What's Tony Thinking

Consumers All?


During a recent KUOW (Seattle-based NPR affiliate) fundraiser, one of the people asking for support said, “Think about it! How much KUOW programming do you consume each week?”

It struck me as an odd choice of words. Why not just say, “How much KUOW programming do you listen to each week?”

But we have been conditioned to think of ourselves in the less humanistic and more materialistic image. We are consumers.

Moreover, it is presented to us as a civic duty. Remember George W. Bush telling us after 9/11 to “go shopping”? Just settle down now. We’re in control. You go shop. Your job is to shop.

I was at the Seattle area IKEA the other day to get a bookcase for a grandson’s bedroom. It’s hard not to feel like you are entering some vast, glittering temple of consumerism going in to those places. It’s all about getting the best price.

Lower prices, rather than fair wages, have been the holy grail for thirty years now (the period in which wages have been stagnant in the U.S.).

Soon we will be receiving reports on “Black Friday” sales as a kind of EKG of our economic health. An anxious eye will be cast on “holiday sales figures.” Not to mention the blitz of ads promising true love and happy family life if we purchase the right gift.

“Consumer” has become, if not the, then certainly one of our most prominent, and to my mind problematic, self-definitions.

In his post-election analysis David Brooks said that one of the messages is that the nation’s “working classes” are still trying to get a hearing. Here’s Brooks:

“This is still a country in which nearly 20 percent of prime-age American men are not working full time. This is still a country in which only 37 percent of adults expect children to be better off financially than they are. This is still a country in which millions of new jobs are through “alternative work arrangements” like contracting or consulting — meaning no steady salary, no predictable hours and no security.”

Brooks notes that American welfare policy has prioritized enabling people to be consumers, rather than to be producers.

He cites to a new book by Oren Case, The Once and Future Worker. “What if people’s ability to produce matters more than how much they can consume?” Cass asks.

Yes, I know, this conjures up images of grouchy fathers everywhere saying to sullen teenagers, “When are you going to grow up and become a productive member of society?” Still, the truth is that most people would like to be productive, contributing.

After citing a range of proposals Cass offers for helping working class people work Brooks concludes,

“Cass has many other proposals — wage subsidies, immigration reforms. But he’s really trying to put work, and the dignity of work, at the center of our culture and concern. In the 1970s and 1980s, he points out, the Emmy Award-winning TV shows were about blue-collar families: “All in the Family,” “Taxi,” “Cheers,” “The Wonder Years.” Now the Emmy-winning shows are mostly about white-collar adults working in Los Angeles, Seattle, Boston, New York and Washington.

“We in the college-educated sliver have built a culture, an economy and a political system that are all about ourselves. It’s time to pass labor market reforms that will make life decent for everybody.”

While I live most of the year in the blue-bubble of Seattle, I live part of the year and have roots in a redder region. Wallowa County in Northeastern Oregon. It is one of those rural areas where Trump held sway in 2016, carrying over 70%.

It is also a place where a high value is placed on work, and in particular the work that people do with their hands People are judged by their “work-ethic” in a place like Wallowa County. That is to me one of the strengths of that culture. However, people there often feel forgotten or diminished by U.S. society at large.

Which leads me to think that Oren Cass is saying something important to progressives and Democrats, as well as to the culture at large. Being equipped to be productive is more important to people’s sense of meaning and value than being consumers. People may have settled for consumption because better alternatives have dried up.

The whole “consumer” thing also has something to do with our epidemic of obesity.

Cass’s book shows that, despite all the emphasis on globalization and automation, it doesn’t have to be this way. There are many ways in which productive work, and the dignity of work, can be placed again at the center of our culture and concern.

My hunch is that if Democrats are going to deny Trump a second term, it will require less emphasis on what Frank Bruni (NYT) recently termed, “the Oppression Olympics,” and more emphasis on the value and dignity of work and policies that encourage it.

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