Pursuing Happiness

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Readers who are tired of hearing that American consumers are doltish, self-absorbed, and mindless, easy prey for Machiavellian forces of Madison Avenue, are going to be delighted by Stanley Lebergott’s shrewd, humorous, and detailed analysis of the American way of spending.

Arguing that the economic theories of Veblen, Galbraith, and Packard might just be based more on personal temperament and lingering Puritanism than on economic reality, Lebergott asks the simple question: “What is functional for human consumers?” And he answers it cheerily, “Surely every (legal) consumer expenditure is.” Lebergott finds any attempt to regulate consumer access, or consumer taste, inappropriate in a pluralistic democratic society. He even suggests that the customer is nearly always right, and can be depended on, in his own personal pursuit of happiness, to bring about real improvements in the general standard of living. He applauds women, for example, for embracing the washing machine, the refrigerator, and the vacuum cleaner, thereby reducing the number of weekly hours spent on household chores from “70 in 1900 to 30 in 1981.”

Lebergott questions the presumption of evil in all the old economic verities: the conspicuous consumption of the rich; the vulgarizing influence of advertising; and the endless proliferation of variety in consumer goods. He even questions the wisdom of using per capita income as the only measure of the economic welfare. After all, if per capita income is the only yardstick, then every death must necessarily raise the standard of living and the general sense of well-being in society. Right? Right.

The light-hearted tone of this book is oddly disarming; It is sometimes difficult to remember the copious footnotes, tables and appendices, which give this work its resounding authenticity on topics as diverse as consumer spending on food, clothing, health, recreation, and religion.