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.