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We've heard so much about consumer spending lately, it seems like a recent phenomenon. But the emphasis on spending isn't new; in fact, Harvard University history professor Liz Cohen says it's been around since the 1930s. Cohen's compelling book, A Consumers' Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America (Alfred A. Knopf), argues that shopping has long been a form of patriotism, and that Americans have a rich history of opening their wallets when it's time to come to the aid of the country.
What do you mean by the term, "a consumers' republic"?
Liz Cohen: I use the term to capture what's happened over several decades. After 9/11, President Bush told us the best response to terrorism was to go shopping, and we saw the GM "Keep America Rolling" campaign encouraging Americans to buy cars. And now, as we struggle with a sluggish economy, we constantly hear that consumers are keeping the economy going, and that home purchases and refinancing are critical.
[This all began in the 1930s], when the overarching assumption was that the prosperity of the nation depended on the willingness of the nation to participate as consumers, and that mass consumption was a way of delivering many long-sought American ideals of greater democracy and equality. I argue in the book that, in many ways, the heyday of this era ended with the stagflation of the mid-1970s, which discouraged consumer spending through simultaneous recession and inflation. But in fact, we're surrounded by a lot of messages indicating the consumers' republic remains with us.
Your book makes the argument that consumers may be duty-bound to spend money, but entrepreneurs have to give something in return. What do you say to an entrepreneur who feels he or she lives or dies by profits?
Cohen: Though entrepreneurs are in business to survive and profit, they still have choices to make that can have larger implications for our society. If we as a society consider that consumers are fulfilling some basic obligations, then it's the responsibility of businesses to hold our capitalist marketplace to the highest moral and civil standards as well. This message is undermined when our personal and national interests are interrelated, when we read that CEOs are getting salaries in the stratosphere. Businesses have to send the message to consumers that their purchases aren't just contributing to someone's salary that's 500 times the wage of the ordinary worker.
Geoff Williams is a writer in Loveland, Ohio. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.