consistent with most of the conversations/reporting I’ve done on consumption — it’s always the other guy (or gal) whose spending is suspect.

Dave B: Thanks for bringing the unconsumption project into this context. I don’t know about stopping participating in consumption, but the idea is to offer a different framework for individuals to make decisions, maybe find more productive ways to scratch the consumption itch.

Written By Rob Walker on March 28th, 2009 @ 4:38 am

It would be magical thinking to believe that comment came from anyone but the real Kurt Andersen. It’s as reality-based as they come. Oooh, I feel a rant rumbling deep inside me.

Yes, Rob, I also don’t think stopping consuming is the answer. I was more thinking about stopping participating in a lifestyle of consumerism. But that requires more explaining that there’s room for with a blog comment.

Written By Dave Bruno on March 28th, 2009 @ 9:51 pm

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