Recommended Reading: Shiny Objects by James A. Roberts

February 7, 2012 § 2 Comments

I first heard Dr. James A. Roberts speak about his book, Shiny Objects: Why We Spend Money We Don’t Have in Search of Happiness We Can’t Buy, during the holiday season on NPR in San Francisco.  My curiosity was immediately piqued by Roberts’ commentary on materialism, overspending and aspiring to own things we don’t really need. Even in the midst of a major recession, when so many Americans are out of work and struggling to get by, the celebration of mansions, fancy cars, luxury goods and haute cuisine has hardly receded.

I’d long wondered how America got to this point of constant craving. In Shiny Objects, Roberts lays out the historical groundwork, both societal and governmental, that led to the current materialistic climate. One of Roberts’ primary explanations is the radical change in how we describe and understand the concept of the American Dream. Instead of striving for a fundamentally good, safe and honest life, we’ve come to see the American Dream as striking it rich:

The traditional message of the American Dream was that through hard work, frugality, and sacrifice, anyone could achieve financial independence. Somehow we lost our way on the road to that dream. Presently, many American have replaced the traditional American Dream with a philosophy of “get rich quick.” Dreams of easy money have replaced hard work, thrift and self-sacrifice.

In fact, many social critics would argue that Americans are not embracing the American Dream as much as the American Daydream. The hard work and sacrifice that were part and parcel of the original American Dream have been replaced by wishful thinking about material success with no willingness to pay the dues necessary to create such wealth. A 2009 MetLife study found that 50 percent of Americans could survive only a month without a paycheck before going into debt. Twenty-eight percent of the same people said they couldn’t last two weeks without a steady paycheck. We want to enjoy the trappings of wealth and “look the part,” but we don’t like the sustained self-sacrifice component.

Major events Roberts says contributed to our collective material aspirations were John Locke’s 1689 Second Treatise on Government in which he suggests “life, liberty and the pursuit of property” instead of  “life liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” the California Gold Rush, the Industrial Revolution, the affordability of the Model T, FDR’s focus on “freeing Americans from want,” the creation of Levittown, a high level of personal consumption during the 1960s, Reagan’s euphoric financial optimism, the Dot Com boom, and the sub-prime mortgage loans made pre-crisis. Roberts’ historical research is both interesting and easy to understand if you’re wondering how we got to where we are today.

The author’s main point is that we are no happier with material possessions than without them, but that we can’t let go of the idea of having them. Recently, in his rebuttal of President Obama’s State of the Union, Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels stated “that we never will be a nation of haves and have-nots; we have always been a nation of rich and soon to be rich.” That’s simply not true, and not the right message to give Americans during a hard time. What about going back to basic decency, hard work, and filling the basic needs, not the ridiculous ones, of American families?  Bill Maher, on his show this past week, said he remembered driving with his father through rich neighborhoods in New Jersey, where he grew up, and said his father never once told him or taught him that those homes were within his reach. I don’t know myself if we’re too far gone to be realistic, but I’m so glad that know that people like Dr. Roberts are raising these issues, both emotionally and statistically, and asking us to turn inward and to think about where we want to go from here.

Dr. Roberts answered some questions for me and for Truth Plus readers about Shiny Objects and about buying and selling product in America. 

Truth Plus:  I work in the fashion industry, a business predicated on selling, in some ways, the wearable American Dream. Some of the companies whom I have marketed produce clothing that is wearable and fairly priced, and others that sell expensive, “aspirational” and sometimes frivolous product. There are two questions I have here. 

a) How does a marketer like myself, who doesn’t condone excess materialism, succeed in his or her job without pushing customers into buying more and buying often? 

James Roberts: That’s a good question. As a business needing to make a profit to survive, you must market your product in what is, as you well know, a very competitive apparel industry. You can, however, sell products that are fashionable but also made to last and at reasonable prices. Consumers must meet you half way. We know best what we can afford and need to exercise control over our desires and spending. Several chapters in my book Shiny Objects talk about how each of us can learn the fine art of self-control. It’s not always easy but something we all must do to live happy and productive lives.

b)     How can we as consumers support small retail-based businesses that incorporate quality, craftsmanship and tradition into their business models, but sell at a higher price than their mass-market counterparts (due to costs of resources, labor)?

JR: Your message of quality, craftsmanship, and tradition needs to be at the core of your marketing communications. Similar to fair trade products, the consumer must be informed of the benefits of purchasing your products. All marketing efforts must focus on telling the same story – something we call Integrated Marketing Communications (IMC).

TP: I guess, in reference to question 1b), if the American economy is based in part on spending, how can we support the economy and simultaneously move away from materialism?

JR: It’s all about balance and exports. What I mean is that we cannot count on US consumers alone to fuel the growth in the US economy. We need to be saving a lot more than we have in the past if we are going to be able to take care of ourselves today and in our “Golden Years”. American companies must look overseas for a portion of their future sales growth. American consumers are already stretched to their maximum and can’t afford to foot the bill for future growth in the US economy. Nor, should that be our goal. As Edward Abbey once said, “Growth for the sake of growth is the philosophy of the cancer cell”. On page four of Shiny Objects, there are two graphs that make this point very clearly. One graph shows that personal spending in the form of GDP has gone up from 1970 almost unabated whereas our happiness has flat-lined. We are no happier today than 40 years ago despite an ever-growing pile of material possessions. We are looking for happiness in all of the wrong places.

TP: It’s well documented in your book, but can you quickly explain how the “pursuit of happiness” has changed over time? Will Americans strive to attain more material goods despite the realities of the US economy? Can the 99% ever stop wanting what the 1% has? 

JR: Slowly the US had morphed into a consumer culture. A consumer culture is one where the majority of people actively pursue, consume, and display consumer goods often for the purpose of signaling status and provoking envy. Bad economies don’t stop us but merely slow us down for the time being. We have already witnessed an up-tick in consumer debt and spending since the clouds on the economic horizon are starting to lift. As consumers we suffer from short-term amnesia. We buckle down when clouds appear on the horizon but once even an inkling on blue skies appear we return to our profligate spending ways. With the Internet and 24/7 media it’s hard not to be tantalized by all of the Shiny Objects enthusiastically consumed and displayed by the upper classes.

TP: Do you think if we all stopped using credit cards that we’d be as materialistic as we are now? 

JR: I am not sure if stopping the use of credit cards would mitigate our materialism, but I promise you we would spend a lot less money on things we don’t need. I suggest your readers go on a cash/check only budget for the next month and see how their spending drops when they don’t use credit cards. I would love to hear their stories.

TP: I’m a big proponent of American manufacturing. Do you think we could ever return to what you refer to in the book as the ‘sales era’ (1870-1900)?

JR: We could but it wouldn’t be easy. Labor is cheaper overseas and much of manufacturing has followed the cheap labor to foreign soil.

TP: What’s the real difference between needing and wanting? Is the roof over our head and a full stomach the bare minimum?

JR: Outside of spending on the basic necessities of food, shelter, and clothing, nearly all of our spending in the US is discretionary. We’ve fooled ourselves that we “need” cell phones, I-pads, etc. but I seem to recall the day we had neither and still seemed to get by somehow.

TP: Are your hopes high that American values can change, given the shock of the economic crisis, or are we too addicted to our old, consumption-happy ways?

JR: We are spending addicts. I said in my book that we would return to our profligate ways as soon as the Great Recession shows signs of abating and my prophecy is regrettably already coming true. But this is not a death sentence for all of us. Although it won’t be easy, we all have within us the ability to control our urges, desires, and spending and foster a healthy relationship with money and possessions despite the economic bacchanalia that’s going on around us.

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