Tiny Pants's Reviews > The Overspent American: Upscaling, Downshifting, And The New Consumer

The Overspent American by Juliet B. Schor
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's review
Aug 15, 2008

liked it
bookshelves: cultural-studies, consumption, non-fiction
Read in January, 2001

On rereading this book I had to downgrade it from a four-star review to a three. Schor's argument in this book is extremely persuasive, but on close inspection, it's pretty easy -- a little too easy considering she's at Harvard -- to poke some pretty big holes in it.

Schor details the way that Americans have become mired in debt and saddled with things they don't need via upscaling, competitive consumption, and misused credit cards. Yes, this all makes sense, and yes, she is prescient about the current credit crisis.

That said, most of Schor's argument is predicated on people being idiots. She doesn't actually say this at any point, but Schor clearly believes that you can differentiate between "real" and "fake" needs. Based on her description of "downshifters" (her way out of this mess and essentially, people who via an unclear-at-best mechnanism have thrown off the shroud of false consciousness), it seems that the distinction she makes between "real" and "fake" needs is extremely tied up in elitist and arguably classist ideals. Likewise, as almost all consumption is "unnecessary" in her view, Schor denies any potential pleasures or even political value to consumer activity. (For someone who makes the latter argument reasonably well, see Mica Nava's work.)

There are likewise frequent problems with her argumentation and with the specific evidence she cites. (For example, she expresses shock that a majority of people named material goods in response to a question that read something like, "What do you hope to own or do in your life?" Wording the study question with "to own" front and center I would think makes that finding completely not surprising.) All in all, I would say that while this book is thought-provoking and a worthwhile read, it should still be read with a critical eye. It is easy to get completely on board with the argument and ignore the numerous things about it that are somewhat problematic.

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