Picture of a shopping mall parking lot

Consumerism in the USA: A Nation of Junkies?

In the wake of the world economic crisis of 2008 much has been made, both by economists and the American government, of the need for the rest of the world to take up the “burden” of consuming that the United States had been carrying until then. As Barack Obama stated shortly before the 2009 Group of 20 meeting, “We can’t go back to an era where the Chinese or the Germans or other countries just are selling everything to us, we’re taking out a bunch of credit-card debt or home-equity loans, but we’re not selling them anything.” [1]

But such thoughts are wishful thinking, as there are unique cultural, economic, and physical reasons why the United States alone has been both willing and able to take this burden upon itself. The fact that it has exhausted itself to the point of ruin in this endeavor presents the world with a crisis that goes beyond the immediate economic recession (or depression), as it also highlights a structural crisis of capitalism in that an economy based on consumerism is, ultimately, a lie.

The importance of the American consumer — as well as his and her limitations — was underscored by the fact that one of the financial instruments that triggered the near collapse of the world economy in 2008 was the sub-prime home loan, an instrument designed to maximize consumer activity in the United States. [2] These risky loans were named “sub-prime” because they supplied less credit-worthy clients, especially in the middle and lower classes, an opportunity to achieve a key part of the “American Dream,” owning a house.

These loans were initially very popular because, at first glance, they seemed to offer very low interest rates; in reality, however, they often featured two interest rates, one that was quite low in the first couple of years and then a substantially higher one over the following 28 years. Over the long haul these poorer Americans didn’t have the resources to keep up the payments on such loans — which in their form and structure resembled the kind of loans traditionally given out by loan sharks.

That such loans were allowed into the mainstream of the American financial sector, thereby allowing the lenders to draw in many borrowers who trusted that there were laws or regulations against such deceptive loans, says much about the debasement of consumer rights in the United States. That so many Americans, however, took out such loans at all, and thereby allowed the corrupt and rapacious American financial sector to expropriate their limited savings and meager assets, speaks both to the exuberance as well as the irrationality of the American consumer. It also, as we shall see, speaks to the opportunity that their physical environment gives them to consume on such a scale.

These qualities are perhaps best illustrated by the goal that motivated the Americans who took out the sub-prime mortgages, the goal of owning their own home. For most Americans, owning a home is not only synonymous with being a member of the middle-class — of being successful — but on a deeper level with being an adult. For, while the United States does indeed rank highly relative to other countries in terms of official homeownership (69 % of Americans own their own home, far above France’s 55 %, Germany’s 42 %, and Switzerland’s 36 %, but comparable with the UK and below Norway’s 77 %), [3] when discussing homeownership in the United States, we are really talking about “house” ownership, and consistent with this the average owner-occupied housing unit in the United States in 2001 was almost half again larger than owner-occupied units in Germany and France, and almost three-quarters larger than in the United Kingdom. [4]

This difference is made possible by the unique opportunity that our physical environment gives us to consume; that is, the population density in the US, 31 people per square kilometer, allows for the wide-spread construction and ownership of such “fully detached” family homes in a way that the population density in most of the rest of the industrialized world simply doesn’t, which becomes apparent when we look at the population density of the Czech Republic (132 people per square kilometer), Germany (232), or Japan (337).

That such a large number of Americans can and do own a house leads to further consumption: having bought such a large house, there is the need to fill its considerable interior with all manner of furniture, refrigerators, freezers (often a second freezer is located in the basement, to allow the family to stock up on frozen foods), washers and dryers, and then indulge in the questionable practices that so many appliances can induce (as happens in the American southwest, where the sun can dry a pair of washed jeans within an hour if hung on an outside line, but most people own and use a dryer instead).

And, because parking is so ample in such a spacious country, there is also the ability to own multiple cars, and in the suburbs more than one car per person in a household is by no means unusual. As a result, there are 765 registered cars per 1000 adults in the United States, while in the United Kingdom there are 426 per 1000, and in the Czech Republic (where I live part of the year) 399 per 1000. [5] And, as with “homeownership,” we must also here clarify the exact nature of what we are describing, since by “car” we often, in the United States, are actually speaking of a truck; thus the most popular “car” in the US from 1991 to 2008 was the Ford F-150 pickup, [6] which weighs 2200 kilos.

It however takes more than just available space to make possible the hyper-consumerism characteristic of the United States. It also takes the exuberance mentioned above — the desire — to do so. To buy a large house also means more work, time, and money to maintain it; to buy an oversized car means more effort and money to drive it. That so many have been persuaded to add these additional burdens unto themselves when there is no outstanding reason to do so illustrates the reality that consumerism possesses a singularly unique and dominant position culturally in the USA.

This is not to suggest that it is, in general, difficult to consumerize a people. Indeed, Europe, Japan and parts of China such as Shanghai already have full-blown consumer economies. However, to get these countries to consume at the level of the United States is quite another matter because there is more cultural resistance in them to consumerism. The United States doesn’t have any remnants of the pre-industrial feudal culture or land use patterns that in Europe and Asia still tend to blunt the extremities of consumer capitalism. For example, the many forms of low-consumptive weekend outings that Czech people go on (and are typical of Europe in general) are not generally available in the United States: in the USA one can’t, for example, readily take a passenger train to a small village because such trains long ago stopped running and, even if one could, or even if one drove their car there, it wouldn’t be possible to follow a red, yellow, or green-marked “tourist” trail to some nearby point of interest as it is in Europe (where there is still a sense, and reality, of the “commons”) because the countryside in the United States has not only always been owned by private owners but, true to the principles of private property, fenced off by them as well.
The limited range of non-consumer options available to Americans, especially in the suburbs where the majority of the population lives, encourages the residents to take advantage of the one recreational opportunity that is readily available, which is to drive to a shopping mall or superstore and “shop till you drop.”

Indeed, the main historical obstacle to consumerizing the United States was ideological, in the form of the celebrated Puritan work ethic. Derived from Calvinist doctrine and emphasizing hard work and thrift, the Puritan work ethic was for a long time one of the ideological foundations of American society. When, in the aftermath of World War II, industrial productivity had progressed to the stage where the economy required consumers to spend money and not thrifty workers to save money (toward capital accumulation), this ideological constraint was overcome with a massive propaganda campaign. Especially notable here was the effectiveness of the advertisements and programs in the new mass media of television extolling the various products and lifestyles on offer.

So, once the remaining physical obstacles were overcome — e.g. city public transit systems being bought out and arbitrarily eliminated or downsized by General Motors after World War II, the government spending trillions of dollars to build a highway system in the 1950s that destroyed inter-city train travel, huge incentives being given to returning soldiers after WWII to buy houses — there was little to stop Americans from going whole-hog into consumerism. So much so that, more than a mere addiction to consumerism (the populations of all the industrial economies, after all, seem to have at least a mild addiction to consumerism), the severity of America’s addiction could be said to place us in the “junkie” category.

Indeed, since the last real resistance to consumer culture, the hippie, counter-cultural movement, was overcome in the course of the 1970s, this could be put in almost objective terms: the average house size in the United States, for example, in-creased from 1,750 square feet in 1978 to 2,479 in 2007; [7] the best-selling car went from being the Ford Escort (1000 kilograms) in the early 1980s to the already mentioned Ford F-150 pickup (2200 kilograms) by the beginning of the 1990s; and even, on a personal and physical level, the prevalence of obesity among adults aged 20–74 years increased from 15.0% (in a 1976–1980 survey) to 34.6% (in a 2005–2006 survey). [8] The junkie characterization is especially apt when we consider that this level of consumption is something that we cannot sustain. The chronic, huge, and unsustainable trade deficits, currently averaging around $500 billion a year even in the wake of the 2008 Great Recession, is proof enough of this, without even needing to delve into the longer-term energy and environmental unsustainability of it.

Indeed, some world leaders, taking note of this, have started to play the role of social worker for our benefit, chiding us for our behavior and suggesting solutions. This would include the former Chinese premier Wen Jiabao. At a meeting on climate change, Wen stated that rich nations should alter their lifestyles — their “unsustainable way of life” — to help tackle global warming, and in an interview with Business Week magazine he blamed the world economic turmoil on the “inappropriate macroeconomic policies of some economies,” meaning, especially, the United States, with its acceptance of “prolonged low savings and high consumption.” [9]

But there is something hypocritical in this, rather as though the drug dealer were chastising his best customer for her addiction while, at the same time, extending credit to her so she can buy more drugs. Indeed, this metaphor holds especially true for China, as almost the whole of China’s much vaunted trade surplus with the world consists of their trade surplus with the United States (in 2008 China had a $309 billion trade surplus with the world, of which the USA accounted for $268 billion), while they are also our largest creditor nation (holding over $1 trillion of US debt). But China is by no means our only pusher, for we also supply an even larger proportion of Japan’s overall trade surplus (Japan had an $80 billion trade surplus in 2008, of which the USA accounted for $74 billion), and it is our second largest creditor nation, also holding over a trillion dollars of our debt. [10]

But perhaps addict and pusher aren’t the right terms here. Perhaps all of us — as in the whole of the industrialized world — are instead caught up in a kind of shared delusion, or even co-dependency, in which we all pretend that capitalism still operates according to its classical principle that a need leads to a demand which leads to a product being produced. Or, as the French economist and philosopher André Gorz wrote in Paths to Paradise: On the Liberation from Work (1985), “unlike earlier economic development, advanced capitalism is no longer propelled by a spontaneous dynamic of demand, reliant on what Marxists have always called ‘basic needs:’ those whose non-satisfaction is synonymous with destitution.” Instead, with the most basic needs of its own populations having been met, it has been faced with the need to create a “subject for the object,” of a demand for the supply.

“From the mid-1950s onwards,” Gorz continues, “the centers of capitalism were faced with the necessity to produce consumers for their commodities, needs to match the most profitable products. Following its spontaneous, capitalist dynamic, production had ceased to correspond to preexisting needs: in as much as such needs persisted (notably in housing, sanitation and public health) their satisfaction was not profitable, or not sufficiently so, for capital. And, conversely, the most profitable products did not match unsatisfied needs: these needs had to be created. Thus it was necessary to establish the material environment (chiefly through extensive urbanization) and social and cultural context which would foster them.” [11]

That the “material environment” of consumption of which Gorz writes has now apparently exhausted itself in the very nation where it could be developed to its fullest, and has probably been maximized to its physical, environmental and cultural limitations else-where, shows the need to rid ourselves of the traditional and no longer applicable measures of national economic well-being, such as the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Especially when we consider that many of the consumer-related aspects of the American economy — huge trade deficits, high levels of consumer debt, the consumption of vast amounts of energy, cultural and social degeneration, environmental degradation — are not a sustainable model of economic development, much less a desirable one.



1. Associated Press, Staggering deficits curb US G-20 clout, September 22, 2009.

2. To sub-prime loans we could also easily add “liar’s loans,” in which the banks willingly lended money to home buyers even though they knew that they were lying about their wealth, and how these liar’s loans (sub-prime or not, though disproportionately sub-prime) were then “securitized.” That is, cut up and bundled with other financial instruments into securities upon which those securities (rated AAA) had derivatives (and derivatives of derivatives, etc.), which greatly increased who would be affected when the fraud (inevitably) collapsed.

3. Soula Proxenos, Homeownership rates: A global perspective, AllBusiness.com, December 1 2002, http://www.allbusiness.com/finance/1016522-1.html

4. Tatsuya Ishikawa, The Current Situation of Japan’s Housing Market, and Policy Implictions of the Projected Population Decrease, Economic Research Group, http://www.nli-research.co.jp/english/economics/2003/eco030203.pdf

5. Motor Vehicles by Country, Nationmaster.com, http://www.nationmaster.com/graph/tra_mot_veh-transportation-motor-vehicles

6. Honda Civic Now America’s Best-Selling Vehicle, US News & World Report online, June 4, 2008, http://usnews.rankingsandreviews.com/cars-trucks/daily-news/080604-Honda-Civic-Now-America-s-Best-Selling-Vehicle/

7. Wendy Koch, New Homes Being Built Smaller, USA Today online, January 11, 2009, http://www.usatoday.com/money/economy/housing/2009-01-08-homesize_N.htm

8. Cynthia Ogden, et al, Obesity Among Adults in the United States, NCHS Data Brief, No. 1, November 2007, http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/databriefs/db01.pdf

9. Diane Brady, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabo Defends his Country’s Role in Crisis, Management IQ/Bloomberg Business Week online, January 28, 2009, http://www.businessweek.com/careers/managementiq/archives/2009/01/chinese_premier.html and Agence France-Presse, Rich Nations Should Ditch ‘Unsustain-able’ Lifestyles: China’s Wen, November 6, 2008, http://afp.google.com/article/ALeqM5imo7DvXR3Bbkwt-fcSx5A1ubXfMA

10. http://www.census.gov/foreign-trade/statistics/highlights/annual.html and http://www.census.gov/foreign-trade/balance/c5700.html

11 . Gorz, André, Les chemins du paradis: l’agonie du capital, Editions Galilée, 1983 English translation: Paths to Paradise: On the Liberation from Work, Pluto Press, 1985.

This is an updated version of an article that first appeared in Czech in the journal Listy in 2010 and in English in the journal Synthesis/Regeneration in 2012.

Photograph of a shopping mall parking lot by m01229 and downloaded from Flicker; the photograph of the the color coded tourist trail markers is by Che and is from the Czech Wikipedia. Both pictures are used under a Creative Commons license.

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