The historian Frank Trentmann has written the first total history of consumption. Empire of Things is an original, ambitious account that begins in the fifteenth century, spans the globe, and examines a wide range of regimes, from liberal democracies to fascist dictatorships. The book could hardly be more relevant: since the Great Recession began in 2007, the world has been mired in a global economic crisis with the consumer at its core. As inequality soared in the years leading up to the crash, middle-class consumers, in the absence of rising incomes, relied on credit to sustain their standards of living. Sensing an opportunity, banks and other financial firms began selling mortgages to people who could not afford them. When the debt bubble burst, millions lost their homes, pensions, and hopes for a more prosperous future. European welfare states introduced harsh austerity measures, Asian domestic demand slowed, and the global economy faltered for years.
"Having It All" is from the July/August 2016 issue of Foreign Affairs.