Adam Ash

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Monday, April 09, 2007

The US is consumed by capitalism

Buyer Beware
Are we training our kids to be consumers rather than citizens?
Review of “CONSUMED: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole” by Benjamin R. Barber and “THE REAL TOY STORY: Inside the Ruthless Battle for America's Youngest Consumers” by Eric Clark
By Barry Schwartz/Washington Post

Immediately after 9/11, President Bush addressed the nation. Here was a chance to bring a grieving people together -- to articulate shared purposes and ask for shared sacrifice. Instead, all the president asked of us is that we keep doing what Americans do . . . and shop. Not exactly Churchillian, but if Benjamin Barber is right, Bush was just tapping into the spirit of our times. In Consumed , Barber argues that shopping is pretty much the only common purpose Americans have left. For two generations, consumerism and citizenship have been battling it out for America's soul. And consumerism has won.

Most of us tend to think of market capitalism as an essential contributor to liberty and democracy, both because it's an engine of material prosperity and because it underpins freedom of choice. Barber argues persuasively that this positive relationship between capitalism and democracy did exist when capitalism was about producing goods that met human needs. But those days are long gone. Now, "needs" must be created: Producers and marketers of goods and services have to convince those with money to buy them. Viagra and Botox become readily available here while drugs to combat life-threatening malaria and diarrhea are not in developing countries.

In a never-ending effort to make consumption the centerpiece of every American's existence, marketers have succeeded in infantilizing adults ("kidults," Barber calls us). We're increasingly governed by impulse. No wonder consumer debt and personal bankruptcy have never been higher. Feeling dominates thinking, me dominates us, now dominates later, egoism dominates altruism, entitlement dominates responsibility, individualism dominates community, and private dominates public. Imagine having the ship of state guided by leaders elected by a nation of 12-year-olds. That, according to Barber, is what we've got.

Barber is a distinguished political the or ist who for years has been writing about the deterioration of "civil society" and what must be done to reclaim it. Many others have criticized our obsession with materialism and consumption, a theme he explored in Jihad vs. McWorld , but Barber's aim is not to be a scold. The Reagan revolution convinced us that turning the market loose would be good economics and good politics. Barber, in contrast, argues that "Once upon a time, capitalism was allied with virtues that also contributed at least marginally to democracy, responsibility, and citizenship. Today it is allied with vices which -- although they serve consumerism -- undermine democracy, responsibility, and citizenship." In other words, in the modern era, it's not so much democracy and capitalism as it is democracy or capitalism.

This is a strong view. Even good liberals such as New York Times columnist and bestselling author Thomas L. Friedman seem to believe that market competition, like aspirin, can fix anything. In my opinion, Barber is right. The heart of this book -- a section titled "The Eclipse of Citizens" -- provides chapter and verse. We adults, addicted as we are to consumption, may be too far gone to reclaim democracy. For that, we have to wait for our children to take over.

But it may be too late for them, too. In The Real Toy Story , investigative journalist Eric Clark gives us an inside look at a $21-billion industry that starts training kids to be consumers at about age 2. With less than 4 percent of the world's children, Americans consume 40 percent of the world's toys, most of them produced in Asia, under sweatshop conditions. American kids see about 40,000 commercials a year. Lucrative product-licensing deals turn the shows they watch into commercials (including pristine PBS), while marketing experts have figured out ways to exploit the "nag factor" -- how to make kids persistent enough in their pursuit of goods that parents will give in, just to shut them up.

Clark does a fair amount of hand-wringing about relentless marketing, cutthroat competition among producers and retailers, and abysmal factory working conditions. The book bills itself as a kind of exposé. But Clark's heart isn't really in it. Much more memorable are his descriptions of some of the great toys in history and their inventors' struggles to get them to market. You root for these folks, imagining the childlike gleam in their eyes as they tinker in their garages and lament that the massive concentration of market power among producers (Mattel and Hasbro) and retailers (Wal-Mart, Target and Toys R Us) may be driving clever innovators away. These tales of triumph make it hard to stay focused on the big story, which is how the toy industry is training the next generation to choose consumerism over citizenship before they even have a clue what "citizenship" means. If you find Barber's book depressingly convincing, Clark's will make you want to cut your throat.

Many years ago, the distinguished economic historian Albert Hirschman wrote a book called Exit, Voice, and Loyalty , in which he pointed out a fundamental difference between the market and the state. We respond to dissatisfaction in the market with "exit": We leave a store (or Web site) and go to another. We respond to dissatisfaction in the state with "voice": We march, we write letters to the editor, we work in political campaigns, we pressure school districts to improve the quality of education in our kids' schools. It's a serious mistake, Barber points out, to confuse the two. And it's an equally serious mistake to assume that the success of one implies the success of the other: "The victory of consumers is not synonymous with the victory of citizens. McWorld can prevail and liberty can still lose."

These two books show us that McWorld -- the commercialization of everything -- has prevailed, that liberty is losing and that the market machine is turning our innocent kids into shallow, egoistic "kidults" right in front of our eyes. Even when our collective memory of 9/11 has faded, the serious problems these books describe will still be with us. ?

(Barry Schwartz is a professor of psychology at Swarthmore College and the author of "The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less.")


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