“I want it now!” ends the tag line of a JG Wentworth ad offering immediate cash for long-term assets. It summarizes the infantile ethos of a nation primed to spend rather than save and demand rather than deliberate.

Mature, reasonable grownups might not consume enough, so we’ve been made a Nation of Kidults. (More)

America Consumed, Part I – A Nation of Kidults

This week Morning Feature considers Benjamin Barber’s 2007 book Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole. Written before the 2008 economic crisis, it foreshadows and explains the failure of consumer capitalism. Today we consider why consumerism encourages us to set aside adult, public values in favor of childish, private demands. Tomorrow we’ll explore how consumerism undermines democracy and threatens our species’ survival. Saturday we’ll discuss how to challenge consumerism and restore our values.

Let me say up front: I question some of Dr. Barber’s examples and part of his thesis. Much of the first hundred pages read to me like a dense, professorial version of “Get off my lawn,” a near-sweeping condemnation of modern culture that includes sports, the internet, and some works of art that I admire (e.g.: The Lord of the Rings). I also think that in choosing Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism as his touchstone, Dr. Barber over-attributes adult values to a single religious movement. But I agree with his core argument … consumer capitalism is consuming our children, our democracy, and our planet.

Five phases of capitalism:

Perhaps to avoid being tagged as a socialist – oh well – Dr. Barber distinguishes what he calls “consumer capitalism” from four other phases of that economic structure. I have changed some of his terms, but I think this fairly expresses his analysis and for me the terms flow better:

  1. Exploration – Dr. Barber calls this protocapitalism, and means periods of exploration and invention. This is the era of Wildcatters, impulsive geniuses (and many fools) driven by the thrill of discovering new horizons and ideas.
  2. Investment – Dr. Barber calls this productive capitalism, the period when discovery becomes industry. It is the era of Prudent Accountants who seek to limit risk, often by forming monopolies, and generate huge wealth.
  3. Labor – Dr. Barber calls this liberal capitalism, where government steps in to curb the excesses of monopolistic magnates. It is the era of Right-Asserting Workers who form unions and advocate for more safety, wider opportunity, and less inequality.
  4. Management – This is the period when new opportunities diminish and the focus shifts to managing rather than producing wealth. It is the era of The Grey Flannel Suit, with ever more bosses supervising ever fewer workers.
  5. Consumption – This is the period when, with most needs met and most markets already saturated, the focus shifts to manufacturing needs. It is the era of The Kidult, children urged to consume as adults and adults urged to consume as children.

From Protestant to Puerile.

Dr. Barber argues that we are in that fifth phase where the world produces more stuff than the people who can afford stuff really need. Taking no account of the needy, who cannot afford to spend, consumer marketing manufactures demand for the extra production. As mature adults might resist the marketing onslaught – themselves and for their children – consumerism creates what Dr. Barber calls an ethos of infantilism, taking us “from Protestant to Puerile.”

While I disagree with the over-attribution to protestantism, I agree with Dr. Barber’s argument about childish and personal versus mature and public values. He offers an extensive list, which he reduces to three core dialectics:

  1. Easy vs. Hard – Children like things to be easy. That is no flaw in children, who lack the skills and attention span to persist at hard tasks. Adults should develop those skills and that persistence, but consumerism tells us not to bother and to instead buy products that promise (but rarely deliver) easy solutions.
  2. Simple vs. Complex – Consumerism rarely delivers those easy solutions because most adult problems are inherently complex. Mature adults learn to accept complexity and weigh divergent interests. Consumerism tells us to ignore the complexity and chase the desire of the moment.
  3. Fast vs. Slow – Because long-term thinking forces us to engage complexity and be suspicious of easy solutions, consumerism tells us to forget the past, ignore the future, and live in exclusively for the present. Don’t save for that thing you think you want; you might rethink whether you want it. Put it on a credit card. Buy it now.

A culture of children urged to behave as adults and adults urged to behave as children has predictable and serious consequences. But it’s hard to grow up amidst the consumer marketing that shapes our culture, telling us again and again to think and behave – and spend – like children.

And as we’ll see tomorrow, being a Nation of Kidults has not only crashed our economy; it threatens our democracy itself.

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Happy Thursday!