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Another Take on Values and Values Change

by Ruy Teixeira

A couple of weeks ago, I did a post on Garance Franke-Ruta's article, “Remapping the Culture Debate”, in the latest issue of The American Prospect. In that post, I criticized her article for over-reliance on the values work of Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, well-known in progressive circles for their essay, “The Death of Environmentalism”. Nordhaus and Shellenberger are principals in American Environics, the American branch of the Canadian market research firm, Environics Research, and have been pushing a values scheme based entirely on their analysis of an Environics in-home consumer survey that has been conducted since 1992.

In my post, I raised some specific questions about American Environics data cited in her article. But my broader point was that, while it is potentially useful for progressives to look at values-based research produced by consumer research firms, in doing so we must engage critically with the widest possible range of these analyses. That is the only way we'll gain the full advantage of what this type of research has to offer.

This view has been underscored for me by comments I have received from a very respected consumer researcher, J. Walker Smith, President of the MONITOR division of Yankelovich. Yankelovich, of course, has a long history tracking and analyzing American values and consumer behavior going back to its founding by survey research legend Daniel Yankelovich.

Smith was intrigued by what I had to say about the Nordhaus/Shellenberger analysis in my post and set out to find out more about the theory and data behind their analysis. To do this, he turned to a new book, American Backlash: The Untold Story of Social Change in the United States, by Michael Adams, founder of Canadian firm Environics Research which, as mentioned above, is the parent firm of American Environics. Of course, it would have been preferable to read Nordhaus/Shellenberger's book or detailed report, but neither are out yet.

Still, the similarities between the Nordhaus/Shellenberger analysis, insofar as one can nail it down at this point, and what Adams has to say in his book seem strong. For example, this summary of Nordhaus/Shellenberger's views from the Franke-Ruta article seems very similar to Adams' views as expressed in his book:

Looking at the data from 1992 to 2004, Shellenberger and Nordhaus found a country whose citizens are increasingly authoritarian while at the same time feeling evermore adrift, isolated, and nihilistic. They found a society at once more libertine and more puritanical than in the past, a society where solidarity among citizens was deteriorating, and, most worrisomely to them, a progressive clock that seemed to be unwinding backward on broad questions of social equity. Between 1992 and 2004, for example, the percentage of people who said they agree that “the father of the family must be the master in his own house” increased ten points, from 42 to 52 percent, in the 2,500-person Environics survey. The percentage agreeing that “men are naturally superior to women” increased from 30 percent to 40 percent. Meanwhile, the fraction that said they discussed local problems with people they knew plummeted from 66 percent to 39 percent. Survey respondents were also increasingly accepting of the value that “violence is a normal part of life” -- and that figure had doubled even before the al-Qaeda terrorist attacks.

And, if you look at this public Nordhaus/Shellenberger document, it is clear that the connections between research conducted by Adams and his firm and research conducted by Nordhaus/Shellenberger and their firm are very close indeed.

Therefore, it is reasonable to view Smith's comments on Adams, which I reproduce below, as providing insight into some of the pitfalls and weaknesses of Nordhaus/Shellenberger's analysis. I do not necessarily endorse everything Smith has to say. But I do think it deserves to be taken very, very seriously and should be a spur to us all to cast the analytical net widely when venturing into consumer research territory.

Adams argues that America is becoming more thrill-seeking, more Darwinistic and more materialistic, mostly because of young people. Okay, now this is a topic on which we have lots of data and opinions -- none of which would lead us to draw these conclusions, at least not in these ways.

In fact, our data point to the exact opposite. There's an overview of this in Chapter 3 of [my book], Coming to Concurrence. Thrill-seeking -- yes, more interest in extremity of all sorts, but only with safety nets. Darwinism -- sort of, but we call it Self-Invention and see if operating differently. Materialism -- no, there is a decided shift beyond materialism which is not about renouncing materialism but about adding intangibles -- people want more of all sorts, more stuff and more intangibles, but especially more intangibles. And when you compare young people today to young people in the past, there are decided shifts toward things like non-materialism, idealism and spirituality. In short, I think these guys are just flat out wrong....

His take on American society and politics since the 50s reads like history as told by Entertainment Tonight. His discussion of socialism, idealism and hedonism is just too adolescent to believe. I can just see Dan Yankelovich rolling his eyes over this -- Dan's assessment of the sixties and seventies is the one I subscribe to...[Adams' analysis is]...so bad it casts a pall on everything else.

Not that everything else would be okay on its own. The first big issue is how seriously to take these trends. He repeatedly commits a Trends 101 error. He interprets shifts in minority percentages as indicative of total society shifts. He keeps confessing to this and justifying in some mumbo jumbo about relative numbers (which is just a flat out cover up for something he knows is problematic).

For example, the percentage agreeing that "Violence is a part of life. It's no big deal" goes from 10% to 20% from 1992 to 2004 takes careful interpretation. It does not mean that American society is more approving of violence now. 80% still don't approve. It does mean that a bigger minority now accepts violence, so the proper analysis is to profile acceptors in 1992 and contrast them to those in 2004 -- from this, decide what it means. In particular, figure out where the extra 10% came from! That's what's interesting here -- who made this attitudinal shift. Nothing like that in this book. But he over-interprets shifts in minority opinions repeatedly.

When you're talking about social trends, it helps to cite examples -- products, ads that worked, ads that didn't work, social phenomena, Web sites, media headlines, celebrities, etc. Things that have popped up that illustrate the trend. None of that here.

I think there's none of it because if you really tried to flesh out his main ideas, you wouldn't see that being the case. I'll give you two examples. He says spirituality, formal or informal, is declining. (I'm ignoring his data point for now -- which stuns me because we have a very similar question showing the exact opposite.) But you'd never know this with the boom in all things spiritual these days. Let's even suppose that mega-churches get too much press relative to their total attendance, you've still got a whole consumer marketplace full of gurus, self-help, simplicity, tranquility, etc. that belies this conclusion.

Similarly, he says that acceptance of violence is up while confessing in the same breath that crime in down. He attributes this to "acceptance" of violence not to commission of violence. He says it's evidence of an increasing Darwinist view. Okay, maybe so, but show me some examples. His only evidence is general -- society is becoming more ruthless and cutthroat. But this isn't evidence unless you begin with the assumption that this is true.

His whole way of approaching issues is unimaginative. Best example is his concept of community. He says on p. 73 that the word itself has been so over-used as to become meaningless. So, he's sticking with a traditional definition and not all of these new-fangled communities like geographic, ethnic, online, professional, hobby, sports, etc. Which means that he is totally missing the new ways in which connection and community are being expressed, and thus the paradox of lifestyle-based communities....

He does a good job in the Introduction illustrating the value of a values-based approach to studying social shifts. But his analysis fails to reflect this way of thinking. He fails to make the bigger connections that could establish a broader context and make a bigger point. Put Darwinism together with technology, pluralism and distrust and you have Self-Invention, a very different idea than ruthlessness for the sake of immediate pleasure and disassociative selfishness....

..[I]f I were a Republican political operative I would put on my happy mask and hand out a copy of this book to every Democrat I met and tell them it is the most incisive analysis of American society I've ever read. That would ensure a Republican empire well into the next century.

There is one other thing that....I think is...a huge mistake. The analysis on the rise of materialism is just plain wrong. It is absolutely true that America is on a buying binge since the mid-80s that nothing has slowed much less stopped. But there's more to it than that.

In recent years, many observers have documented a decided paradox in American society of growing spending coupled with declining fulfillment (not a loss of interest in fulfillment as Adams suggests but less fulfillment). In fact, the survey and medical data on ennui and despair are -- not to be funny -- downright depressing. It's true that you can't buy happiness. But we do keep buying.

And why wouldn't we? Stuff may not make us happy but it sure is nice to have and keeping us with the Joneses is not a matter of status so much anymore as a matter of access to essentials like crime-free neighborhoods and proximity to good medical care and good schools for the kids. (If I'm sounding like Robert Reich or Robert Frank here it's because I think their analyses of this phenomenon are dead on point.)

And good stuff these days is cheap -- decades of....declining costs of technology, accelerating product innovation cycles, outsourcing of manufacturing and services. It all adds up to brand name goods at Wal-Mart and Costco. Plus, relative housing costs are down due to cheap, innovative (risky) mortgages. Add in cheap credit. We've got more money to spend and no apparent reason to save it.

On this, Adams is right. But does that mean materialism is taking over. No. In fact, material things have lost status, Adams data claims notwithstanding. Mainly, they've lost status because they aren't as exclusive as they used to be. And even if you can't afford them, you're surrounded by them in the media so the cultural experience of exposure to luxury is ubiquitous.

Even more, people are now saying that they have lots of material things and they're still not happy, so they want to go beyond material things to add non-material things. Not to give up material things and replace them with non-material things, but to have both at once. The old idea that materialism is incompatible with non-materialism just isn't true anymore. Look at Real Simple magazine -- Zen in a luxury setting. Non-materialism is not about a Walden Pond experience. Non-materialism, in fact, is the new luxury, not traditional materials luxuries. I can lease a BMW if I can't buy it outright but I can't afford to take any time off for myself. So to say that materialism is up is really not to say anything at all -- it completely and totally misses the point.

What's scarce are the intangibles. And thus intangibles are on the rise. Adams says fulfillment and spirituality are going down. Not in our data. But generationally they appear to be down, as Adams notes, only because baby boomers were an oddity in these particular social values -- boomers obsessed over these things (we have data on this, too). Young people today aren't worse -- they're actually at the norm. It was boomers who were abnormal. Even so, this doesn't mean that intangibles aren't growing in importance.

(Adams also ignores this generational effect when it comes to community. He mentions Putnam but fails to make note of Putnam's single most important conclusion -- the decline of community is generational, boomers in particular. So, the open question is whether the next generation can be re-engaged with community. I say yes, but only if you are willing to redefine your definition of community, which Adams is not.)

Intangibles are things like experiences, emotions (over functionality), design and aesthetics, service, authenticity, etc. Now, I mention this because I think Adams also misses the point on hedonism and thrill-seeking. What's going up these days is interest in experiences. But this interest is rising in a marketplace of so-called luxury parity. Everything at a luxury level of performance. So, how to stand out when everything is the same as everything else, and everything is the same at the highest possible level of quality? The answer -- go to an extreme. It's the only direction in which to go. And that's the exact and precise direction that pop culture (TV, music, sports, even some fashion) has taken. So the rise in thrill-seeking and extremity isn't really a sign of anything other than a normal adolescent interest in doing something new and the only thing left to do that's new is something more extreme than before. This is simply intensified by the general marketplace shift to experiences. I could go on and on about experiences as the marketplace of tomorrow (for all products -- look at the Whirlpool/Kitchen-Aid Insperiences thing in Atlanta). Again, Adams ignores this entirely and it is a huge dynamic in the marketplace and is the context within which his trends of hedonism and thrill-seeking have to be assessed. He basically misses the real story.

...I'm totally amazed how he can get it so totally wrong. His data don't appear to be bad. The few actual questions he includes remind me very much of MONITOR questions. And we have to wind our way through the exact kinds of data oddities showing up in his data. But for him to come to such totally opposite conclusions is just stunning to me. While our ideas differ in some ways from other firms/people doing consumer trends work, I've never ever seen anybody who just gets it totally wrong.

There you have it. Smith may not be right about everthing he says here, but when someone of his stature raises these kinds of questions, it behooves us to take them seriously.