Warren and Tyagi present a compelling case that recent bankruptcy legislation is likely to bludgeon many middle-class families into financial submission while lining the pockets of the major lending companies. Additionally, Warren’s bankruptcy-bill blog, jointly authored with students and presented by Joshua Micah Marshall’s Talking Points Memo Web site, is a good resource for facts and discussion of the bill. (The blog is currently archived through late May 2005.) I join Warren, Tyagi, and their colleagues in denouncing the new bankruptcy legislation and in their broader advocacy of public policy that defends the interests of families, particularly those with children.
That said, I want to focus my comments on what I think are serious shortcomings in Warren and Tyagi’s story about consumer culture. In their desire to combat a perverse image of consumers who irresponsibly spend their way to financial oblivion, they dismiss virtually any interrogation of consumer behavior as crass stereotyping. Unfortunately, ignoring what consumers do (not just how much they purchase) undermines the efficacy of the proscriptions that the authors offer to aid them. In fact, it hardly seems possible to contemplate public policy that helps families (middle-class or otherwise) to avoid financial crisis without engaging how and why consumers purchase what they do.
I have great sympathy for the families in Warren and Tyagi’s tale. Having worked to dispel notions of black consumers’ presumed inability to delay gratification, and having recently completed research on the role played by credit cards in building lifestyle, I would support their portrayal of families in most respects. However, Warren and Tyagi’s unwillingness to engage the literature is unfortunate, because so much of that work would clearly enrich their own. For instance, though they reference Juliet Schor as representative of the “over-consumption crowd,” they manage to miss her basic point entirely. Schor is explicitly interested in the proliferation of upscale consumer products (the Nike basketball shoes, microwaves, and DVD players), especially among moderate- and low-income households, because rapidly upscaling consumption norms create what she labels an aspiration gap, the gap between what people come to desire and what their incomes can sustain. Schor has little interest in moralizing, and she clearly distinguishes her critique of consumer culture from conservative polemics about entitled, spoiled post-boomers. She notes that consumer practices are less indicators of entitlement or greed than they are defensive adaptations to changing social conditions: families often spend because new products become normative, not because they just gotta have it.
Missing this crucial distinction, Warren and Tyagi set their sights on debunking over-consumption critics like Schor with data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Consumer Expenditure Survey. Using this enormous statistical database, they are able to reveal to us that housing (and not furniture, food, or appliances) is the budget-busting culprit in most households. Beyond this, they offer little real insight into the competitive pressures facing middle-class families to get the right house in the right school district with the right kinds of furniture and accoutrements.
For example, Warren and Tyagi are very concerned with the escalating bidding wars over homes in good school districts currently being waged between middle-class families. But surely consumer practices account for some part of this bidding war. So how do those practices operate? Which home acquisition practices help families secure homes in the best school districts? Which practices lead to bankruptcy?
Consider recent research by Thomas Shapiro on wealth and racial inequality. Shapiro explores current consumption practices in home buying and school choice. Through numerous in-depth interviews, Shapiro found that choices about quality housing and schools are more complex and much less benign than Warren and Tyagi acknowledge. Certainly, the desire to provide one’s children with the best possible education is universal. Yet, as Shapiro shows, school quality is typically defined by white families (and some black ones) by the relative absence of non-white children, and this preference effectively trumps more objective quality measures like class size, teacher quality, and test scores. Further, many families are quite intent on living in school districts that lower the probability that their children will attend school with non-whites, and they are willing to pay a premium to do so. Thus quality schooling, even when made available in lower-cost, racially diverse neighborhoods, is in many instances less attractive to white, middle-class families than lower-quality (but not poor-quality) schooling in a predominantly white setting. Nothing in Shapiro’s claims negates those made by Warren and Tyagi that the competition for quality schools is driving up the cost of housing for middle-class families. But while Warren and Tyagi bemoan poor public schools and the costs they impose on the middle-class families that flee them, they don’t question the motivations of middle-class flight. A perspective informed by consumer practices would indicate the role of middle-class families themselves in the ongoing bidding war for housing and the underproduction of educational opportunity.
As I mentioned previously, I find myself basically in agreement with the story that Warren and Tyagi tell, but I hope to have shown how their agenda would be enriched by taking consumer behavior seriously. And how might such an understanding of consumer behavior inform their public-policy proscriptions? Take education as the example again. The enormous financial commitment to securing (often racially exclusive) educational advantage through home ownership among many middle-class families is a prime example of how consumption practices can undermine thecreation of public goods and exacerbate inequality. I believe that the overriding goal of wise public policy in this arena should be a commitment to creating more quality schooling rather than merely intensifying the competition for a limited number of seats in the most reputable schools.
A focus on consumer practices can help identify areas in which public policy can provide incentives for families, neighborhoods, school districts, and states to ensure quality education in every neighborhood rather than reward consumption practices that worsen inequality. Whether in education, housing, lending, or health, a real agenda for change simply cannot afford anything less than a serious look at consumer culture.