The Consumer Republic: Simple Pleasures

For believers in magical numbers, last week was a great one. In colossal-sized type the front pages trumpeted “62,” Mark McGwire’s record-breaking number of home runs. Only a few columns away were the latest numbers from the other all-American spectator sport: the stock market.
The difference is that everyone knows what 62 homers and counting means. Having knocked that many balls out of the park, McGwire can no longer hit a mere 61. The Dow Show offers no such epoch-making certainty. One day the words “interest rate cut” sent the market into a record gain. The next day, the word “impeachment” made it tumble again.
Between the perpetual-motion wealth of a bull market and the hunkered down of the bear lies the worse alternative of all: uncertainty. This may help explain why the media has been so eager to declare the Wall Street party over.
“What did you do after the crash, Daddy?” asks the October issue of Esquire. Two weeks ago, Fortune’s cover featured the line “Wretched Excess!” over the eloquent image of a pig. Park the Range Rover in the three-car garage, advised The New York Times, and trade down to a Ford Explorer, a consumable more in tune with the coming age of diminished expectations.
For those who make their living providing “relevant” products and services to the marketplace, a consumer mood–any mood–is preferable to dealing with customers who don’t know how to feel or what to buy. So after several years of deifying Silicon Valley zillionaires and reporting breathlessly on the fabulous vacation houses that stock options can buy, the taste makers have declared that too much is enough.
No one yet knows if the historic, late 20th-century bull market has finally come up against the “must come down” laws of economics, but the trendmeisters are not waiting to find out.
So forget the Ferraris bought with IPO fortunes, the 5,000-square-foot homes crowded like million-dollar tenements onto suburban ranch-sized lots, the four-figure bottles of wine. That’s over. It’s back to the Simple Life. You remember the Simple Life? It’s that sea change in the American consumer mentality in the wake of Christian Lacroix poufs and too much Donald Trump. Having suffered the implosion of paper wealth and charge-card acquisitiveness, the theory went, consumers had learned their lesson.
We’ll make do with less, we pledged, and concentrate on the important things in life: the intangibles money can’t buy. The media was filled with stories of men and women who decided to drop out of lucrative careers to raise endive on their family-friendly Vermont farms, proof that the hardy American consumer was going back to the basics.
The ’90s haven’t quite turned out that way.
By some lights, the Simple Life was a knee-jerk and short-lived guilt trip on the way to the next spending spree. While it may be consoling to think material goods don’t count for much when there is less money to buy them, it’s downright dumb to think that when there is money to burn.
Sure enough, ’90s wealth found ways to express itself–and excessive wealth has expressed itself excessively. Now, having relived the ’80s, we’re about to re-experience the hangover we suffered in the early ’90s. It seems we are condemned to both remember history and repeat it.
Yet even if I were betting on an economic downturn deep and lasting enough to affect the consumer confidence index, I would not count on a return of the Simple Life.
Why? It can’t return because, in some respects, it never went away. What could be simpler than the humble beauty of stone wall? Or riding the wind across the water? Or watching the waves pound their eternal tattoo on the shore? Well, in Westchester County, N.Y., that humble wall costs several million dollars, the sailing yacht will set you back $300,000 or more, and that sea view on Nantucket is a seven-figure buy.
But what could be simpler than paying for all these treasures in cash, which is what the rich do these days? Consumers have held fast to their infatuation with the Simple Life in the ’90s; they just learned that the simple pleasures can be very complicated and extremely expensive.
History doesn’t really repeat itself. The crash, should it come, won’t be followed by an orgy of consumer guilt because the high life ’90s-style was about wealth without guilt. It was the genius of the decade’s marketing to take the mentality of an economic downturn and transform it into the soul of an affluent lifestyle. In the rush to be the first on the block to figure out the coming consumer mentality, forget about back to basics. The simple life has turned into the greatest luxury of all.