The Gospel of Consumption

Jeffrey Kaplan in an article from 2008 for Orion Magazine called “The Gospel of Consumption” makes the case that our obsession with having The Gospel of Consumptionmore and more can be traced, at least in part, to a deliberate decision by American industrialists in the 1920s.

There was a fear that the American public might stop buying things when they had what they needed.  He writes:

…despite the apparent tidal wave of new consumer goods and what appeared to be a healthy appetite for their consumption among the well-to-do, industrialists were worried. They feared that the frugal habits maintained by most American families would be difficult to break. Perhaps even more threatening was the fact that the industrial capacity for turning out goods seemed to be increasing at a pace greater than people’s sense that they needed them.

It was in response to this fear that Charles Kettering of General Motors Research wrote an article in 1929 called “Keep the Customer Dissatisfied”.  As Kaplan points out, he was not advocating a dissatisfaction due to the quality of the product but a created dissatisfaction.  The American people did not yet know all the things they “needed” but advertisers were about to tell them.   Kaplan describes it this way:

By the late 1920s, America’s business and political elite had found a way to defuse the dual threat of stagnating economic growth and a radicalized working class in what one industrial consultant called “the gospel of consumption”—the notion that people could be convinced that however much they have, it isn’t enough.

Did it work?  Here are a few statistics cited in the article:

  • In 2005 per capita household spending adjusted for inflation was twelve times higher than in 1929.  For larger ticket items like cars and houses it was 32 times higher.
  • Between 1979 and 2000 the average number of hours worked annually by a married couple with children increased by 500 hours.
  • In 2004 and 2005, 40 percent of American families spent more than they took in each year.

Clearly we’re working more than ever before and spending more as well.  The industrialists’ dream of a market where people are never satisfied seems to have come true.

Hundreds of years before the business boom of the 1920’s, however, there was another dissatisfied consumer:

Whoever loves money never has money enough;
whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with his income.
This too is meaningless. – Ecclesiastes 5:10

While we need to be aware of the impact advertising and culture have on our purchasing decisions, ultimately indulging ourselves with more and more things and never being satisfied is not the fault of Madison Avenue but of our own wicked hearts.  During the time of King Solomon, few men could afford to indulge themselves this way with material goods.  However, thanks to the unprecedented prosperity we’ve enjoyed in this country – not to mention free and easy credit –  it’s now possible for the average person to indulge him or herself in ways only available to royalty in the past.

We must always be on guard against this Gospel of Consumption – the belief that that next thing I aquire will be the answer to the longing of my heart.  Only Christ can fulfill that longing. Only when I realize that He is all I truly need can I stop being a slave to materialism.

Occupation: Schoolgirl

Dorothy Gideon & Siblings
Dorothy Gideon (left) with her brother, my grandfather (center), and their sister Grace.

One thing I’ve learned as I’ve pursued genealogy is that deaths of children were more common in years past than they seem to be today. While researching my family history, I’ve come across at least one ancestor who died as a child in almost every family. Some died as unnamed infants soon after birth, others lived longer but never made it out of the single digits.

One of the latter, who would have been my great aunt, was Dorothy Gideon. She was my grandfather’s older sister and died in 1920 at the age of nine. One of the more poignant pieces of family history I’ve come across is Dorothy’s death certificate. After seeing my great grandfather’s signature at the bottom of the document, I realized it was his writing in the personal information section as well. I hurt for him as I thought about how he must have felt filling in these details about his young daughter who’d just died. Under “Occupation,” he wrote “schoolgirl.” How sad and unnatural that must have seemed. Even in 1920, it’s clear death certificates were assumed to be for adults – people who grow up, get jobs and live many years, not nine year old girls.

My grandfather never talked about Dorothy; he and Grace were very young when she died. Nevertheless his sister occasionally did. We called her “Aunt Grace” and usually saw her a few times a year. I remember once at Christmas she talked about “our sister who died” and teared up, even after all those years. Since she was so young when Dorothy died, most of her memories of her sister probably came from her parents, which means the sadness probably did too.

I’m sure they carried the memory of their daughter with them the rest of their days. My great grandfather, John Hardin Gideon, died in 1948. “Mama Kate,” my great grandmother, died in 1965 when I was four years old. She had lived to be a great grandmother but had, I’m sure, never stopped being a mother to that schoolgirl, forever nine years old in her memory.

That Which Cannot Continue Will Not Continue

House Of Cards
House Of Cards (Photo credit: FurLined)

When I was a kid, I liked to build card structures. It was fun to see how many cards in the deck could be used before the whole thing came crashing down. Two things determined how far you could get, your skill at erecting the cards and the laws of physics. Skill will get you a long way but there is an absolute limit to how many cards can be balanced on one another. At some point, no amount of skill will keep the structure from collapsing.

We live in a culture that is reaching the outer limits it can achieve without collapsing. But, rather than going beyond the laws of physics, it is exceeding the boundaries of basic biology and economics that will lead to the collapse.

A hundred years ago, there was no doubt in anyone’s mind who was a man and who was a woman – that gender was a fixed absolute like skin color. Now, beyond the looking glass in 2014, thoughts and desires are fixed and the physical characteristics possessed by an individual are merely a serving suggestion.  One’s gender is whatever he or she wants it to be and, oh, by the way, there are now more than two.

This insanity was taken to a new high (or low) recently in California where the legislature decided one could use the restroom or locker room of their chosen gender whether their anatomy matched that choice or not. Now, in California, a man who claims he’s a woman can walk into a women’s restroom with your teenage daughter and if you object, well, you’re just an intolerant bigot.

Up is down, war is peace and men are women.

The economics being practiced today is no less bizarre. Again, a hundred years ago most people understood basic math, that spending more than you made was a recipe for disaster and that you can’t get something for nothing. Yet now, basic mathematics and economics are routinely flouted, not by third graders but by the leaders of the nation – and people believe them.

The recent roll out of the Affordable (sic) Care Act is a prime example. People are shocked that their insurance premiums are increasing by, in some cases a factor of ten. We were told that insurance companies would provide coverage to everyone and that you could not be penalized with higher premiums if you had a pre-existing condition (code for already sick). Of course, such a fiat does not change the cost of care provided to those who are already sick so the only recourse is to spread the cost of their treatment among a lot of well people who were heretofore paying less because of their good health.

Imagine saying to a single person, you now have to pay part of the grocery bill for an overweight family of five. I know you personally don’t eat that much but we don’t want to penalize people who eat a lot or have large families so in the interest of fairness, you’ll have to pay for part of their groceries. But never fear, you can keep your grocery store and your monthly food bill will not increase. Who in their right  mind would believe that? Yet that’s exactly what we’re being told about health care. And one provision of the new act even manages to combine both economic and biological lunacy by requiring single men to pay for maternity coverage, you know, just in case.

Up is down, war is peace and spending is saving.

However, there is good news. As the title of this post suggests, what cannot continue, will not continue. But it won’t be legislation that brings an end to this kookiness. Flouting the laws of nature and economics can only go on for so long before the house of cards comes tumbling down – it’s as certain as gravity’s action on a falling object. The resultant mess will be painful but if those left to clean it up have eyes to see, a culture built on reality can perhaps again rise from the ashes.

The Facts of Life in Paris

The Facts of Life in Paris
That’s me on the left, yeah, the one with his eyes closed.

In the summer of 1982 I spent about a month in Europe with some friends. We started out in England and after a few days there crossed the channel to France and made our way to Paris. We did all the normal tourist things, the Eiffel Tower, Napoleon’s tomb at the Invalids,  the Louvre, etc. On the day we visited Notre Dame, the crowd outside was unusually large. As we got closer, it became clear why. The cast of the popular American sitcom “The Facts of Life” was outside the church. They were filming what would become the made-for-TV movie “The Facts of Life Goes to Paris” which aired in September, 1982 as the opener for season four of the show.

Since many of the tourists were Americans, people were crowding around wanting to meet the stars, take their pictures, get autographs, etc. The cast was so gracious in accommodating the fans. I don’t recall seeing any security, at least no one ever tried to stop people from approaching the cast, and the stars comfortably mingled with the crowd spending several minutes posing for pictures.

Though I don’t have anything to compare it to (my brush with celebrities has been scarce since then), I somehow doubt it would work the same way today. My guess is the cast would be separated from the crowds by barricades and any attempt to get close to the stars would be “discouraged” by big guys wearing sunglasses and ear pieces.

At any rate, as a reminder of a simpler time, here are some of the pictures I took that day:

The Facts of Life in Paris
Lisa Welchel, Mindy Cohen, Kim Fields & Nancy McKeon
The Facts of Life in Paris
Lisa Welchel & Charlotte Rae
The Facts of Life in Paris
Charlotte Rae

Atlanta History – The Winecoff Hotel Fire

On the fifth anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7 1946, Atlantans awoke to Atlanta Paper Winecoffnews of another tragedy. The Winecoff Hotel at Peachtree & Ellis in the heart of downtown had caught fire during the early morning hours. When the smoke cleared, 119 people were dead, including W.F. Winecoff original owner of the hotel. To this day the Winecoff fire remains the worst hotel fire in the United States from the perspective of loss of life.

The Atlanta Fire Department received a phone call alerting them to the fire at 3:42 A.M. The initial responders quickly realized the seriousness of the situation and a second alarm was issued minutes later. By 4:00 A.M. a general alarm was raised calling for all Atlanta fire fighters, on duty and off, to respond to the Winecoff. Pleas were also sent to surrounding communities for help and fire departments from Fort McPherson, East Point, College Park, Decatur, Avondale, Druid Hills, Hapeville, Marietta and the Naval Air Base rushed to scene.

The fire had begun on the third floor. It progressed so rapidly that by the time the fire department reached the hotel, guests on the upper floors were cut off with no chance of escape from the inside. Rescue operations were conducted from outside using life nets and a ladder bridge spanning the alley between the Winecoff and the Mortgage Guaranty building. Guests began to tie bed sheets together and string them from windows in an attempt to climb down to the fire ladders which, at 85 feet, were not tall enough to reach the upper floors. Eventually, as panic set in, people began to jump.

Arnold Hardy’s photograph taken during the Winecoff Hotel fire.

Georgia Tech student Arnold Hardy was returning from a dance when he heard the sirens. Taking a cab to the scene, he used his last flash bulb to capture the horrific fall of Daisy McCumber. His picture was picked up by the AP and eventually won the Pulitzer Prize for photography in 1947. Incredibly, Ms. McCumber survived the fall.

One of the most tragic stories of the fire was of the 40 high school students from across Georgia who were staying at the Winecoff. They were some of Georgia’s most talented students and were in Atlanta for a YMCA sponsored event. Of these 40 young men and women, 30 died that night.

As a result of the tragedy, a national convention on fire protection was held in 1947. Out of that meeting came much more stringent fire and building codes, eliminating such things as unprotected stair openings which had contributed to the quick spread of the fire at the Winecoff.

The building that was once the Winecoff Hotel still stands at the corner of Peachtree and Ellis and looks much the same as it did in the 1940s. Today it is the Ellis Hotel described as “Atlanta’s Premier Boutique Hotel.”

For additional information on this historic event, including interviews with Arnold Hardy and some survivors of the fire, watch this short segment produced by TBS:

An invaluable resource for this post was the book “Prompt to Action: Atlanta Fire Department 1860-1960” which was passed down to me from my grandparents.