The Consumer Republic: Reversal Of Fortune

We’re constantly being told how complex American society is, how unpredictable and chaotic it’s become. Yet in spite of its complexity–or perhaps because of it–pundits, market researchers and social observers seem more addicted than ever to slapping sweeping, one-size-fits-all glosses on the teeming contradictions of our social life.
Consider the notion of economic prosperity. As a way of explaining Americans’ moods and attitudes, prosperity ranks up there with El Ni-o, the all-purpose cause for effects both big and small.
Prosperity is cited as the reason for President Clinton’s success at surviving sexual scandal and for the failure of the film Primary Colors; the first is seen as a threat to the happy status quo, the latter too “real” for feel-good times. Why are Americans unable to focus on substantive political and social issues? Prosperity. Why did the Republican Revolution of fiscal responsibility devolve into a pork- barrel fest whose greatest monument is a highway improvement bill? Prosperity. Why is the culture so fixated on theme-park fantasies and special-effects escapism? Prosperity.
There’s so much self-congratulation and pinch-me giddiness in the air, it makes the “complacent” ’50s look like a decade-long anxiety attack. Today’s prosperity explanation comes with a fatalistic shrug, as if a contagion to reality is the inevitable consequence of economic well-being. The assumption is that it’s only natural for the public to be indifferent to the president’s sex life and his policy initiatives when the stock market is so hot. How can you expect people to pay attention to the expansion of NATO when Seinfeld is about to go off the air? People are busy either drinking $4,000 bottles of restaurant wine or reading breathless accounts of those who do.
This isn’t the first time prosperity has been hauled out to make sense of the complex behavior of American society. But last time around, the thesis was reversed: Prosperity was said to spawn cultural reform and ferment. We’ve all heard the theory, much beloved by traditionalists, that the upheavals of the ’60s were a product of prosperity. Only a generation raised in the bosom of material security would dare embark on cultural and political campaigns so destructive, as the right puts it, or so idealistic, as the left believes. All that stuff about peace, love, creative freedom, racism and economic justice was just what you’d expect from young people who never worried where their next meal was coming from.
As tiresome and simplistic as this explanation is, it makes sense. The Spock babies were lifted by the sober labor of their Depression-scarred parents to the pinnacle of psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Maslow, an advertising hero for several generations, laid out the schema by which individuals, once they satisfied their needs for food and shelter, move on to more abstract desires. The ’60s fruit-of-prosperity theory is Maslow applied to society.
If prosperity, by his logic, provides the opportunity to address fundamental social issues, bad economic times should spawn cultural escapism. Every history of Hollywood’s golden age unfolds against the backdrop of the Great Depression, when people found refuge from economic hardships in movie palaces replete with images of beautiful, glamorous and wealthy stars. When the economy is bad, this theory goes, a weary public retreats.
Set against this experience, the ’90s connection between prosperity and a mass allergy to reality seems at odds. In fact, the contemporary combination of good times and escapism may be a fascinating anomaly, a fin de sicle condition masquerading as a law of human nature. Remember that the very soul of ’90s prosperity, the Wall Street boom, is shrouded in an air
of unreality. The shepherds of the bull market–analysts, fund managers, institutional investors–don’t understand what’s happening. Witnessing the 9,000-plus Dow has been like watching a special-effects thriller in which, thanks to computer magic, gravity is defied and the laws of physics suspended. On Wall Street, technology’s spell has helped overturn every truism about price-to-earnings ratios, every yardstick of company evaluation.
At the other end of the economic boom is another happy mystery: Where have all the welfare recipients gone? We know the welfare rolls have shrunk, but the whereabouts of the disappeared are unknown. Not that there’s much curiosity about them. It’s enough–presto chango!–they’ve vanished. When perception is reality, magic is all you need. In a way, it’s a comfort to blame–or credit–our current disinterest in serious issues on good economic times. Implicit in that link is the opposite scenario: An economic downturn would snap us back to attention. I wouldn’t be so sure.
Sometimes it seems that consumers, ascending to the top of Maslow’s ladder, are permanently suspended in an ether of experiences, where “reality” is neither interesting nor relevant. If good times turn bad, we could all end up in a free fall. fall.