The History of Splurging

Question: Historically speaking, why are Americans compelled to spend money?

Lee Eisenberg: I think we've got it into our head now that we are a nation of shopaholics, that we are all incredibly greedy; we don't know our limits. And that's true; a lot of us don't know our limits. And you know, the economic meltdown that we've experienced the last couple years is to a very large degree because our eyes were bigger than our wallets. But I think that's a mischaracterization in some ways; I think that's too broad an indictment of the American people overall. But I also think it's rooted in this very strong conflict that exists and has existed in the American character. As we all remember from school, if not from buying experience, we were really a nation founded on frugality, and waste not, want not; you know, the Benjamin Franklin credo, and a century or two in which good character was defined by not spending money but by abstinence.

And then beginning in the 19th century things began to change in a very accelerated and radical way. Global industrialization brought all kinds of good that were increasingly affordable to more and more people beginning in the early 19th century, and you had these -- actually not far from this studio, just around the block, on this street in fact -- these incredible department stores in the form of Italian palazzos that started springing up in the early 1900s, where not only the upper class, but working class men and women could come into these fantastic emporia piled high with goods from all over the world, and we had never seen anything like that before. And the department store, as we came to know it, was started. So suddenly there was this beginning of this tremendous sort of shift that had to happen, and I think the conflict, which is on the one hand you had a very strong sense of puritanical Yankee frugality colliding head-on with this world, this explosive world, of material abundance and ever increasing wages. And I think to a much greater degree than a lot of current observers give us credit for, most of us are still racked by that conflict.

It’s easy to say that we spend and spend and spend, and again, many people do, and they overspend. But for most people that I talk to, everyday people, normal people out there, there is still this pleasure/pain principle at work. You know, we may spend money freely and often recklessly, but not without some feeling of anxiety or guilt. Some people don't feel that, but a lot of people do feel that. And I think what's happening now, now that we're living in very challenging economic times, is that that pendulum is swinging a little bit back. It's not going all the way back to waste not, want not -- although there are anti-consumerists out there who would have us do that -- but swinging back from what in the book I call a romantic form of shopping, which is shopping because we are emotionally satisfied or aroused by shopping, back to what I call sort of a classic mode of shopping, which is putting a premium on all kinds of things such as practicality or utility or durability, getting fair value for a given price, getting quality for a price; a more mindful kind of shopping.

I don't suggest, as I just said, that we're going to revert into some kind of Victorian age of careful spending, but I do think that at least for the foreseeable future, some of those old values that we thought had gone away beginning in the '50s may well come back to at least occupy part of our psyches when we go into a store.

Recorded on November 9, 2009

We may spend money freely and often recklessly, but not without some feeling of anxiety or guilt.

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