"The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom," the poet William Blake wrote two centuries ago. Easy for him to say. Blake never inched along in the seemingly perpetual traffic snarl of the 405, behind the wheel of a $40,000 sport-utility vehicle that looked impressive on the lot but which, once you got it out on the asphalt, was dwarfed by even bigger SUVs. You're staring in your rearview mirror, for example, at a massive Ford Excursion, 19 feet long, with 7,000 pounds of metallic hypertrophy, chrome grillwork gleaming at you like the teeth of some primordial beast.
You shift uneasily in your seat, the fabric of your fashionably baggy jeans chafing against the lush leather upholstery and take another sip of your Starbucks Venti cappuccino. That 2,000-calorie lunch--the one you gobbled off the extra-large 12 1/2-inch plate that has replaced the 10 1/2-incher as the restaurant industry standard--is rumbling around in your stomach like steroid-bloated professional wrestlers locked in violent embrace. You fiddle distractedly with the volume knob on your 400-watt stereo system as Long Beach rapper Warren G. intones, "I want it all, all, all, all." Easy for him to say. You've already had it all, or nearly so, but you want more. Cathedral ceilings. A 64-inch TV. A pair of $160 Nike Men's Shox VC sneakers, the ones that look like NASA standard issue.
There was a time when wretched excess was the exclusive province of divine-right monarchs and mega-millionaires. To be sure, the rich still lead lives of otherworldly extravagance--for example, Aaron Spelling's 45-room, 56,000-square-foot Holmby Hills mansion (its footprint about as big as a football field), or the underwater stereo system that entertains swimmers in Bill Gates' pool. Lisa Kerkorian is demanding $320,000 a month in child support for her 4-year-old daughter from her ex-husband, MGM mogul Kirk Kerkorian, and most people would find excessive the $14,000 a month she says the child needs for parties and play dates and the $436 a month she needs for pet care.
But today the profligate rich are just one end of the continuum of surfeit that stretches from imported suede-lined dresser drawers and Range Rovers with imported Italian mobile espresso makers to the guy who enhances his trailer with a working fake-log fireplace and a massive satellite dish. Wretched excess has become a truly egalitarian motif, one that cuts across class and cultural lines. Call it the Big Gulp Culture, because it manifests itself not just in opulence but also in sheer outlandish size. All around you, everything--your car, your house, your appliances, the food you eat, the entertainment you enjoy--is oversized, overstuffed, overdone, over-elaborate and, at times, bewilderingly overwhelming.
"When do you have enough in America? Never!" says French anthropologist G. Clotaire Rapaille, who has spent much of the past two decades in this country analyzing the American consumer. "It's a culture of excess, a permanently nouveau riche mentality. We want the biggest, the most extreme of everything."
Indeed, the super-size Zeitgeist also has spilled into some seemingly sacrosanct aspects of our existence. If you go to religious services on Sunday, it may be at the Forum or another arena-sized mega-church. Your kids come home from school lugging gargantuan backpacks. The trend seems unstoppable, even in the face of economic uncertainty and the cataclysmic events of the past year. A survey published in Advertising Age in March, for example, showed that even after the shock of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, 60% of consumers' spending habits remained unchanged. (In some ways, our anxiety actually stimulated the urge to acquire. Big Toys Coach Works, a Corona-based maker of customized vehicles, suddenly saw a jump in demand for its line of armored SUVs, such as a $175,000 version of the Excursion designed to withstand bullets from AK-47s and .44 magnums.)
At the same time, it's hard not to worry about the consequences of living so large--obesity-related diseases, accidents caused by the massiveness of our vehicles, mountains of credit card debt, the environmental carnage we're wreaking by gobbling up resources. You've got to wonder how much of the enmity from people elsewhere in the world is a result of our excessive ways. And as you look down the road from 6 1/2 feet up, you've also got to wonder: How big a gulp do you have to take to finally feel satisfied?
We're so in love with living ever larger that it's easy to overlook how hyperbolized our lives have become. "In France, you have a little thing on your plate," explains anthropologist Rapaille. "In America, you get a plate [and] think it's for five people. The first time I saw an American walk-in closet, it was a shock for me. In France, you have an armoire to keep clothes in. Here, you have a room. In France, everything is supposed to be petite to be good--you have petite maison, a little house, a little car, a little dog, a little wife. In France, when it comes to breasts, most of the cosmetic surgery is for reduction. In America, women want to get bigger--and they're bigger already." (During the past decade, the average American bra size--unaugmented--has increased from 34B to 36C, and the typical breast implant has gone up a half size.)
It's not that Rapaille objects to American excess. The expatriate, who has studied the effect on immigrants' values of moving to America, says that excess is contagious. "French people love California," he notes. "They come here, and suddenly they want to build the biggest house on the block and drive an SUV."
In ways both subtle and obvious, the media feed America's appetite for more of everything. HBO's breakthrough success, "The Sopranos," features a lumbering protagonist who lives in a "New Jersey Elegant" suburban mansion, drives an SUV and spends much of each cable network episode drinking to excess and consuming enormous quantities of ziti and prosciutto. Sports heroes generally tend to be big, but being large isn't enough for Laker star Shaquille O'Neal. He lives large behind the wheel of a $300,000 Bentley Arnage that he had gutted and customized into a lowrider with hydraulic switches. Looking for a pinup girl who embodies the national mood? How about former Playboy playmate and Guess jeans model-turned-plus-size-heiress Anna Nicole Smith?
There's no escaping evidence of our love affair with excess. Pick a category:
Food and Drink
There was a time when 20 ounces of soda seemed thirst-quenching enough. Then, in 1976, 7-Eleven tested a 32-ounce container for fountain drinks at one of its stores in Torrance. The store sold out its entire stock of 1,000 cups in a single weekend. Since then, the original Big Gulp has been offered in increasingly large containers, culminating with the 64-ounce Double Gulp. The Big Gulp cup was redesigned in 1998 after the company discovered it was too big to fit standard car cup holders. Starbucks unveiled its Venti (Italian for "20") coffee cup in 1996 and the following year quietly dropped its 8-ounce Short size from store menus. (A company spokesperson says they're still available on request.)
Meal portions are bigger, regardless of whether you're dining in fast-food or upscale restaurants. As recently as the mid-1990s, a 10 1/2-inch plate was standard in the restaurant industry. Today the standard is 12 1/2 inches. Maggiano's Little Italy, an Italian restaurant chain, uses a 15 5/8-inch model to handle its large serving of pasta, which weighs an astonishing 1 pound without sauce. New York University nutrition professor Lisa Young, who has studied the evolution of food portions, says that the McDonald's Super Size portion of fries is an ounce larger than the 1998 version. A single portion combined with a Quarter Pounder with cheese and a super-size Coke provides half of the 2,900 recommended daily calories for a man between the ages of 25 and 50.
A generation ago, Americans shopped in supermarkets. Today we're likely to buy groceries in 100,000-plus-square-foot warehouse clubs, where we pay from $30 to $100 for an annual membership. That entitles us to stuff our shopping carts with products that are themselves gigantic--44-pound bags of dog food and 300-tablet bottles of pain reliever. Sales at warehouse clubs and superstores grew by nearly 50% between 1996 and 2000, to $416 billion.
The floor plan for a typical new house these days is 2,300 square feet, making it 55% bigger than the average home built in 1970. Since the late 1980s, the kitchen in a typical new California home has gone from 120 square feet to 200, and living rooms increasingly have been replaced by "great rooms," often with a two-story atrium ceiling. "What's interesting is that the size of the typical family has decreased by 20%," says Gopal Ahluwalia, an economist for the National Assn. of Home Builders. "So the amount of space for each person has increased even more."
You probably didn't notice the additional expanse because the house likely is filled with bigger furniture, appliances and fixtures. In those gigantic kitchens, the refrigerator has gone from 22 or 23 inches to 27 inches deep--so out-sized that it sticks out from between the counters. The great room has to be bigger, explains Ahluwalia, because you need 12 to 15 feet of space to comfortably watch a 64-inch projection TV. In the bedroom, mattresses are nearly twice as thick as they were in the mid-1980s. In the bathroom, the standard tub is giving way to a "garden tub," an oval tub for two with powerful water jets. About 7% of bathroom remodeling upgrades now include a TV or stereo. The garage is getting bigger too--according to Ahluwalia, a three-car space is now standard.
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In 1980, when Americans still cringed from memories of the long lines and skyrocketing prices at gas stations during Middle East instability, Japanese compact cars ruled the highways and bulky four-wheel-drive vehicles seemed headed for oblivion, like mastodons to the tar pits. That year, Americans bought fewer than 250,000 SUVs, of which 10 different models were available.
Last year, with the Middle East in turmoil and gas prices again on the rise, Americans bought 4 million SUVs--about a quarter of the entire automobile market--and could choose from 61 different kinds. Most popular are the two-ton mid-size variety--nearly twice the size of a typical compact car. Two years ago, Ford unveiled the biggest SUV ever, the nine-passenger Excursion. For the truly excessive, there's the H-1 Hummer, the $100,000 civilian version of the military vehicle. It's slightly smaller than the Excursion but capable of climbing a 2-foot wall and driving from Long Beach to downtown L.A. at 30 mph with two flat tires.
Why anyone might need such a thing in balmy Southern California is another question--but not one that has kept those behemoths off the freeways.
The impulse for excess is hardly new. Prehistoric hunters apparently wiped out entire species of giant mammals to satisfy their craving for meat. The Romans were notorious gluttons. In 17th century France, Louis XIV spent the equivalent of $500 million to build a residence at Versailles. The Gilded Age of the late 19th century spawned William Howard Taft, the first super-sized president, and products such as Sears, Roebuck and Co.'s "Large Gent's Easy Chair," the forerunner of today's Barcalounger and La-Z-Boy. Credit turn-of-the-century scholar Thorstein Veblen with coining the term "conspicuous consumption" to describe well-to-do Americans' obsession with acquiring baubles to impress one another. "In order to be reputable it must be wasteful," Veblen wrote.
But back then, excess was different. Only the wealthiest Americans could afford to consume outlandishly, and subtlety was part of the allure. Expensive things didn't necessarily look expensive, except for details that served as a sort of secret handshake between one member of the moneyed class and another. "A guy like J.P. Morgan didn't necessarily have to live in the most enormous mansion," explains Jerry Herron, director of American Studies at Wayne State University in Michigan. "It was the stuff inside that mattered, the antiques and tapestries whose value the ordinary people wouldn't have understood unless he explained it to them."
The rise of Hollywood may have changed that dynamic. The nouveau riche movie moguls and stars had more money than sophistication or couth, and it showed. When silent-film director Erich von Stroheim's wife had her hair catch fire during a "dry shampoo" treatment at a chic Hollywood salon, for example, an attendant grabbed a fur coat belonging to an unnamed star. "Not my coat!" the star screamed, snatching it back. In 1929, Joan Crawford decorated her new mansion in what she called "the apotheosis of taste"--green and gold furnishings and bric-a-brac that included 2,000 dolls, a life-size toy hen that cackled and laid eggs, and a walking, grunting life-size ersatz piglet. "Everything I earn, I spend!" she once boasted to a reporter. Even the most arrogantly intellectual star of Hollywood's golden age, Orson Welles, couldn't resist the sheer exhilaration of excess. In addition to "Citizen Kane," he was once credited with consuming 18 Pink's hot dogs at a single sitting.
The conspicuousness of that consumption helped transform excess from an upper-class vice into a mass obsession in the years after World War II. "We came out not just as the victor but as the biggest economic power in the world," Herron says. "We were in a position to produce a lot of stuff, but without a war to fight, our manufacturing capacity vastly exceeded our need for things. So to avoid another Depression, we had to create a need. That's the moment, I think, when ostentatiousness started to change. Collectively, society figured out that it would take a long time to teach a guy like my pop, who'd just come back from the service, to start collecting art or buying antiques. It was simpler just to tell him, 'Hey man, get yourself a bigger house and a second car.' Size and quantity are a lot easier to understand."
In the decades that followed, the ordinary American appetite for excess became oversimplified and extreme. "We have a confusion between quality and quantity," says Sylvia Stein, an executive with Consumer Eyes, a New York-based consulting firm that has helped Fortune 500 clients develop new products ranging from telecommunications technology to toilet paper. "These days, life moves too fast and people have too much to do. When they go shopping, they don't have time to really look at a product and think about it. So they go for the largest, or the fastest, or the most powerful. Those are the things that require no sophistication to spot. You get instant validation and gratification. It's the biggest, so it must be the best."
The faith in bigness has become increasingly ingrained, which itself creates a strange sort of inflation. Marketing researcher Brian Wansink, director of the Food & Brand Lab at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, found that consumers perceive products in large packages as less expensive than smaller ones--even though they often aren't. As a result, they actually use 18% to 45% more than they otherwise would.
Anthropologist Rapaille says the desire for excess comes from the "reptilian brain," the earliest, most primitive structures in our mental evolution. "The reptilian wants to grab as much food as possible, to be as big and powerful as possible, because it's focused on survival. When it comes to a choice between the intellect and the reptilian, the reptilian always wins."
Satisfying that inner lizard has its downsides. Our insatiable appetites have left Americans 9 pounds heavier, on average, than we were two decades ago, and more vulnerable than ever to heart disease and diabetes. We're racking up mountains of debt (the late fees we pay on credit cards have more than tripled since 1996, to $7.3 billion a year) and burning up fossil fuels like crazy. We demand things that, deep down, we don't really want or even use. When Stein's marketing firm surveyed real estate agents, they discovered an odd phenomenon: People build big houses without thinking about what they're actually going to do with all that space. "When you look at how the family actually lives, it turns out that they spend all their time in one corner of the place."
Many of us are using the remaining space to remedy what J. Walker Smith, president of the North Carolina-based market research company Yankelovich Partners, has termed a "claustrophobia of abundance." That is, people already own so much stuff that they're running out of places to put it. The number of self-storage warehouses has tripled during the past decade and a half in order to handle our orgiastic acquisitiveness.
"One of the reasons America's in trouble now, despite the fact that we're one of the most religious countries in the world, is that we're perceived as materialists and secular," said political scientist Benjamin Barber, author of "Jihad vs. McWorld," during a recent TV interview. "When they look at our movies, when they look at our fast food, when they look at our MTV, they perceive an unreal America, an America that leaves no room for spirit."
The thesis has at least one hole as big as the sunroof in Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar's pearl-colored VX Limited Edition Toyota Land Cruiser (complete with the optional leather interior and--despite the Taliban's proscription of music--a CD player). Diane Crispell, an editor for the opinion research firm Roper ASW, says survey data shows that anti-American attitudes aren't necessarily coupled with a yearning for austerity. "People in the Middle East, for example, are very big on luxury brands--but they prefer European, not American, products," she explains. "How they feel about us doesn't affect their feeling about consumption of material goods."
Still, we've got to worry about what the future may bring. After all, the Web site for the Center for the New American Dream, an organization that advocates a more moderate lifestyle, estimates that if each of the planet's 6 billion inhabitants consumed at the level of the average American, we would need four additional planets' worth of natural resources.
"When Jay Leno is making jokes about SUVs," says product consultant Stein, "you know that it's at last all starting to become uncool."
But fear not, consumers. Wretched excess may not be going away. Instead, like Mike Myers' fictional Dr. Evil, it may simply be cloned and miniaturized. "Small is the new big," predicts American studies scholar Herron, who recently noticed two yuppies trying to one-up each other about the tininess of their cell phones. The hot new status car in Hollywood is BMW's revival of the 1960s Austin Mini Cooper, a vehicle about a third the weight of an Excursion. The new Mini, though, is anything but minimalist--add the power glass moonroof, the CD player, the in-dash computer navigation system, leather trim and other options, and the price can rival that of some SUVs. Even 4 1/2 inches off the pavement, it seems, we're still stuck in gridlock along the road to the palace of wisdom.
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Excess by the Numbers
L.A's All-Time Scoring Champ
In his 1991 autobiography, "A View From Above," the late Laker superstar center Wilt Chamberlain claimed that he had sex with 20,000 women, a rate of 1.2 women per day. Since Chamberlain lived for eight years after making that statement, the total number at that rate may be closer to 23,500. In any case, he far outperformed Giovanni Giacomo Casanova, the 18th century musician, spy and memoirist whose surname became a synonym for libertine. He had 132 lovers during his 61 years of sexual activity. To appreciate Chamberlain's self-proclaimed prodigiousness, consider that at two minutes per encounter--the typical length for American males, according to sex researcher Alfred Kinsey--Chamberlain spent nearly the equivalent of 12 full 82-game NBA seasons having sex.
Evolution of the Big Gulp
The 7-Eleven convenience store chain introduced the 32-ounce Big Gulp in 1976 and followed it with the 44-ounce Super Big Gulp and the 64-ounce Double Gulp. The human bladder, by contrast, has a top capacity of about 13.5 ounces.
The Macrosoft Fortune
Bill Gates has an estimated net worth of $52.8 billion, roughly the same as the gross domestic product of Slovakia ($55.3 billion). His wealth exceeds the economies of numerous countries around the world, including Cuba ($19.2 billion), Ethiopia ($39.2 billion), Costa Rica ($25 billion), Ghana ($37.4 billion), Syria ($50.9 billion) and Uruguay ($31 billion).
Increasingly Incredible Hulks
Action heroes--with exceptions such as Alan Ladd and Jean-Claude Van Damme--have grown larger and larger.
1910s: Elmo "Tarzan" Lincoln, 5-foot-11, 200 pounds
1950s: Steve "Hercules" Reeves, 6-foot-1, 214 pounds
1980s and '90s: Arnold Schwarzenegger, 6-foot-2, 230 pounds
2002: Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson: 6-foot-5, 250 pounds
A Serving-Size Primer
America's obesity rate is three times that of European countries, even though we eat many of the same foods. But as Self magazine reported in 2001, typical European portions are considerably less fattening.
* Fries (a.k.a. chips)
United Kingdom: 5.5 ounces, 485 calories
United States: 7 ounces, 610 calories
United Kingdom: 8 ounces, 545 calories
United States: 20 ounces, 1,360 calories
France: 2 ounces, 215 calories
United States: 4 ounces, 430 calories
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Great Moments in Wretched Excess
Circa AD 60: Roman emperor Nero decorates one of his palaces with a 120-foot-tall statue of himself and installs ivory-inlaid ceilings equipped with pipes to sprinkle perfume on dinner guests.
1280s: Mongol emperor Kublai Khan's domed palace at Xanadu can accommodate 6,000 guests within its gold, silver and silk-adorned walls. And that's his vacation home.
1540s: Meat makes up 80% of King Henry VIII's 5,000-calorie-a-day diet. The British monarch, who routinely eats three times the portions served to other dinner guests, sports a 54-inch waistline.
1780s: Parisian jeweler Charles Bohmer creates the gaudiest piece of jewelry ever, a necklace containing 647 diamonds, in the vain hope that Marie Antoinette might buy it. The price tag: the equivalent of $100 million today.
1880s: George Vanderbilt, grandson of railroad baron Cornelius Vanderbilt, builds the biggest house in American history for himself, his wife and their daughter--a 172,000-square-foot mansion in Asheville, N.C., with 34 bedrooms and 43 baths.
1920s: Silent-film hero Douglas Fairbanks takes bride Mary Pickford for boat rides in the gargantuan swimming pool at Pickfair, the 42-room mock-Tudor estate in Beverly Hills that starts the trend of garish movie-star mansions.
1930s: William Randolph Hearst buys the medieval Spanish monastery of Santa Maria de Oliva. He has the entire structure dismantled and shipped to California, at a cost equivalent to nearly $4 million today. He also appears in a Hearst newsreel, exhorting Depression-era Americans to buy more "to generate wealth and prosperity."
1942: Howard Hughes rents four luxurious bungalows at the Beverly Hills Hotel--one for himself, another for wife Jean Peters, a third for his bodyguards and a fourth to store dusty blueprints for the Spruce Goose, his giant airplane. His on-and-off stay at the hotel lasts about 30 years.
1955: In an attempt to capture the growing female segment of car buyers, Dodge introduces the La Femme, a two-toned--rose and white--two-door hardtop, marketed with matching luggage and lipstick.
1957: TV premiere of "The Price is Right," in which contestants try to win cars and appliances by guessing how much they cost.
1962: First appearance of a fiberglass roadside giant, outside a restaurant on Route 66 in Flagstaff, Ariz.
1970s: Led Zeppelin's touring entourage reportedly includes an accountant who tallies the damage the band does to its hotel rooms.
1973: The Advent Video Beam 1000, the first wide-screen projection television, debuts.
1975: Actor-turned-TV pitchman Ricardo Montalban extols the virtues of the Chrysler Cordoba's "fine Corinthian leather," which turns out to be a blend of leather and vinyl with no apparent connection to the Greek city.
1985: At junk-bond financier Drexel Burnham Lambert's "Predators' Ball," client Mattel's presentation features buxom models dressed in full-size copies of Barbie doll evening gowns.
1986: When Philippines strongman Ferdinand Marcos is overthrown, his wife Imelda leaves behind 2,800 pairs of shoes and 2,000 garments, including 15 mink coats, 200 girdles, a dress studded with Russian diamonds and a bulletproof bra.
1990s: In home-building lingo, the "family room" metamorphoses into the "great room."
2000: Cosmetic surgeons popularize micro fat grafting for augmentation of the buttocks.
2001: Vice President Dick Cheney and other political leaders urge American consumers to keep spending, or else the terrorists will have won.
Patrick J. Kiger last wrote for the magazine about the 1980s.