Monday, October 20, 2014


According to U.S. Census Bureau statistics, the size of the average American house more than doubled between 1950 and 1999.  Between 1982 to 2004 alone, new single-family homes grew some forty percent larger--from 1,690 square feet to 2,366 square feet.  In the meantime, the size of the average American household shrank from 3.3 to 2.6 people.  What’s going on?

Only in America.
The answer is, I think, that we Americans have fallen hook, line and sinker for the  Big Marketing Lie. For decades we’ve been pummeled by advertising urging us to buy more, more, more--a relentless drumbeat that carefully reinforces the idea that our happiness is directly proportional to the size, cost, and number of things we own. This mind-numbing message grew exponentially more shrill with the advent of television, and it’s being further amplified by the Internet, which makes it possible for us to shop our duffs off even while we’re still sitting on them. And not even the Great Big Ol’ Recession has put a serious damper on our mania for consumption.

Inevitably, the dual mantras of marketing--More is More, and Bigger is Better--have worked their way clear up to the single biggest purchase most consumers ever make: their homes. This is one reason why today’s smaller families still feel compelled to purchase ever-larger houses, even if they have to commute an extra fifty miles to afford them.
Yet whether we’re talking about televisions, cars, or houses, a moment’s reflection will quickly reveal who really benefits from rampant materialism--not those who buy consumer products, but rather those who make them. The reason is so obvious it’s almost funny: Owning two wide-screen TVs certainly doesn’t make us twice as happy, but it does quite plainly bring the seller twice the profit. Likewise, home buyers quickly learn that owning a gigantic house can be more of a headache than a pleasure, but by then the developer's profits are safely in the bank.

Like I was saying.

Perhaps there is a point when too much really is too much.  We’ve all seen that bumper sticker beloved by the terminally empty-headed: “He Who Dies With the Most Toys Wins.” It’s a testament to the thoroughness with which Madison Avenue has brainwashed consumers into equating material goods with happiness. Yet few intelligent Americans would profess that owning a huge house, a boat and a couple of Escalades has made their lives any happier. Some might even confess to the opposite effect. Still, we seem unable to shake off the siren song of materialism and see it for the profiteering sham it is.

There was a time, long ago, when Americans were frugal, inventive, and could do a lot with very little. But years of prosperity, coupled with the relentless urging to buy more, more, more, have made too many of us complacent, over-entitled, and obsessed by material goods beyond all else. 

Frank Lloyd Wright once observed:  “Many wealthy people are little more than janitors of their possessions.”  Today, it’s not just the top 1 percent who are so afflicted.  Rich and poor, left and right, in good times and bad--we Americans are fast becoming little more than serfs to our limitless craving for stuff.

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