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Consumerism and Demcracy 28 February 2006

Posted by Todd in Capitalism & Economy, Cultural Critique, Democratic Theory, Ethics, Inequality & Stratification, Social Sciences.

Living in San Francisco, it's pretty obvious that there's a difference between the way the wealthy live and the way the poorest of the poor live. Having a large homeless population in the city and living across the street from a night-time homeless shelter at a local church, I endure my fair share of stepping over sleeping veterans, schizophrenics, migrant workers, drug addicts, and the down-on-their-luck San Franciscans. But I also live in a city of wealth and a city dominated by dual-income Professional Managerial Class (PMC) families, the only people with the slightest chance of buying a home. Class and the markings of class sometimes seem obvious in Sodom by the Bay. But not so fast. Just as often the drunk hipster in ratty clothes screaming at you across the street is, by day, a high-powered professional. San Franciscans seem to swing between two poles, either consciously displaying our self-consciously hiding their economic class.

Does the fact that we have access to such an abundance of consumer goods, across the class spectrum, so much so that we can hide our class, negate the effects of economic inequality in a democracy? At one level, the answer seems obvious, in that the super wealthy in our society control most of the wealth (net worth, holdings, property, stocks, etc.):

5% receives 20.3% of income
Top 20% (including the top 5%) receives 47.% of income (household incomes from 80K annually on up)
Middle 60% receives 48.5%
Bottom 20% receives 4.3% of income

1% controls 39% of the wealth
Top 20% (including the top 1%) controls 83% of the wealth
The bottom 60% control just under 5% of the wealth.

On the other hand, is any of that really a problem for democracy? If poor people have televisions and microwaves and cars, is there a need for economic equalization for the realization of an effective democracy? Thomas Jefferson believed that every person with a stake in the democracy must be guaranteed by the society a minimum level of economic well-being in order for the democracy to be effective. Jefferson believed that if an individual was obligated to spend all of his or her time working to support himself (he wasn't a feminist), then he could not be a good citizen. For Jefferson, the point of a democracy was to provide a society where individuals were as independent as possible to pursue happiness, both in the public and private spheres. If you create a democracy wherein people cannot be economically independent (for Jefferson this meant yeoman farmers who were self-sustaining), then you have failed to create a democracy. Jefferson even argued that working to consume could never lead to the true happiness that an effective democracy could have. He also argued that working for wages was like slavery, because you are beholden to someone else for your livelihood and for the way you dispose of your time; and he further argued that credit for consumption was like slavery and was a mental burden.

Maybe this is why political scientists often refer to Jefferson as the "quack" among America's founders, as it's so contrary to what America actually became. Obviously, American democracy was institutionalized by James Madison (who wrote the constitution) and Alexander Hamilton (who, as secretary of state in three administrations designed the economic policy of the government), two men who believed that the government's primary role was to guarantee property rights and secure the ability of those with property to continue to accumulate.

I am left with Jefferson's critique: We are a consumer culture, facilitated by falling consumer prices, facilitated by technique and globalization. We are obviously a culture obsessed with consuming. Jefferson's argument may still obtain, that consumption isn't happiness; but what of his democratic argument?

Whereas Jefferson would have argued for mere economic independence, perhaps we would have to argue about consumerism: How much consuming power must an individual have, at minimum, in order to consider the democracy effective? How many hours per week maximum should a person have to work in a democracy, before it infringes on that person's ability to "pursue happiness"? Should credit cards be legal in a democracy? As much as credit enables consumptions, especially for the bottom 60% of Americans, is the credit worth it?

This is obviously not the democracy that Jefferson would have wanted, and even more obviously, it is a democracy inextricably tied to finance and industrial capitalism.

So is this it? Is democracy nothing more than the freedom to get a job and buy shit?



1. Pisces Iscariot - 28 February 2006

Refreshing to find an intelligent blog amongst all this dross.
With regards to your musing; you’ve got to ask ‘what is the point of having when you’ve got to step over the have-nots to get there?’

2. Randy - 1 March 2006

“Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” I dig Janis Joplin. However, there’s a lot to be said for the freedom to get a job and buy shit–economic liberty is a relatively new phenomenon in the historical scheme of things, and something we Americans take for granted. OTOH, pure materialism, whether consumerist/capitalist or Marxist, does infringe on the communitarian and spiritual/ethical elements of society. The late Pope’s (I know, I know, he’s not one of your favorite people) critiques of western materialism seemed to baffle many Americans–after all, he was anti-Communist, so he must be pro-capitalist, right? But whatcha gonna do?

3. Todd - 1 March 2006

Especially in historical perspective, the freedom to earn and buy is important. But I do think that when the “earning” is structured to the benefit of the people at the top, so much so that even the PMC work more hours/week than anyone else; and when the labor market is structured such that you must make all your decisions based on the bare need to survive; then that’s not freedom. Secondly, if the economic system writ large is set up to necessarily create an underclass (which our labor market is), then it is, by definition, antithetical to the minimum requirements of democracy.

4. Equality - 1 March 2006

I want to comment more but will have to come back later. Just one quick note on the statistics you cite. I think they tell part of the story but what is so often forgotten when such stats are bandied about is that in America there is a constant mixing from one class to another. In other words, it may be so that X % hold Y % of the wealth in the country at any given time. But fast forward 5, 10, 15 years, and you will see much mobility among the holders of said wealth. That is, the composition of people in the X % holding Y % of the wealth is constantly changing. I am an example. My first year of marriage my wife and I earned a COMBINED $16,000. We now together are approaching Al Gore’s much-loathed “Top 1%” (in terms of income, not wealth). Also, let’s not forget that while the Top 5% may “receive” (I would say “earn”) 20.3% of income, they pay a helluva lot more than that percentage of federal taxes. But that is probably a little OT for your post. Just saying that the stats can be used to make a variety of political points.

5. Todd - 1 March 2006

While it is true that there is social mobility in the U.S. (and it’s greater than in the non-industrialized world), it’s not at all to the extent that your post implies. The vast majority of Amerians end up in the same class they were raised in. (I’ll post some numbers tomorrow when I’m in the office and have the research handy.) Indeed, the numbers seem to be indictating that taking a long view, since 1973 (a key year in global, not just U.S. economy), social mobility has eased to a stop in the U.S. This means that there’s a distinct possibility that people of my generation and younger will actually end up below our parents’ position. While layoffs, college educations, etc., do push individuals around the ladder, system wide that degree of mobility isn’t enough to make a statistically significant dent in the power of the top 20%, almost all of whom have a birth-ascribed class position.

6. Todd - 1 March 2006

By the way, I don’t think you and your wife are approaching the top 1% of income earners, which is over 500K/year household. If you are, you damn well better buy me a Christmas gift this year! LOL

7. Equality - 1 March 2006

Ok, if 500K is the top 1% then we are approaching from a great distance. But let me put it this way: we paid about $45,000 in federal taxes (income, SS, medicaid) last year. And I sure as hell don’t feel “rich” with my mortgage, student loans, credit cards, three kids, car payments, yadda yadda yadda. The More we make, the more they take to redistribute.
On your first point, how many of the Forbes 400 last year were on the list in 1973? Bill Gates and Paul Allen sure weren’t.

8. Todd - 1 March 2006

Yeah, no one in the PMC feels rich, mainly because they work so much for what they have. The PMC is the culturally dominant class (the 2nd 15% of U.S. households, incomes between 80K and 140K per year); this simply means that in representations in popular culture and in people’s minds, an American is by definition PMC. You are also right that the middle class (of which the PMC is the top tier) bears the brunt of the current tax system. This has been the case since the second year of the Reagan administration when the burdens were shifted away from the top 5% 140K/year and up. The PMC has a lot of social power, and they are financially able to transfer the class position to their children. But that doesn’t mean their experience of their status is wine and roses.

I don’t have the numbers in front of me, but there has been a swelling of the number of the superwealthy (about 1500 families with assets exceding 10 million dollars) in the past 30 years, so it is no surprise that those at the tippy top weren’t there in 1973. Do note, however, that Bill Gates (I don’t know Paul Allen) was raised in the upper class (father is a successful corporate attorney), although way lower than his current status–this just to point out that Gates had particular advantages associated with his class (e.g., the leisure time to tinker in his dad’s garage with buckaroo from Apple) that enabled/facilitated his accumulation of wealth.

9. Equality - 2 March 2006

Good points, Todd. You mentioned the Reagan tax cuts, but for me the Bush tax policy has been really insidious in that it gave huge benefits not to those who earn income but to those who live off of investment income. And he did nothing about the god-awful AMT, which is set to smack down not the rich who don’t pay any taxes (the original target) but the very Americans who are working so hard to move up the socioeconomic ladder–just as they begin to make progress, there is the AMT and the phase-out of deductions to smack them back down. So, I agree generally with you if your point is that social and economic upward mobility is becoming more difficult even as the macroeconomic picture has been relatively rosy. I imagine we might differ on our approaches to solve the problem, however.

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