The High-Low Split: Consumer "Culture" in America
By A.D. Freudenheim  

15 May 2005

For all the talk about the positives and negatives of (so-called) globalization, much of what has been written about it focuses on its impact on commerce and economic development, often ignoring its sociological and psychological affects. The presumptive benefits of increased trade – greater prosperity for poorer people and nations, let’s say – is one argument in favor of globalization. The slow disappearance of the “independent” retailer – pushed out of the market by the likes of Wal-Mart and Tesco, or Starbucks and the Gap – is, if not actually an argument against globalization, nonetheless a sad by-product. However, there are other, less obvious but still significant consequences to globalization, with two over-arching areas of impact.

I. What price, fashion – or fashionable food?
Even in the face of arguments that globalization is spreading wealth and enriching poorer nations, it is also creating a culture of disparity: increasing the social pressure on the need to have and consume, and the related challenge of having something that is even remotely unique. One need only look at changes in retail groceries in the last two decades: at the beginning of the 1990s, the take-over of big-box grocers was essentially complete, with Hannaford, Stop & Shop, Safeway, A&P and others having consolidated and grown, and as further evidenced by Wal-Mart’s decision to enter the grocery market, too. Together these and other firms brought with them all of the anodyne vegetables, waxy fruit, and chemically-enhanced commercial “food products” that any American could ever want.

Right around the same time – and, it seems, in direct response to this mass-grocery trend – small, expensive stores began to make a comeback and new ones were launched, while a line of upscale, big-box grocers like Fresh Fields and Whole Foods also entered the market, particularly in upscale suburbs. Catering to an elite crowd of people who hunger for “heirloom” tomatoes, organic and free range meats, and 7-grain breads, these grocers can (and do) charge a premium for their exotic and imported products. Flash forward to 2005, and the cost-driven exclusivity of these stores is only worse than it was when the trend began, despite low inflationary pressures in the last decade-plus. There are more of them than ever, and it looks like a hotly-competitive market.

Most Americans probably cannot afford to pay $3.99 a pound for vine-ripened tomatoes from Holland, and cannot concern themselves with the likes of a Pomelo (nor should they; they are overrated). However, the point is not the disparity between the rich and the poor, or to suggest there is an inherent evil in importing products not previously available. Some people will always have access to goods and services unavailable to others, whether as a result of economic or geographic barriers; the world has ever been thus. Rather, what is worrisome is the three-fold impact on our culture from this situation, of which groceries are only one small example:

1. Poorer Americans suffer through with largely flavorless “beefsteak” tomatoes and other, similar products, mass-produced on corporate “farms” and factories. They could protest but, as with most issues affecting the poor and working class, to protest also requires an essential economic power they often do not have.

2. Another subset of the population consumes and discards (and consumes and discards) these products, in a constant search for that which is newer, more exotic, and more unique. From ham from Northern Italy to ham from Southern France, from cheese from Andalusia to cheese from Alsace, there is a rotation of short-term phenomenon-products limited by a volatile marketplace that gets easily bored and is ever-more hungry (and gullible) for the next exotic tasty treat.

3. All the while, the poorer portion of society seeks, as always, to imitate their richer neighbors, thus fueling an unnecessary and unsustainable drive for consumption that furthers the scope of their economic disadvantage.

Awfully judgmental? Yes. But look at the cultural and class-driven disparity, at least in America: hip-hop impresarios and sports stars design (or sell their name for) expensive lines of clothing that seem to be bought predominantly by people who might make better use of those funds on education or health and welfare expenses. Perhaps the world’s rich and famous are crazy to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on brand-name designer clothes – but in doing so, they are not nearly as crazy as the poor and working class people who spend greater amounts – in proportion to their income – in an effort to keep up appearances. If you have not gone to check the prices of clothing lines with labels like “RocaWear” and “Sean John,” you should; they are outrageously expensive, especially considering that they are marketed predominantly to inner-city African-Americans – and it does not require a look at U.S. census data to know that this is not the nation’s wealthiest population. Do the rich and famous wear these clothes? Maybe, maybe not. But in paying more for products from a particular designer or star, those of us who do are merely lining the pockets of the already-wealthy in order to achieve an implied association with someone who – literally – does not know we exist and will never know us personally. If you cannot afford it, you should not do it.

Should something be done to change the spending habits of people who do not have much to spend in the first place? No, of course not. People who work for a living should be allowed to spend their money as they see fit. Alas, our society and culture places a premium on endless consumption, rather than incentivizing savings and long-term self-investment through vocational training, higher education, or even just basic retirement planning.[1]

II. Buying your way to prosperity and happiness.
Another effect of globalization, and of the wealth it has created, is that it has further split the middle- and upper-middle-classes, and divided or changed their long-term goals. The idea that growing financial stability helps create a vigorous, bourgeois middle-class – interested in what some would surely call elitist, ivory tower pursuits like education for the sake of education, or the fine arts, and in pushing one’s children to surpass their parents in every way – is now essentially dead.

Instead, the wealth creation of the last two decades has spawned a generation of politically apathetic consumers: discriminating consumers, perhaps, but people interested principally in their ability to buy new products, explore new markets, and continue accrue the wealth necessary to sustain all this acquisitiveness. American public schools are busting at the seams, while providing an education of increasingly less good quality – all while both our government and our educational system delude us into thinking that we are becoming better educated and more equipped to handle the challenges of the “real world.”

As noted above, all of this is clearly having an effect on savings rates in the U.S.; that will surely catch up with a good portion of the population when they start to retire in another decade or two. Yet there is also an underlying effect on politics and the social environment of the U.S. Put plainly, effective political decisions requires education and thoughtfulness: for democracy to work, people must be able to understand the issues their communities face, and make educated decisions about how to address them. A population more concerned with consumer impulses than the market forces behind that consumption will be more easily mislead, and will be more likely to vote for or against trade agreements, legislation affecting social issues, and taxation programs, based on short-term needs rather than long-term goals.[2]

As economist Richard Florida argued in his book The Rise of the Creative Class, cultural and social diversity helps sustain strong, creative economies. Going one step further, one might suggest that an engaged class of ardent consumers might be unconcerned with social issues as long as these issues do not affect their access to new products and markets. Yet in America, the opposite trend seems to be the dominant one: Americans buy increasing amounts of Chinese goods (because they are cheaper) while complaining about the loss of American jobs to China (where labor is cheaper). Meanwhile, Americans vote to restrict essentially-private rituals, like marriage, to heterosexual couples, or to support tax cuts for the wealthiest portion of the population – while also doing whatever they can to move from more integrated and diverse urban areas into homogeneous, gated communities of like-minded people. Americans complain about high gas prices, but continue to buy cars that are among the world’s least energy-efficient; we hate the fact that the nations with most of the world’s oil hate us, while we remain, in turn, the world’s largest oil consumer.

American Republicans and other “conservatives” play to these concerns based on fear of different “values” – that those who are not just like us believe in things that are fundamentally different, and therefore ultimately wrong. Democrats are just as bad – but, lately, less effective politically; the American left argues that the Republicans want to take away most Americans’ long-term economic security in favor of the wealthy elites, even as they resolutely refuse to address very real problems like the long-term sustainability of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, or the seemingly-disproportionate power of the teachers’ union to keep education policy at a stand-still, or the power of the United Auto Workers to bring down General Motors by demanding unrealistic pension and benefit packages. The party of the right openly plays on consumer-driven fears, while the party of the left fails to tackle its own high-low split support between the wealthy, socially-liberal elites and the more socially-conservative middle-class union types. All of this goes well beyond any glib remark about having the courage of one’s contradictions. It makes a mockery of both American courage and American contradictions.


Maybe this is neither bad nor good; maybe it just is. But that sounds like too easy an answer. We are not looking at a simplistic split between the Haves and the Have-Nots. Rather, this is a competition between the Haves and the Have-Mores, or the Have-Betters – the Better-Halves, really, since this is both how they view themselves and how they are viewed. Except that it’s not half, but more like only 2 or 3 or 4 percent of the population. Unfortunately, it is an un-winnable competition. The ongoing attempt by the many to emulate the behaviors of the few are misleadingly-focused on their commercial consumption patterns – what they buy, drive, wear, or eat, or how they spend their vacations – rather than what got them to their positions of wealth in the first place: hard work, smarts, hard work, and sometimes just plain luck and good looks.

Just as upsetting is what gets lost between these two groups, notably the cultural and social patterns of the Have-Mores and the Have-Betters: their acquisition of expensive art or design objects, their fancy educations, their support for socially-liberal institutions, and their (generally) more socially-liberal politics. Just look at Bill Gates: one of the richest men in the world, owner of many priceless works of art, a philanthropist who has given millions of dollars to support health care and education programs among the world’s disadvantaged populations. Recent flip-flops about the domestic partners benefits law notwithstanding, his company, Microsoft, has been a corporate leader in creating tolerant, diverse workplaces because Microsoft and Gates know that what matters is the quality of an employee’s work – not the color of their skin, their gender, or who they choose to sleep with after work. Few may know as much as Gates does about art (and even fewer can afford to buy such items), not as many people have invested as much as he has in searching for a cure for AIDs or supporting public schools, and many actively dislike his corporation’s open and tolerant politics. Yet all the while, his wealth is envied for the freedom it (presumably) provides – and it is presumably envied for its power in sustaining consumption beyond all else.

Globalization relies on openness in every way – open markets for the free exchange of goods, and open minds, not only for those goods but for the people who make and buy them. The ongoing globalization and democratization of the American experience has, in America, instead come to mean the commercialization of that experience, with a culture based on transactional satisfaction and a psycho-pharmacological support network to ensure that happiness. The understanding and need for openness is increasingly being lost. The elements that make life engaging and meaningful can not be exclusively commercial; there has to be a life of the mind and the heart that supersedes a life of acquisition. One might hope and expect that all of the church-based organizations across the United States would be the first line of defense in making such a case. Instead, in America, in answer to the question “What would Jesus do?” it is all too imaginable to think the answer may be: “Go to the mall!”

[1] See for example “Savings and the poor: Sugar-coating the piggy bank,” from The Economist, 14 May 2005, which notes that American savings is equal to approximately 0.5% of post-tax income – and provides details on interesting study by H&R Block on whether and how savings inducements will work.
[2] Just look at the tax cuts – and refund checks – the Bush administration provided in the President’s first term. That $450-600 almost certainly was not saved; it was consumed, immediately, which was expressly part of Mr. Bush’s plan to boost the economy. But again, that was a short-term refund with long-term consequences for the economy that well-surpassed the value of that money to any given household.

Other TTAISI articles of interest:
Global Perspectives, 5 November 2000

A Reversal of Trust, 18 November 2002
Recession P(r)oof, 25 November 2002
Doing What Comes Naturally, 12 September 2003
The Jobs and Education Con Game, 26 December 2004
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