By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 2, 2009
Stanley Lebergott, 91, a retired economist and professor whose influential books and articles maintained that consumerism had brought positive changes to the American standard of living, died July 24 of cardiac arrest at his home in Middletown, Conn.
Mr. Lebergott, a former government economist and Wesleyan University professor, took issue with those who disdained "consumerism" as wasteful, pointless, even immoral. Consumption, he maintained, has always been an expression of human longing rather than mere acquisitiveness.
Reviewing his book, "Pursuing Happiness: American Consumers in the Twentieth Century" (1993), Washington Post book critic Jonathan Yardley praised Mr. Lebergott's "lucidity, wit and forthrightness."
In Yardley's words: "Lebergott argues that the great American shopping spree is not mere self-indulgence but an essential part of what has been a remarkably successful pursuit of happiness. He believes that rather than focus on the self-indulgent aspects of consumerism, we do better service to the truth if we credit it with permitting Americans to liberate themselves from the onus of repetitive, unrewarding labor."
Mr. Lebergott noted, for example, that in 1900, "housewives spent 44 hours [a week] cooking and cleaning up. Now, they do 17 hours a week . . . thanks to restaurants, canned and prepared meals."
By examining the changing pattern of household outlays over nine decades, Mr. Lebergott linked consumer spending to improved health, reduced drudgery, greater privacy and a vast expansion in "diversified experience." He said specific products -- washing machines, electric light, processed food, central heating, television -- have allowed people to use their time in ways more to their liking.
He also reminded readers that " 'consumer-driven culture' was in the American grain long before anyone discovered that 'consumer capitalism' is undermining the work ethic and postponement of gratification." On July 4, 1776, for example, Thomas Jefferson recorded in his daybook: "seven pair of women's gloves, for 20 shillings."
Mr. Lebergott commented: "Later records show more material consumption: his unending book purchases became the original Library of Congress. And a few bottles still remain of the many cases of wine he shipped from France to Virginia."
Stanley Lebergott was born in Detroit on July 22, 1918. He received a bachelor's degree in 1938 and a master's degree in 1939, both in economics, from the University of Michigan. He joined the Bureau of Labor Statistics in 1940, and the next year, he married Ruth Wellington. She survives, along with a daughter, Karen Lebergott of Chicago. A son, Steven Lebergott, died in 1984.
Mr. Lebergott's early work focused on measures of unemployment, the size and composition of the labor force, wage determination, family income and child welfare. He later moved to the Bureau of the Budget before joining the Wesleyan faculty in 1962. He retired in 1995.
His books included "Manpower in Economic Growth" (1964), which he updated 12 years later. The book examined historical change in the U.S. distribution of wealth, upward and downward mobility, the meaning and measurement of poverty and the philosophical-ethical premises that underlie public policies.
Writing about that book in a 2006 issue of Economic History, Boston University economics professor Robert Margo concluded: "Lebergott's influence on economic history has been profound. There are few activities that economic historians can engage in of greater consequence than reconstructing the hard numbers. In this line of work Lebergott had few peers. 'Manpower' put the labor force -- people -- at the center of economic history, not the bloodless 'agents' of economic models but real people."