The Magazine

The Mighty Dollar

A wealth of worthless observations about money.

Dec 12, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 13 • By P.J. O'ROURKE
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Dr. James Roberts, professor of marketing at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, exhorts us to curtail our consumer spending. Here’s a place to start. Don’t buy this book.

Photo of consumers


Let’s be charitable and presume that Roberts’s aversion to what’s named in his title is the result of living in Waco where, in the local shops, one is rarely tempted by gleaming Patek Philippe wristwatches, glossy custom-made Lobb shoes, lustrous Hermès neckties, and baubles from Cartier for the significant other. Or let’s not be charitable and call the dim tome what it is: partly a left-wing screed, partly a self-help manual for compulsive shoppers, and mostly an idiocy.

I will concede that Roberts delivers his buncombe with great economy. It’s all there in the first paragraph of the first chapter: “Americans currently spend $48 billion a year on their pets. That’s .  .  . more than the gross domestic product (GDP) of all but sixty-four countries.” Upon which fallacious comparison and self-sanctimony my bird dog lifts his leg.

The number of countries in the world (depending on who’s counting what Palestinians where and so forth) is about 195. Thus there are 131 countries not economically productive enough to breed, train, groom, and feed a decent pointer. This is why foreigners are such lousy shots, allowing us to win wars; but I digress. I’ve been to some 50 of those countries and, believe me, my Kibbles ’n Bits bill is not what’s the matter in Somalia.

Forty-eight billion dollars sounds extravagant, but if American pet spending is divided by Americans, the individual outlay on wagging tails, soothing purrs, and the happy squeak of gerbil wheels is an unappalling $153.85. In and around my house we have three dogs, half a dozen chickens (who, never eaten and rarely laying, must be counted as animal companions), and a fluctuating number of tropical fish, hamsters, and mice. (Admittedly, some of the mice are free-range.) My Boston Bull Terrier tried to eat a porcupine yesterday. If the vet bill is less than $153.85, I will assume my veterinarian just gave up after getting bitten by the bull terrier even more times than I did last night while I was trying to yank quills with a pair of pliers. Furthermore, I’ll bet the Vietnamese spend more per dog than we Americans do, if tips to the waitress are included.

Since we aren’t supposed to be buying rhinestone collars for our guinea pigs, what are we supposed to be doing? Roberts says, “spending time with loved ones, reaching our full potential as human beings, and participating actively in our world.” I’m 64. I’ve reached my full potential as a human being. It isn’t pretty. As for spending time with loved ones, Roberts is welcome to come spend time with three of mine, ages 13 and under, especially when they have to be pried away from the Wii for dinner, want to be escorted to a Justin Bieber concert, or desire a cheering section for soccer games in the pouring rain. And I don’t know how to play the bongo drums so I can’t participate actively in our world by Occupying Wall Street. I’m going to the mall.

Roberts abhors a life of luxury. “The emergence of a worldwide consumer culture,” he says, “has potentially severe consequences for everyone.” Such as too many nice places to live, work, and shop and not enough room for the birds that mess on our cars and the raccoons that get into our garbage cans. He is aghast that we buy things “for non-utilitarian reasons such as status, envy, provocation, and pleasure-seeking.” Somebody tweet Thorstein Veblen. And Roberts is very opposed to “materialism,” which he defines as “a mind-set, an interest in getting and spending, the worship of things, the overriding importance that someone attaches to worldly possessions.”

It’s the old commie conundrum: If you practice economic leveling, the economy gets leveled. So you wind up with a materialist philosophy that’s necessarily antimaterialist. The pinkos have never figured out that their politics are a kind of Vatican City chapter of Planned Parenthood.

Roberts excuses it with a pair of graphs. One shows a happy rise in U.S. per capita GDP from 1972 to the present. The other shows polling data indicating that the number of Americans who say they are “pretty happy” has held steady at about 50 percent over the same period. Well, yeah. Anybody who is “pretty happy” more than half the time is on better drugs than I am. (And come to think of it, the drugs were better in 1972.) Yet think what that happiness graph would look like if per capita GDP had been in steep decline since Richard Nixon’s first term.