I recently finished reading a great book called An All-Consuming Century by Gary Cross, a professor of history at Penn State. In this book Professor Cross traces the history of American consumerism in the 20th century, exploring the various roles of consumers, marketers, politicians and temperance movements, and teasing out theories of why America is so much more consumery (my word, not his) than other countries.
There is too much in his book to summarize, and I’d prefer that you buy it anyway, because it’s a great book. It’s currently number 330,562 on Amazon and I’m sure that we can get it up in the two hundred thousands. Suffice it to say that in a society founded on egalitarianism, consumption can be a method of both differentiation and assimilation.
One of the side themes that emerges from Cross’ book, and the one this blog entry is actually about, is the role that corporate lobbying has historically played in keeping consumption up. At a time when the role and power of Wall Street and insurance company lobbying are being much discussed, it seems appropriate to note that it’s nothing new for big business to use its money and lobbying clout to push around the little guy.
In particular, Cross discusses how after a rush of consumer rights legislation in the 1960’s (Hazardous Substance Labeling Act, Child Protection Act, Clean Air Act, etc.), corporations figured out how to lobby in order to limit the scope of those laws. “By 1976, they had begun to learn how to lobby a more decentralized Congress and to use Public Action Committee funds and grassroots pressure groups to regain dominance.” (p. 158) Moreover, as Cross makes clear, the deregulation that marked the Reagan era was the nexus of laissez faire ideologues and corporate lobbying, and it encouraged consumption by limiting constraints on corporate marketing and product safety as well as environmental impact. Cross: “…deregulators were not friends of the average consumer, for they allowed higher bank fees, cable TV rates, insurance premiums, and child care and health costs.” (p. 205)
The fact that corporate lobbyists have been harming our hypothetical little guy for decades doesn’t make it right. I’m sure that the moneyed and powerful have been pushing their interests for longer than that. But in a US congressional system that has become so driven by the need to raise vast sums of money, the power of lobbyists is greater than ever. Solutions? Campaign finance reform and term limits are both possible answers. But the strongest answer is for voters to be aware of what their representatives are doing and act accordingly. Hey Montanans: if you don’t like that Senator Baucus took millions from the insurance industry while writing the health care reform law, then vote him out. We the people have a fair amount of power, but we have to work to exercise it.
YES! In a democracy, change can actually happen from the bottom up. I agree, Thoughtbasket, let’s each take responsibility for keeping our elected reps on their toes and defy the big money guys (and gals). Once we’ve got reasonable health care in place, let’s work hard for campaign finance reform!!!!!
From the bottom up is right. Recently I had a discussion with a young man about his need to vote. I encountered the usual cynical whine about the electoral college.
I pointed out to the guy that only a small number of votes in one state made the difference with the electoral college in 2000. That election (hot tempers aside please) really did show just how critical a few votes can be — something remarked upon at the time by President Clinton.
What I also pointed out is that local pols don’t get elected by an electoral college. These are the people who eventually become Senators, Governors, etc. Getting involved in every local election, scrappy canvass, and primary is the only way to keep politicians accountable.
I hope I got through to this fellow. Unless people in theBlogosphere do the right thing and elect me, Zeusiswatching, to be your king, voting is the only way to counter corrupt lobbyists. The laws will only come of better elected officials (one’s who know they will be defeated at the polls if they don’t stay straight).
Was the country really founded on egalitarianism?
Theoretically, yes. With slavery and with over 100 years in which women couldn’t vote, clearly the US was not truly egalitarian. But relative to the monarchies of Europe, American was designed to avoid the strict class distinctions of the old world.
And the late Prof. Albert Guerard — historian and critic — made a point of discussing this in his History of France (1968).
The United States, in comparison to European nations, is a truly classless society. The problem is that artificial classes and privilege can come into being and seek to create protections from the law — thereby escaping accountability.
The almost total lack of accountability by corporate CEO’s, banks, mortgage companies, etc. to their shareholders, bondholders, employees, and customers all the while taking large amounts of bailout monies and abusing those dollars is an example of this false class and caste system that has grown upon our culture.