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Published: November 30, 2004

 
 

Best Business Books 2004: The New Consumer

To Postrel, attention to aesthetics is not just a business strategy; it's a major ideological shift away from cultural leaders' dictation of a dominant aesthetic that will lead to enlightenment (and imbue its keepers with power). One observer whom she quotes went to the nub of the matter when he said, "Mass production offered millions of one thing to everybody. Mass customization offers millions of different models to one guy."

Aesthetic abundance fuels consumption, whether at Crate & Barrel or Apple Computer, which hasn't escaped the attention of finger-wagging social critics prone to viewing the world in black-and-white terms. To hear them tell it, we are all victims of crass materialism. For example, in economist Robert Frank's ideal world, "we would all benefit if men could agree to wear cheap, ugly suits and spend their money on more important and substantial things -- a vision of fashion not unlike the British Utility scheme that took the ornament out of furniture and declared bookcases more essential than easy chairs," writes Postrel. She posits that in adopting this view, social critics seem blind to the human impulse to take pleasure in adornment for adornment's sake.

Suburb Rings
In On Paradise Drive, David Brooks sets about dispelling the common view of the populations of the suburbs as an undifferentiated mass. Instead he presents a highly differentiated demographic framework -- one that sees the populations of the suburbs as if they were living in the many rings of Saturn.

In the ring closest to the city center is "the progressive suburb, populated by urban exiles who consider themselves city folks at heart but moved out to suburbia because they need more space." Next comes "the affluent inner-ring suburbs, those established old-line communities," the habitat of doctors, lawyers, and executives, who haven't gone to war but "have endured extensive home renovations." In the ring beyond are "the semi-residential, semi-industrial zones," home to strip malls and the immigrants who service the overachievers and who once would have settled in the inner city but now go straight to these "underutilized urban gaps." Then comes the ring that most resembles the conventional notion of a suburb: basketball hoop in the drive, carports, and ranch homes. In the ring farthest from the center are the new "exurbs," which are eating up farmland at an alarming rate and replacing it with snout houses -- those ungraceful homes that seem to be all garage -- big-box stores, and office parks.

With that nuanced view of American suburbs in mind, it becomes clear why a one-size-fits-all attitude to retailing is a nonstarter. But Brooks's real agenda in this book is a larger one: to prove that Americans are not empty-headed, debt-building, shopping-crazed consumers. To do this, he reads and cites all those writers who have cast a jaundiced eye on America, venturing back to the 19th century and the English philosopher Morris Birbeck, who summarized the American spirit as "Gain! Gain! Gain! Gain! Gain!" and working his way forward to the current crop of negativity peddlers. Brooks shakes his head sadly at the miasma of gloom these writers have collectively created. Even observers known to be keen on American vitality, such as Alexis de Tocqueville, find it necessary, Brooks writes, to "slip in a little shiv of equivocation about our shallow souls."

Through statistics, Brooks demonstrates the fallacy of suppositions about America's vacuity. For example, Americans apply even more energy to worship than they do to consuming, with 86 percent believing in heaven. (In their never-ending quest for self-improvement, Americans shop among religions, changing faith more often than does any other nationality.) While they lavish $40 billion on their lawns, more than the tax revenues of India, Americans also each donate on average more than $1,000 a year to charity, a sum much higher than any other nation's, and 80 percent of those shallow souls belong to volunteer organizations, compared with, for example, 6 percent of the British. Not to forget their high-octane industriousness: Americans work even longer hours than the Japanese.

 
 
 
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