“Consuming America: What Have We Done to Ourselves?” was organized by the Fordham Center on Religion and Culture.  Photo by Leo Sorel
“Consuming America: What Have We Done to Ourselves?” was organized by the Fordham Center on Religion and Culture.
Photo by Leo Sorel

“Consumerism—devil or angel?”

That was the question raised by Paul Solman, business and economics correspondent for PBS’s NewsHour, and moderator of “Consuming America: What Have We Done to Ourselves?” a conference sponsored by the Fordham Center on Religion and Culture, held on Sept. 15 at Fordham’s Lincoln Center campus.

Solman’s question was taken up by scholars from varied disciplines who sought to understand the impact of American consumerism from the perspectives of history, sociology and theology.

They also addressed a paradox at the heart of the current economic crisis: While consumer profligacy is often blamed for the economic downtown, the solution to the crisis is presented in further consumption, as seen in the government’s stimulus package, the first-time homeowners’ tax credit and the “Cash for Clunkers” program.

Lizabeth Cohen, PhD., the Howard Mumford Jones Professor of American Studies and chair of history at Harvard University, provided a historical context for what she described as America’s “embrace of consumption as the route to affluence.”

Cohen traced the American belief in the national benefits of buying to the late 1940s and 1950s, when returning GIs and their new brides were encouraged to buy single-family homes and fill them with material goods marketed to them through advertising, film and other forms of popular culture.

Fearing a return to the Depression that preceded World War II, the government’s plan “was to convert manufacturing from war production to the mass production of consumer goods, and to develop strategies to encourage consumers to spend and thereby create jobs and demand,” Cohen said.

In this “consumers’ republic,” said Cohen, “consuming was not a personal indulgence but an act that contributed to the common good.”

George Ritzer, PhD., Distinguished University Professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Maryland, stressed the need to look beyond “blaming the victim” in the economic crisis to examine larger national and global forces.

Ritzer pointed to “the lure of cheap products,” including industrial food, along with “easy, even fraudulent credit” and marketing and advertising “that make products so alluring that it’s difficult, if not impossible, to resist them.”

“Can we consume ourselves to affluence?” he asked. “It seems to be a contradiction in terms.”

A discussion of values was continued by Vincent Miller, Ph.D., the Gudorf Chair in Catholic Theology and Culture at the University of Dayton.

“Why do people who are so fabulously prosperous as we are think so little of our collective societal good?” he asked. “Why do Catholics, with their rich tradition of Catholic social teaching . . . get along so well with what some have called, evocatively, the ‘tchotchke economy?’”

In considering items we consume, Miller said, “We have no resources to think about what our fair share actually is” because these come from a seemingly “infinite horizon,” and we cannot gauge the impact our choices have in the world.

Miller advocated a re-engagement with solidarity as a response to current conditions.

He cited Pope John Paul II’s definition of solidarity as a virtue that was rooted in the fundamental human experience of vulnerability and social dependence.

“When we accept the truth of our own vulnerability and dependence on others,” Miller said, “we can move from the clenched rejection of others’ needs . . . and actively support and sacrifice for others.”