People Want Stuff

In 1964 I went to the Worlds Fair in NYC. Among the many wonders I saw was the soon to be opened Walt Disney World pavilion. My favorite exhibit was GE’s Carousel of Progress and I went to see it at the magic kingdom many many times over the following 2 decades of raising children.  I am always entranced by the steady march of “progress” in American Consumerism. I can’t quite forgive them for updating the last “set” to incorporate the computer impact on the American household. (gimme back the Dad making Chili for New Year’s Day Bowl games)

At the risk of living up to my sometimes reputation as a reductionist I see this exhibit as a perfect parable of the essence of America, we have always been a nation driven by consumerism, even as colonies before the revolution. Recent analysis of early American History reveals that Consumer Politics actually was a major catalyst in starting the revolutionary war. T.H. Breen’s the Marketplace of Revolution studies the years immediately following the French and Indian War till 1776 and completely inane taxes the Crown decided to levy on American commerce. Historians have taught that taxation without representation was the Revolutionary catalyst but Breen’s analysis shows that it was much more personal to the American Consumer, particularly women who were allowed only  small luxuries  in their day to day lives….tea and clothing. And they got damn angry when they had to give them up to teach the Crown a lesson.  The “local embargos” placed on British imports became the rallying points of civil disobedience and group politics  that led to violence aka The Boston Tea Party.  Committees  were formed to monitor merchants and those who sold the forbidden imports were black listed, some even were tarred and feathered.  Americas political will was born and nurtured by a historically consistent desire for “stuff.” 

Fast forward to 1939/1940 with America just about to come out of a great depression, FDR spoke to the American people about an “Arsenal of Democracy” In her book Submarines to Subdivisions  Dr. Cynthia Henthorn posits that:

 “For example, as a result of manufacturing’s conversion to produce for war, a higher standard of living, replete with labor-saving machines, would be available to all Americans after victory. According to advertising and marketing messages of the time, the war acted as a magical crucible that revitalized American manufacturing, transforming the economic “illness” of the Great Depression into a robust and healthy super-machine that would churn out every conceivable modern convenience at an affordable price.”

Well the message became reality to post WWII America and to the world. Even today much of the world looks to the US as it’s Carousel of Progress. It does in fact reflect our path from incubator of liberty to market basket of the world.  Capitalism and free market is more than a theory, it’s a reality that has driven our civilization. People still want stuff.