Attention Shoppers: Retail and Consumption in the American Political Economy

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Although they figure prominently in the economies of the rich democracies, consumers have received strikingly little attention in the comparative political economy literature. Among its rich peers, the United States stands out as the quintessential consumer society. Those studies that address America’s distinctively consumption-oriented political economy mostly attribute this outcome to the actions of the government in the 1930s to stimulate home ownership (and associated mortgage debt) in response to the Great Depression. By contrast, I suggest that the key moves were made far earlier, by entrepreneurial retailers who beginning in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries had found ways to alternately capitalize on public infrastructure and circumvent government regulations in ways that drove forward both mass consumption and the consumer credit that sustained this consumption. This paper tracks these processes through three distinct phase: (1) the building of a mass market in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, (2) the expansion of retail and installment credit in the 1920s, and (3) the explosion of revolving credit in the post WWII period. In each case, I shine a light on the key actors who transformed retail and consumer credit — their motives and strategies, their alliances and opponents, and their relationship with the state.

Discussant: Clemence Hautefort (Oxford)