Rory Sutherland Rory Sutherland

The Wiki Man: Stuff and nonsense

I would have more sympathy for criticism of consumer culture were it not for the people who voice it — usually the type who owns a second home in Tuscany but is horrified that their cleaner has two televisions.

I would have more sympathy for criticism of consumer culture were it not for the people who voice it — usually the type who owns a second home in Tuscany but is horrified that their cleaner has two televisions.

I would have more sympathy for criticism of consumer culture were it not for the people who voice it — usually the type who owns a second home in Tuscany but is horrified that their cleaner has two televisions.

As for the anti-materialist stance of Lord Layard, who believes your iPad creates unhappiness in those who cannot afford one, this may be true. But then the same logic must also apply to owning a peerage, which may arouse feelings of inadequacy in humbler social scientists styled ‘Professor’ or ‘Dr’. Lord Layard is strangely silent about this.

But the most important rebuttal of anti-consumerist sentiment comes from Elizabeth Warren, a left-of-centre academic in the US. Her response to critics of rampant consumer extravagance was to show that, in reality, consumer spending wasn’t rising much at all. Evidence she uncovered on the spending habits of the median US household largely debunks the widespread belief that overspending is on the rise.

Often it’s the reverse. In 2005, typical Americans spent 20 per cent less on food than they did in the early 1970s. Spending on clothes declined by over 20 per cent, and on furniture by over 30 per cent. On major domestic appliances (washing machines, fridges, etc) it is down by well over 40 per cent. Warren writes:

Computers add another $300 to the annual family budget. But… the extra money spent on cable [TV], electronics and computers is more than offset by families’ savings on major appliances and household furnishings. In fact, when all the numbers are added up, an increase in one category of spending is generally offset by a decrease in another.

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