The Consumer Republic

A Wealth of Possibilities
When I first spied the ziggurat of copies of financial guru Suze Orman’s latest book, The Courage to Be Rich, at the entrance of Barnes & Noble, its title took me aback. Surely, I thought, it takes much more courage to be poor. But according to Orman, such an attitude is a sign that I don’t have sufficient respect for money. I still think of the stuff as a means toward material things: shelter, clothing, food.
Money is all that, of course, says the star of PBS, Oprah and QVC (where she’s said to have moved 10,000 copies of her opus in 12 minutes), but stopping there is a sign of spiritual impoverishment. According to this new age twist on the old American faith that links wealth and virtue, the fattening 401(k), those triple-tax-free bonds and long-term T-bills are not just piles of dollars, they’re metaphors for self-love and self-worth. It’s enough to make you nostalgic for the ’80s.
Back then, when the Dow was skyrocketing to 2000, everyone knew what money was for: to buy lots of expensive stuff to show you’d made it. Greed is good. The one who dies with the most toys wins. We’re living in a material world, and I am a material girl.
Today, as the Dow flirts with 10,000, such thoughts are considered unseemly. The truest measure of success, 76 percent of respondents tell the Yankelovich Monitor, is having a successful marriage. That cashmere sweater is desirable not to show off to others, says the ’90s consumer, but because of how it feels on the skin. We buy deluxe lawn mowers not because they are trophies, but because they’re more efficient. We spend in order to have experiences that spiritually enrich us.
Of course, possessing a good marriage doesn’t rule out owning an SUV as long as a hearse or a 30,000-square-foot home with a six-car garage. Nor has our avowed withdrawal from competitive consumption stopped consumers from piling up $1.3 trillion in consumer debt as of January 1999 or letting their savings rate drop to zero, as it did in the third quarter of 1998. The acquisitive greedheads of the ’80s were models of fiscal responsibility compared to ’90s post-materialists.
Which is where Suze (pronounced Suzie) comes in. Whatever turned this network morning-show blonde into a media phenom, it’s not her financial message, which is basic and dreary: Stop spending money. Take a year’s worth of money you spend on Starbucks coffee, she advises, invest it at 10 percent and in 30 years you’ll have $165,000. You buy gourmet vinegar instead of the regular kind? That’s $10 that could go into the retirement fund. Top-of-the-line appliances? Who are you kidding? You don’t even cook!
In many ways, The Courage to Be Rich’s message echoes books such as Robert Frank’s Luxury Fever and Juliet Schor’s The Overspent American, which shows up on Orman’s list of recommended reading. Like those two liberal critics of consumer culture, Orman decries the clutter of possessions and warns against turning wants into necessities. But while Schor finds the cure to relentless upscaling in the courage to be less rich (i.e., downsizing) and Frank offers the even less appetizing solution of a consumption tax, Suze goes for the ’90s consumer sweet spot: spiritual fulfillment. She tries to convince us that money itself is just as “experiential” as the stuff it buys.
Good luck. As Orman notes, we can’t furnish our living rooms with piles of money. In order to create that ’90s paradise, an environment of “true abundance,” we’ve got to spend it. For most consumers, consumption is the way to find spiritual meaning in money. And the more spiritual meaning we invest in our things, the fewer and weaker are the taboos against spending.
Consider the case of Robert Frank, who, at the end of
Luxury Fever, shamefacedly confesses to the very kind of upscale consumer purchase he condemns: a stove. “To my chagrin,” he writes, “it cost us more than four times as much as the one it replaced, and it has two 15,000 Btu burners–the signature emblem of 1990s superfluity.”
Indulging in competitive consumption in reverse, he rationalizes that his stove is less gross and expensive than the Vikings in his friend’s kitchen. But these are just afterthoughts to an inevitable decision. “I immediately saw it was fruitless to resist. After all, it is a nice stove “
But the ’90s teaches us that Frank could save himself a lot of anguish if he just stopped thinking about his stove as an appliance. Is not the stove the modern-day equivalent of the hearth? Is not the hearth the soul of home, the warming symbol of emotional security, the sacred gathering place of the clan? Sure, any old stove is good enough to cook food, but if you love your family and treasure your domesticity, can you afford to get anything less than one with 15,000 Btu burners?
Not to mention that it is a nice stove.