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Lizabeth Cohen: Why Americans Buy So Much Stuff

As holiday shopping overlaps with historic supply chain disruptions, NPR's Mary Louise Kelly talks with Lizabeth Cohen on the economy's reliance on spending and the culture of consumerism in the U.S.


It is Cyber Monday, the online equivalent of Black Friday, the day we Americans are supposed to log on and shop til we drop. The holiday season has always been a time when Americans bought more. But nearly two years into this pandemic, Americans are spending way more - outsize amounts of money on things. We wanted to learn more about how and why Americans buy so much stuff. To do that, we reached out to Lizabeth Cohen, American history professor at Harvard and the author of "A Consumer's Republic: The Politics Of Mass Consumption In Postwar America." Professor Cohen, welcome.

LIZABETH COHEN: Thank you - glad to be here.

KELLY: We're glad to have you with us. I want to go back and try to figure out how this started that Americans became such champion consumers. And I gather you would take us to somewhere right around World War II.

COHEN: Yes, I would. And it really happens during the 1930s that there is a recognition that the way to get us out of the Depression most effectively would be to prime the pump, to actually put money in people's pockets. And, of course, the war comes. And most historians agree that it was the war that got us out of the Great Depression. People are earning money, but they can't spend it in the ways that they might have because of the price controls of World War II. And so during the war itself, there is a consensus that emerges that the solution to the postwar economy would be to create an economy that is based on mass consumption. So prosperity will be achieved through people purchasing lots of goods.

KELLY: The way you're describing this sounds very much as though this were government-directed. This wasn't people just woke up and decided, I want to blow all my money. This was the government saying, this is the way out.

COHEN: It's the government. And it's also, you know, manufacturers and corporations who'd been making munitions and airplanes and tanks who are thinking about what are we going to be doing when peace time comes. And so even during the war, you start to see advertising that promises people that when victory comes, you will have a home equipped with full appliances. And so that appetite gets fed.

Read entire article at NPR