Tag Archives: consumption

Wall St. to the Middle Class: “You’ve Got It Made!”

Cross-posted at Montclair SocioBlog.

The Wall Street Journal had an op-ed this week by Donald Boudreaux and Mark Perry claiming that things are great for the middle class.  Here’s why:

No single measure of well-being is more informative or important than life expectancy. Happily, an American born today can expect to live approximately 79 years — a full five years longer than in 1980 and more than a decade longer than in 1950.

Yes, but.  If life-expectancy is the all-important measure of well-being, then we Americans are less well off than are people in many other countries, including Cuba.

The authors also claim that we’re better off because things are cheaper:

…spending by households on many of modern life’s “basics” — food at home, automobiles, clothing and footwear, household furnishings and equipment, and housing and utilities — fell from 53% of disposable income in 1950 to 44% in 1970 to 32% today.

Globalization probably has much to do with these lower costs.  But when I reread the list of “basics,” I noticed that a couple of items were missing, items less likely to be imported or outsourced, like housing and health care.  So, we’re spending less on food and clothes, but more on health care and houses. Take housing.  The median home values for childless couples increased by 26% between just 1984 and 2001 (inflation-adjusted); for married couples with children, who are competing to get into good school districts, median home value ballooned by 78% (source).

The authors also make the argument that technology reduces the consuming gap between the rich and the middle class.  There’s not much difference between the iPhone that I can buy and the one that Mitt Romney has.  True, but it says only that products filter down through the economic strata just as they always have.  The first ball-point pens cost as much as dinner for two in a fine restaurant.  But if we look forward, not back, we know that tomorrow the wealthy will be playing with some new toy most of us cannot afford. Then, in a few years, prices will come down, everyone will have one, and by that time the wealthy will have moved on to something else for us to envy.

The readers and editors of the Wall Street Journal may find comfort in hearing Boudreaux and Perry’s good news about the middle class.  Middle-class people themselves, however, may be a bit skeptical on being told that they’ve never had it so good (source).

Some of the people in the Gallup sample are not middle class, and they may contribute disproportionately to the pessimistic side.  But Boudreaux and Perry do not specify who they include as middle class.  But it’s the trend in the lines that is important.  Despite the iPhones, airline tickets, laptops and other consumer goods the authors mention, fewer people feel that they have enough money to live comfortably.

Boudreaux and Perry insist that the middle-class stagnation is a myth, though they also say that

The average hourly wage in real dollars has remained largely unchanged from at least 1964—when the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) started reporting it.

Apparently“largely unchanged” is completely different from “stagnation.”  But, as even the mainstream media have reported, some incomes have changed quite a bit (source).

The top 10% and especially the top 1% have done well in this century.  The 90%, not so much. You don’t have to be too much of a Marxist to think that maybe the Wall Street Journal crowd has some ulterior motive in telling the middle class that all is well and getting better all the time.

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Jay Livingston is the chair of the Sociology Department at Montclair State University.  You can follow him at Montclair SocioBlog or on Twitter.

The Balancing Act of Being Female; Or, Why We Have So Many Clothes

@bfwriter tweeted us a link to a college design student’s photograph that has gone viral.  Rosea Lake posted the image to her tumblr and it struck a chord.

What I like about the image is the way it very clearly illustrates two things.  First, it reveals that doing femininity doesn’t mean obeying a single, simple rule. Instead, it’s about occupying and traveling within a certain space.  In this case, usually between “proper” and “flirty.”  Women have to constantly figure out where in that space they’re supposed to be.  Too flirty at work mean’s you won’t be taken seriously; too proper at the bar and you’re invisible.  Under the right circumstances (e.g., Halloween, a funeral), you can do “cheeky” or “old fashioned.”

The second thing I like about this image is the way it shows that there is a significant price to pay for getting it wrong.  It’s not just a faux pas.  Once you’re “‘asking for it,” you could be a target. And, once you’re reached “prudish,” you’ve become socially irrelevant.  Both violence and social marginalization are serious consequences.

And, of course, all women are going to get it wrong sometimes because the boundaries are moving targets and in the eye of the beholder. What’s cheeky in one setting or to one person is flirty in or to another.  So women constantly risk getting it wrong, or getting it wrong to someone.  So the consequences are always floating out there, worrying us, and sending us to the mall.

Indeed, this is why women have so many clothes!  We need an all-purpose black skirt that does old fashioned, another one to do proper, and a third to do flirty… at the very least… and all in casual, business, and formal.   And we need heels to go with each (stilettos = provocative, high heels = flirty, low heels  = proper, etc, plus we need flats for the picnics and beach weddings etc).  And we need pants that are hemmed to the right length for each of these pairs of shoes.  You can’t wear black shoes with navy pants, so you’ll need to double up on all these things if you want any variety in your wardrobe. I could go on, but you get the picture.

Women’s closets are often mocked as a form of self-indulgence, shop-a-holicism, or narcissism.  But this isn’t fair.  Instead, if a woman is class-privileged enough, they reflect an (often unarticulated) understanding of just how complicated the rules are.  If they’re not class-privileged enough, they can’t follow the rules and are punished for being, for example, “trashy” or “unprofessional.”  It’s a difficult job that we impose on women and we’re all too often damned-if-we-do and damned-if-we-don’t.

Cross-posted at Business Insider and The Huffington Post.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions, with Myra Marx Ferree. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas”: 1994 vs 2011

This is one of our favorite Christmas-themed posts from the archive.  We hope you don’t mind the re-post!

Stressing remarkable differences between the two, Rachel and Lucy sent in the music videos for the original Mariah Carey version of “All I Want for Christmas is You” (1994) and the re-make (2011).  They suggested that the comparison reveals two trends: the rising emphasis placed on consumption and the new hyper-sexualization.  I figured, “yeah, I’ll bet they’re onto something there.”  And boy were they.

The first video involves Mariah mostly bounding around in the snow in a snow suit. Often acting pretty darn goofy, with dogs and Santa.

She spends part of the video inside with kids, a Christmas tree, presents, and more animals.  She’s usually wearing a sweater.

She spends less than (I’m guessing) 10 seconds of the video in a sexy Mrs. Claus outfit and, when she’s wearing it, it looks like she’s got long johns on her legs.

The new video, featuring Justin Bieber, is wildly different. Instead of a snowy field or an intimate home, the video takes place in a shopping mall.  It centrally features a Nintendo product.

Likewise, instead of bounding around in the snow like a goof, she spends the entire video up against a wall in super high heels and the sexy Mrs. Claus outfit (except this one doesn’t have sleeves or a midriff).

At one point she runs her hand down her body, touching her breast and moving down to her crotch; at another she just leans against the wall with her back to us and swings her butt back and forth.

So there’s one data point, for what it’s worth, but in line with emerging research on and plenty of anecdotal evidence of the “pornification” of American culture.

“All I Want for Christmas is You” (1994):

“All I Want for Christmas is You” (2011):

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions, with Myra Marx Ferree. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Teaching Infant and Toddler Girls to Beautify

Cross-posted at Jezebel.

I’d love to draw your attention to The Alpha Parent, a blogger who has collected a stunningly large number of toys for infants that socialize girls into preening.

Some of the toys are purses/handbags that include pretend lipsticks, compacts, and related-items.  My Pretty Learning Purse includes a toy lipstick and a mirror; the Gund Sesame Street Abbey Purse Playset includes a compact and powder brush; the Lilliputiens Liz Handbag includes an eye shadow compact complete with three shades and an eye shadow applicator.

In case you were wondering if this is a trend, the Alpha Parent post features TWENTY examples of purses filled with such toys.

It also includes examples of toy make-up bags. Going beyond the inclusion of beauty items in infant toys, these make beauty the sole point of the play.  Here are just two of the NINE pretend make-up bags she collected, the Oskar & Ellen Beauty Box and the Learn and Go Make-Up and Go:

Since we wouldn’t want a baby to miss the point, companies also produce and sell vanities for infants. The Alpha Parent’s post included FOUR; here’s two, the Perfectly Pink Tummy Time Vanity Mirror and the Fisher Price Laugh and Learn Magical Musical Mirror:

The Alpha Parent goes on to cover real nail polish made for infants, beauty-themed clothes for little girls, and a common category of dress up: beautician outfits.  I counted a surprising ELEVEN of these:

The latter reverses into a nurse’s uniform.

The Alpha Parent concludes:

Makeup toys prime girls for a lifetime of chasing rigid norms of physical attractiveness through the consumption of cosmetics and fashionable accessories.

They are also generally non-sex-transferable, meaning that parents are often loath to allow their boys to play with girl toys.  Gendered toys, then, increase the rate of toy purchasing, since parents of a boy and a girl have to buy special toys for each.

It’s a win-win for corporate capitalism.  Socialize the girls into beauty commodities by buying these toys now, plan on reaping the benefits with the real thing later.  Brainwash the boys in an entirely different way (the Alpha Parent notes tools and electronics), do the same with them simultaneously.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions, with Myra Marx Ferree. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Household Spending by Class (UPDATE)

NPR’s Planet Money blog posted an interesting image of differences in how we allocate income based on how much we make. The image looks at three income groups and shows what percent of their  household income budget they spend various categories, using Bureau of Labor Statistics Consumer Expenditure Survey data:

As we see, the largest expense for every group is housing; for the low-income group, 40% of their income goes just to paying for a place to live. They also use more of their income to cover basic necessities — utilities, food eaten at home, transportation.The high-income group, on the other hand,  spends quite a bit more on education.

Look at that last row: saving for retirement (which includes Social Security contributions). This is a particularly striking difference. The affluent are able to put away a significant portion of their income for retirement; for those living just above the poverty line, it’s much, much less than the amount financial planners would recommend (even the middle-income group is saving about the minimum amount generally recommended to prepare for retirement). When so much of your income goes to simply meeting day-to-day needs, saving for the future is a luxury many just cannot afford.

UPDATE: NPR has updated their post, saying the image they had up initially incorrectly. They posted a new image, with notably lower spending on housing:

Eagle-eyed reader David C. pointed this out to me. The revised numbers seem surprisingly low to both of us.Looking at the NPR post again, I think I misunderstood what they were representing; I think this isn’t the percent of total income, but rather % of the household budget, which may not be identical. That said, I looked at some Consumer Expenditure Survey data (here and here) and can’t get the numbers to work out to what they’re showing in the updated image. If someone can, please send us a note at socimages(at)thesocietypages.org and we’ll do another update. Thanks!

Who Picks the Cacao for Your Chocolate?

When asked to contribute to an exhibition about chocolate, photographer James Mollison decided to “explore the disparity between the producer and consumer.”  Chocolate is always a luxury, of course (and is often deliberately marketed this way), and the product, at its finest, can be exceptionally delicious and exceptionally expensive.

Mollison went to Côte d’Ivoire, the country responsible for producing the largest proportion of cacao, to bring the contrast between the product and its producers to life.  The men he photographed, he reports, earned less than $1 a day. Here are three of them.

Sorogo Hamidou:
Zongo Arouna:
Mohammad Ouedraogo:

Also from Mollison: Where Children Sleep and The Disciples, photographs of hard-core music fans.

As always, in gratitude for his work, I encourage you to visit his site.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions, with Myra Marx Ferree. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Is it Possible to Go “Off the Grid”?

In the Sociology of Gender textbook I am (very slowly) writing, I spend a chapter discussing the idea of institutions.  I define the term as “persistent patterns of social interaction aimed at meeting the needs of a society that can’t easily be met by individuals alone.”  These needs  include educating the next generation, providing health care, ensuring safety, and enabling efficient transportation.  These things are done better and more efficiently if we all chip in and put together a system.

What is interesting about institutions from a sociological perspective is that, once they’re in place, it is essentially impossible to opt out.  You can choose not to buy a car, for example, but the government is still going to spend your tax dollars on highway infrastructure.  You can amass as much medical knowledge and experience as you like, but you’ll still be a criminal if you practice medicine without a licence.  You can believe the government is corrupt and stay home on voting day, but Congress is still going to pass legislation to which you will be held accountable.

You get the picture.

In any case, I thought of this when I came across the striking photography of Eric Valli.  Valli seems to specialize in capturing the lives of people living very close to the earth.  In one series, he follows a group of individuals who have decided to live “off the grid.”  That is, they’ve “unplugged” from the social institutions that sustain us. The first image I came across was this one:

Clearly this is no joke.  And, yet, as I scrolled through additional photographs, I couldn’t help to notice how many trappings of the rest of the world were part and parcel of their lives (canoes, coats, oil lamps, cooking and eating utensils, halters, firearms, hot sauce, etc).

As I write in the book:

You can go “off the grid” to avoid capitalism, find an isolated spot in some wilderness, cut down some trees, build a hut, and live off of roots and berries.  Then again, where did you get the axe?  Will you bring a book on poisonous mushrooms?  Even the bare-handed, bunny-catching woodsman hermit will buy a few things to get along and, in any case, he can’t help but draw on knowledge that he acquired through institutions like schools, families, publishing, and the mass media.  After all, how did he know where to find the forest?

I’m not questioning, at all, whether or not these people are off the grid. They certainly appear to be.  But it is interesting to notice how much of the grid is still a part of their lives.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions, with Myra Marx Ferree. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Just How Big is Walmart?

Mother Jones magazine offers some comparisons. Highlights:

  • Its net sales is greater than the GDP of Norway.
  • Its entertainment sales is triple that of Hollywood.
  • It emits more CO2 than the 50 lowest-emitting countries together.
  • It employs a workforce the size of the population of the 50 smallest countries in the world.
  • Its square-footage exceeds that of the island of Manhattan.

The data:


Via SocProf.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions, with Myra Marx Ferree. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.