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Lawrence Glickman on the New Frugality

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In response to the fall of consumer confidence “to its lowest level in more than three decades,” the New York Times‘s Room for Debate blog asked a few experts on the subject: How fast do spending habits change and are they affected by cultural pressures? Are new habits of thrift likely to last past an economic recovery?
Lawrence Glickman, author of the forthcoming Buying Power: A History of Consumer Activism in America, responds that an ethos of “recognizing consumer power even as people buy less” is resurfacing.
“Americans are once again aware of the importance of consumer demand now that we’re in recessionary times,” Glickman writes.

Indeed, in recent months, shopping has been cast as something akin to political action.
This is nothing new. The attempt to turn economic clout into political power has been an important element of our political culture ever since the American Revolution. Even as Americans have been enthusiastic shoppers, they have also been avid in coordinating purchasing power for political purposes. No decade in American history saw more consumer activism than the Depression decade of the 1930s.
Although one might think that the intensity of consumer protest would correlate with prosperity, Americans during the Depression engaged in a host of boycotts, large and small, including “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work” campaigns of African Americans and the boycott of the products of Nazi Germany organized by some Jewish American organizations.
This upsurge in politicized consumption, which at first might seem counterintuitive (after all, Americans had fewer resources to shop), makes sense when we realize that during economically depressed periods, people are far more aware of the power of their dollars.

Read the rest of Glickman’s commentary. And follow it up with his definitive history of American consumer activism, which comes out in July.