The Overspent American

Some favorite excerpts from Juliet Schor’s The Overspent American:

Twenty-seven percent of all households making more than $100,000 a year say they cannot afford to buy everything they really need. Nearly 20 percent say they “spend nearly all their income on the basic necessities of life.” – p6

For centuries, aristocrats passed laws to forbid the nouveaux riches from copying their clothing styles. At the turn of the century, the wealthy published the menus of their dinner parties in the newspapers. And fifty years ago, American social climbers bought fake “ancestor portraits” to hand in their libraries.” – p8

Daily exposure to an economically diverse set of people is one reason Americans began engaging in more upward comparison. – p10

By 1997, well into the stock market boom, nearly 40 percent of all baby boomers had less than $10,000 saved for retirement. – p20

Georg Simmel’s classic contribution depicts fashion as an ever-shifting process in which high-status individuals attempt to keep a step ahead of low-prestige imitators. Alison Lurie’s popular account, The Language of Clothes, reminds us of the long history of clothing as an indicator of social position. In ancient Egypt, only those in high positions could wear sandals; in Greece and Rome, even the number of garments a person could wear was prescribed. Throughout the Middle Ages, all manner of dress was regulated. By the eighteenth century, these sumptuary laws were in decline and social position had come to be inferred from the cost of garments, indicated by the type of materials, the extent of unnecessary ornamentation, and the quality of the cut. The infrequency with which people repeat wardrobe choices is another class marker–at a special occasion, to have one’s dress remarked on as a repeat is an embarrassment among the better-heeled. – p37

Souvenirs, high-class or low-, are part of how we make visible the latest not-too-visible status items. The important of these markers can become almost comical, as research on museums shows. Watching buses pull up to museums, Robert Kelly reports that one-third of the visitors, “upon being discharged from a tour bus…entered the museum foyer; searched for and found the museum shop; purchased some object in the museum shop representative of (usually labeled by) the museum or its best-known objects; and then returned to their bus without ever entering the museum galleries.” – p48

A caption describing a Chanel lipstick in a recent newspaper article puts it bluntly: “A classic shade of scarlet, scented with essential oil of roses, in Chanel’s signature black and gold case. Perfect for preening in public.” One of my down shifters has less expensive taste (and less money than the typical Chanel buyer), but she conforms to the same principle: “I have fifteen dollar lipstick I only take out in company,” she tells me. – p50

But while 70 percent of the sample described “the average American” as “very materialistic,” only 8 percent felt they were materialistic themselves. – p83

Many Americans deplore the entry of soft drinks and fast-food outlets into poor countries because they contribute to comerciogenic malnutrition: the poor spend their few pesos on soft drinks or French fries, forgoing nutritious food and becoming sick in the process. On the lighter side, we can chuckle at Peruvian Indians carrying rocks painted like transistor radios, Chinese who keep the brand tags on their designer sunglasses, Brazilian shanty-town dwellers with television antennae but not TVs, or the Papua New Guineans who substitute Pentel pens for boars’ nose pieces. – p90

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