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Pursuing Happiness

Pursuing Happiness: American Consumers in the Twentieth Century

Stanley Lebergott
Copyright Date: 1993
Pages: 202
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  • Book Info
    Pursuing Happiness
    Book Description:

    Whether watching baseball or undergoing heart surgery, Americans have bought a variety of goods and services to achieve happiness. Here is a provocative look at what they have chosen to purchase. Stanley Lebergott maintains that the average consumer has behaved more reasonably than many distinguished critics of "materialism" have suggested. He sees consumers seeking to make an uncertain and often cruel world into a pleasanter and more convenient place--and, for the most part, succeeding. With refreshing common sense, he reminds us of what many "luxuries" have meant, especially for women: increased income since 1900 has been used largely to lighten the backbreaking labor once required by household chores.

    Originally published in 1996.

    ThePrinceton Legacy Libraryuses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These paperback editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-6326-6
    Subjects: Economics

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Tables and Figure
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xiv)

    • CHAPTER 1 Consumers and Their Critics
      (pp. 3-11)

      All societies pursue experience, not mere survival:

      Men are children of the Universe with foolish enterprises and irrational hopes. A tree sticks to its business of mere survival; and so does an oyster, with minor divergencies. [But] . . . the life-aim of survival is modified into the human aim of survival for diversified worth-while experience.¹

      Economic activity aims not for output, but for experience via consumption. So Smith and Mill declared, and Ruskin. So Fisher, Keynes, Nordhaus, and Tobin agreed.² Consumers buy bazaars full of goods, but only to create the diversified experience they ultimately seek.³

      Of course, goods...

    • CHAPTER 2 Happiness and Economic Welfare
      (pp. 12-15)

      Mummified, and seated with his cane in the University of London, Bentham has shaped attitudes for more than a century. Dozens of nations now accept his goal—“the greatest good of the greatest number”—and his democratic premise—“everybody is to count for one, and nobody for more than one.” Fortunately, few have puzzled over Henry Sidgwick’s inference: if human beings are indeed Benthamite “satisfaction-producing machines,” could one person not “be more capable of happiness than another”?¹ (One high-caste Hindu lawyer, a Benthamite, admitted: “No doubt it is one difficulty that according to my religion, a Brahman is entitled to...

    • CHAPTER 3 Consumer Choice: Advertising
      (pp. 16-20)

      Educated as they are in society, human beings necessarily absorb its values. (Romulus and Remus, raised by nonverbal wolves, did not.) Yet romantics since Rousseau have been outraged by that fact. Appalled by human society, they contrive “the fiction of a timeless untouched people.”¹ Civilization, they imagine, imposes false values, different from their own. It creates unnecessary needs, factitous desires. All are imagined as absent in untouched nature.

      But how does one adjudicate which needs are inherent and natural? Attempts to distinguish “essential” desires from “false” ones have been unending, and futile. In the eighteenth century, Sir James Steuart contrasted...

    • CHAPTER 4 Consumer Choice: Externalities, Varieties
      (pp. 21-27)

      What expenditure by consumers fails to affect their fellows, creating externalities? Some are positive, some negative, as with most social behavior. Over seven million Americans bought a video of Carreras, Domingo, and Pavarotti. They thereby brought the price down from, say, $250,000 (for a production run of one) to $25 (for a run of seven million). The price of electricity, automobiles, televisions, and calculators similarly fell when consumers expanded their markets.

      But negatives fascinate critics more than such positive externalities. Automobile exhaust is today’s prime example. Yet it has endless precedent. For a million days before Columbus ever reached America,...

    • CHAPTER 5 Consumption Inequality
      (pp. 28-33)

      How many twentieth-century issues have been debated more hotly than the inequality of income and wealth? The fortunate live in palaces, with a retinue of servants. Others therefore starve.

      Our institutions . . . prod us to get ahead economically. . . . They award prizes that allow the big winners to feed their pets better than the losers can feed their children.¹

      With our present highly unequal distribution of income . . . the extreme luxury living of the few super-rich means lack of necessities for many other people.²

      Does inequality in consumption distort the meaning of “consumption by...

    • CHAPTER 6 Immortality and the Budget Constraint
      (pp. 34-40)

      In three thousand years of history, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam shaped millions of lives. Each overthrew older ways, and older societies. Their massive impact on resource allocation has been little studied—not the resources they claimed for priests, ministers, rabbis, churches, crusades, and jihads, nor the allocations dictated by their contrasting views of eternity.

      Of the three religions, the first failed to promise an afterlife—not even the threat of one. From the Ten Commandments onward, its exhortations dealt with moral behavior in this world. And it gained few converts. The other two religions emphasized future life and present behavior....

    • CHAPTER 7 Per Capita Consumption and the Angel of the Lord
      (pp. 41-49)

      That death should increase human welfare has probably occurred to no one but specialists in the causes and cures of poverty.¹ Indeed, it might never have occurred to them but for a heady combination of Latin and long division.

      Such specialists, and most economists, agree that a nation’s welfare is to be measured by per capita income (or consumption)—i.e., the nation’s total income or consumption divided by its population.² Thus Barbara Ward asked, “How are we to define the ‘poor’ nations?” Her answer was: “Perhaps the most satisfactory method of defining poverty is . . . in terms of...

    • CHAPTER 8 Women’s Work: Home to Market
      (pp. 50-60)

      Americans spend over 70 percent of their days in and around their homes—though they work elsewhere, drive, shop, go to the movies.¹ In 1900 they spent even more time at home, mostly working. But by 1990 they increasingly bought the goods and services they had produced in 1900. “Consumerism” appeared when housewives began to buy goods they had once produced. The chief producer under the old regime became the chief buyer under the new. As noted below, Fourier, Bellamy, Lenin, and Charlotte Gilman wrote much about changing housework. But while they wrote, the American housewife acted, cutting her work...

    • CHAPTER 9 Work, Overwork, and Consumer Spending
      (pp. 61-68)

      Some Americans sing for their supper. Marian Anderson did, and so does Sherrill Milnes. But most Americans pay for their bread and beer, or caviar and champagne, by other work. They then spend over 90 percent of their incomes for consumption. On what terms did they make that exchange? Figure 9.1 reports how much an hour of work bought in 1900, 1929, 1960, and 1990 (cf. Appendix B). The advance was considerable by almost any standard.

      Two factors shaped that escalation in what some have called “the immiseration” of workers under American capitalism. First, hours of work fell, almost 50...

    • CHAPTER 10 More Goods: The Twentieth Century
      (pp. 69-72)

      Few articles in the economist’s creed outrage noneconomists more than the pure, imperturbable belief that human wants are insatiable. Yet that belief has long been shared by other disciplines. America’s most distinguished psychologist (and philosopher) observed, with incomparable zest, that

      Man’s preeminence over the brutes lies . . . solely in the number and in the fantastic and unnecessary character of his wants, physical, moral, aesthetic and intellectual. Had his whole life not been a quest for the superfluous, he would never have established himself as inexpugnably as he has done.¹

      One of the founders of sociology, his works still...

  6. PART II: MAJOR TRENDS, 1900–1990

    • [PART TWO Introduction]
      (pp. 73-76)

      One of Rome’s great open-air markets has been described as a “fantasia of human commodities, wearable, edible, combustible, aesthetic, hygienic, and vehicular, the gamut of man’s utensils, and all the push and pleasure of life that went into their changing hands.”¹

      Such consumption fantasias can be summed into one series for total expenditure. But doing so reveals little about why consumption rose or fell, or about what desires were at work, what needs were served. The series includes a range of delights as wide as those provided by Al Capp’s famous Schmoo—equally delicious baked, fried, or roasted; could amuse...

    • FOOD
      (pp. 77-83)

      By 1900, Americans typically spent more on food than citizens of almost any other nation. Few ate as enormously as Diamond Jim Brady, as lavishly as Mrs. Potter Palmer. But they consumed more food than the English, the Dutch, the French, or the Swedes. And often fresher food, a better diet.

      It therefore seemed unlikely that Americans would spend still more as the century wore on. After all, “the capacity of the human stomach was limited.” Indeed, from 1900 to 1990, the amount of food the typical American ate per year fell by about 350 pounds. Caloric and protein intake...

      (pp. 84-86)

      Over the centuries, humans have smoked a considerable variety of materials. But tobacco was a luxury in the West prior to the nineteenth century. (As late as the 1890s, the English upper classes banished smokers to rooms specially built for the purpose.¹⁹) New machinery, however, began to provide lower-cost cigarettes in the 1880s. As prices fell, markets widened. Ministers of finance in a dozen nations then discovered a wonderful new fiscal resource. France and Russia set up state distribution monopolies, thus guaranteeing a maximum tax yield from smoking. Later, Soviet Russia and the Communist nations began state production, deriving the...

      (pp. 87-89)

      Holy writ assures us that strong liquors go back to Noah. Since then, moral judgments on drinking have altered expenditure even more decisively than income or price changes. For example, the modest installation of a Massachusetts minister one Sunday in 1729 required 302 gallons of cider, wine, brandy, and rum.²⁴ But attitudes changed and Prohibition arrived. By 1928, Al Smith’s desire to end Prohibition helped defeat his bid for the presidency. Yet only fifty years later, the U.S. Department of Justice was helping to sue a college that refused to retain an alcoholic worker.²⁵

      By 1900, U.S. consumption ran well...

      (pp. 90-93)

      Critics of American life have punctuated their remarks on “gimmickry,” “vague inanities,” and “pseudo-innovations” by forceful attacks on “fashion goods” and “clothing fads.”³⁰ Where do their fretful objections lead? As Sir John Hicks noted, “Everything that Professor Galbraith [has] said about pseudo-innovation” applies to dress design. Are “we therefore committed to . . . putting the female population into warm and comfortable uniforms?”³¹

      Clothing fads are not new. Nor are objections to such worldly indulgence. Under Edward IV, common laborers, as well as servants and artificers, were forbidden to wear cloth worth more than two shillings a yard.³² And indeed,...

    • SHOES
      (pp. 93-94)

      Hudson Maxim, a leading American inventor, described his boyhood in Maine at the beginning of this century: “I didn’t have a pair of shoes until I was 13 years old. I sometimes tied old bags around my feet when I was going out to help in the barn.” Going to school in winter, “we ran with all our might as long as our feet could endure the cold and then climbed on a fence . . . to rub our feet and ankles with our hands; and then we’d rush on again.”³⁴ The South had an equally widespread problem associated...

      (pp. 95-104)

      The American “way of life” is significantly distinguished from that of other nations by the American “way of housing.” Americans spend some 70 percent of their lives in and around their homes.⁴⁰ Their commitment of real resources to housing exceeds that of other nations. The United States is also near the peak of the international league in its share of all consumption expenditure going to housing. Its share had been fully as great in 1900.

      Is it so high because Americans require sturdier housing than those who live at the equator? Not obviously. The climate in the Netherlands, Germany, and...

    • FUEL
      (pp. 104-107)

      The legend of Prometheus emphasizes how ancient was the importance of fire. Humans may have been accustomed to freezing, but they were never reconciled to doing so. Early Americans used their endless forests to provide warmer homes than Europeans could hope for. In 1800, they burned about one cord of wood per person per year, far more than Europeans.⁶³

      By 1900, Americans had more than doubled their usage. Kitchen stoves alone consumed eight cords per year.⁶⁴ Fireplaces took six cords more in the South, or thirty in New England.⁶⁵ On “many western farms when firewood was wanted a tree was...

      (pp. 108-110)

      Veblen’s magnificent diatribes on conspicuous consumption gave pride of place to attacks on domestic service. With modern appliances, he declared, “body servants, or indeed domestic servants of any kind, would now scarcely be employed by anybody except on the ground of a canon of reputability carried over by tradition from earlier usage.” Why so? Because he believed personal contact with servants was “commonly distasteful” to their employers.⁷⁸ “The presence of domestic servants, and of the special class of body servants in an eminent degree, is a concession of physical comfort to the moral need of pecuniary decency.” Servants perform duties...

      (pp. 110-117)

      One well-known economist has found it impossible to believe “that sustained attempts to harness the greater part of man’s energies . . . to amassing ever larger amounts of material possessions—fashion goods, gimmickry, motorized implements, novelties and tasteless inanities—can add much to people’s happiness.”⁸⁴ His olympian judgment aimed at two targets. One was very vague—novelties and “tasteless inanities.” (Tasteful inanities were acceptable, if not actually laudable.) But one target was quite specific—motorized implements. Families did spend more for such implements between 1900 and 1990, but allocated only 2 percent of their total expenditure increase.⁸⁵

      That small...

    • WATER
      (pp. 117-118)

      Survival in North America depends on a few items. Of these, clean water is most critical, for no one could live a week without it. Perhaps that very essentiality explains the intense emotion generated by water supply. Thus D. H. Lawrence found that “every time we turn on a tap to have water, every time we turn a handle to have fire or light, we deny ourselves and annul our being.”⁹⁵

      Obviously some gentlemen preferred earlier societies, in which the average housewife pulled up 10,000 gallons of water yearly in buckets from a well, or carried them from a stream....

      (pp. 119-121)

      According to one widely held view, the human drama began with a tremendous opening statement: “Let there be light.” Since then, society has supplemented natural light by fire and other artifices. Smith’s gay paean to gas light, only recently introduced into Britain, describes the joy a new lighting technology could bring. The twentieth century steadily replaced darkness with light by increased spending for gas and electricity.

      Safety had much to do with that increase. Many knew how Fanny Longfellow—wife of the nation’s most popular nineteenth-century poet—had been burned to death: Her dress caught fire from the candle she...

    • HEALTH
      (pp. 121-127)

      The twentieth century may seem the century of death. It has already had two overwhelming world wars, the Holocaust, plus the nearly endless slaughter of tribes and nationalities killing one another once the colonial era was past. But, if due proportion be kept, it is also the century of life. Its immense reduction in death rates is without precedent. Many more lives were saved, and years of life, than were destroyed by its massive slaughters. U.S. consumer spending to improve health, and defer death, increased with unprecedented speed. Rising incomes permitted that change, but did not dictate it. Health had...

      (pp. 128-135)

      Has any image been more durably attractive than Mercury’s sandals, or the magic carpet? Each promised a miraculous escape from nature’s restraints (e.g., gravity) or civilization’s (e.g., responsibility). Yet for thousands of years, only rulers and priests had ready access to transport—on the backs of their followers, in sedan chairs or rickshaws, or on domesticated animals. The rest of the human race patiently walked. Without magic they could not travel whenever need, or whim, seized them.

      In 1900 the United States led most nations in wealth. With so much open land, it fed horses at low cost. Yet only...

      (pp. 135-139)

      For eleven consecutive years, the Peking Capital Orchestra was “allowed” to perform only three pieces of music—The Yellow River Concerto and two cantatas.¹²⁸ That political episode emphasizes how important the surrounding culture is in determining the resources devoted to any recreational activity. Far more than income is involved, or mere economic considerations.

      In the dim Western past, recreation was infrequent at best.¹²⁹ Festivals came so rarely that celebrants ate, drank, and abandoned themselves, “seeking to compensate themselves for the parsimony which dominates their existence throughout the rest of the year.”¹³⁰

      American families lived under harsh, dangerous conditions for centuries....

      (pp. 140-142)

      Charity was explained by the two Smiths. According to the Reverend Sydney Smith:

      Benevolence is a natural instinct of the human mind; whenAseesBin distress his conscience always urges him to entreatCto help him.¹³⁸

      According to Adam Smith, the economist:

      How selfish soever man be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it.¹³⁹

      A laborious literature has recently developed to demonstrate that humans are moved by motives...

      (pp. 142-144)

      In earlier generations, parishioners who failed to give a tenth of their income to the church could be excommunicated. Priests could

      curse them by the authority of the Court of Rome, within and without, sleeping and waking, going, sitting and standing, lying down on the earth and under the earth. . . . Curse them by the Father and Son and Holy Ghost. Curse them angels and archangels and all the nine orders of heaven . . . the pains of hell be their lot.¹⁴⁹

      Surely a tenth of one’s income was a tiny sum compared to the present value...

      (pp. 145-146)

      Jefferson, that indefatigable record keeper, left a single note of his activities the day American independence was declared: “July 4, 1776—paid for 7 pair of women’s gloves, 27 shillings.”¹ The “ordinary business of life” continued, even then.

      This inevitably brief survey of how Americans spent their increased incomes in the twentieth century reveals how American materialism was implemented. The official Communist breviary declares:

      The higher the level of civilisation, the wider and more diverse the range of things and services that people need. The conception of well-being today includes . . . convenient and spacious homes, high quality beautiful...

    • APPENDIX A: Key to Appendix Table A Personal Consumption, per Capita, by Major Group and by Item, United States, 1900–1990 (1987 prices)
      (pp. 147-164)
    • APPENDIX B: Estimating Details
      (pp. 165-170)
    (pp. 171-186)
  8. INDEX
    (pp. 187-188)