Is the American Dream Killing You? How “The Market” Rules Our Lives by Paul Stiles. Harper Collins. 2005. 305 pages. $24.95.
The high-consumption lifestyle that constitutes the “American dream” has largely been driven by an emerging hypermarket, and it may be killing us, argues Paul Stiles, a former dot-corn CEO.
The word “market” in the modern context refers to the global economy in all its forms. It’s the commercial messages we consume almost constantly, the equity in our retirement accounts, and the rationalization for most international trade policy. What was once a mere place has become a force with the power to displace whole populations and influence our lives in almost every conceivable way, Stiles writes in Is the American Dream Killing You?
We are now so caught up in trying to appease the market by working longer hours to buy more expensive goods that we fail to appreciate the degree to which it influences our tastes, determines our circumstances, and defines how many of us see and interact with our future. Popular acceptance of consumer culture is an inevitable fact of life and that is what makes Stiles’s defiant social critique highly refreshing.
The book’s premise is simple and straightforward: Whether it is called the global consumer culture, the American corporate model, or supply-side economics, the hypermarket is growing larger, more willful, and more destructive every day. Once a necessary component of local, regional, and national economic health, the market has become the very organizing principle for civilization itself. This development, Stiles maintains, is not a healthy one for either the individual or the society, or even for the economy in the long term.
The result of the hypermarket is, naturally, a hypercompetitiveness that tears away at the very social fabric that allows for civil, free-market competition, argues Stiles. Without mutual trust and accountability, there can be no orderly exchange of goods and services. When profit is emphasized above quality, integrity, or moral goodness, the result is an undermining of humankind’s great institutions, people pitted against one another, environmentally unsustainable behaviors carried out on a global scale, and the obliteration of thousands of years intellectual and technical progress.
One of the most dire effects of the hypermarket, according to Stiles, occurs in the area of personal physical wellness. “Stress is the critical missing link between the market economy and human health,” he states. According to his research, 65 million Americans suffer from the symptoms of stress, including weakened immune systems, depression, anxiety, eating disorders, headaches, sleep disturbances, heart disease, stroke, immune disorders, cancer, peptic ulcers, reproductive disorders, and dozens of other maladies.
The cause of this stress, Stiles argues, is the constant market-induced pressure not only to work harder but also to consume more and higherpriced goods. In so doing, we subvert our own human needs in order to fulfill the needs of the hypermarket, working harder to shop harder, making ourselves less available to family in order to be more available at the office.
To “reward” ourselves for all our hard work, we engage in socially, physically, and economically unhealthy behaviors. The title of the book, thus, is not hyperbole: According to Stiles, the market is literally killing us.
The solution to the hypermarket debacle is not especially complicated at all, Stiles argues. What’s needed is a global shift in consciousness away from conspicuous consumption toward a more meaningful, balanced way of life.
“Moderation is not a cause, but an effect,” he concludes. “It arises from a spiritual awakening, an elevation of consciousness, an awareness of the way things truly are. This is the great missing piece of our social puzzle. After tremendous pain and suffering, on a global basis, mankind has finally crafted a universal economic solution (the free market) and a universal political solution (democracy). What we lack is a universal spiritual solution, a common understanding of the human interior, one rooted in the nature of reality, as we experience it.”
Stiles is not the first author to lend his voice to the ill affects of American consumer culture. (Thorstein Veblen and David Riesman spring most immediately to mind.) Where his book does stand out is in its focus on the hypermarket’s effect on health. In this way, is the American Dream Killing You? highlights a continuing problem in a new and compelling way.
The Hypermarket “Bubble”
According to author Paul Stiles, hypermarket control is, in part, a product of mass media, which disconnects us from family, relationships, and the natural world around us and tricks us into accepting an over-hyped, less-fulfilling life in what he calls “the bubble.”
“While mankind once sought truth and meaning in nature, now the market actively broadcasts its own version,” Stiles writes. “This has created an alternate reality for us to live in, a world apart from nature, and separate from the truth it represents: the bubble.”
One sign, according to Stiles, of how dependent we’ve become on mass media is the steady rise in the amount of television Americans watch on a daily basis. At current rates, a person who lives to be 70 years old will spend more than 12 years over the course of their lifetimes watching television.
Originally published in THE FUTURIST, May-June 2006.