Why We Want What We Don’t Need

The Overspent American: Why We Want What We Don’t Need

Consumer Protection Hub (2018)

Film Review

This documentary, narrated by Juliet Schor (author of the 1999 book The Overspent American: Why We Want What We Don’t Need), examines the political, economic and psychological forces responsible for compulsive consumption in all developed countries.

The most important factors Schor identifies are

1. The movement of women (starting in the 1970s) out of economically homogeneous neighborhoods into the workplace – exposing them to lifestyles¬† (cars, homes, clothes etc) of coworkers across the economic spectrum. This would lead to expansion into the working class of competitive consumption. Previously “keeping up with the Jones’s” was mainly limited to affluent neighborhoods.

2. The rapid increase in income equality that began in the 1970s. Corporations strenuously resisted efforts by workers to benefit (through increased wages and decreased work hours) from widespread productivity gains. Instead Wall Street helped fuel competitive consumption via usurious consumer credit (ie credit cards).

3. The tendency of TV dramas and sitcoms to portray $100,000+ annual incomes as average and normal. Schor offers the portrayal of Bill Cosby’s family as typical African Americans and Friends characters as typical mid-twenties roommates (there’s no way the characters depicted could have afforded Manhattan apartments).

According to Schor, the net effect of these influences has been growing demand for mcmansion-size homes, gas guzzling SUVs, brand name athletic footwear and casual apparel and niche coffee.

Satisfying these cravings has led to massive personal debt levels (approximately 50% of US GDP), grueling work schedules, virtual disappearance of family life and growing unwillingness of voters to be taxed for education, parks, libraries and other public services.

The self-help recommendations Schor gives for curtailing compulsive consumption habits are

1. Controlling your irrational desires by limiting mall visits, surfing Internet shopping sites and exposure to catalogues and fashion magazines.

2. Making a conscious choice to downshift to a lifestyle that reduces your consumption (eg Voluntary Simplicity*).

3. Demanding corporate and regulatory policies that allow people to work shorter hours.

4. Lobbying for a progress consumption tax (aka luxury tax).

5. Learning to recognize and question advertising messaging.

6. Learning to connect with people and community rather than competing with them.


*Voluntary Simplicity, or simple living, is a way of life that rejects the high-consumption, materialistic lifestyles of consumer cultures and affirms what is often just called ‘the simple life’ or ‘downshifting.’