“Bless me Father, for I have sinned. I covet my neighbors’ goods and I have engaged in conspicuous consumption numerous times. Here’s a partial list of the things I’ve needed since my last confession: A notebook computer, a cell phone for me, cell phones for my two daughters, an SUV would be nice but I’ll settle for a new station wagon, a DVD player, a leather jacket, a pair of those weird Nike Shox Nz shoes with the springs in the heels, a bumper pool table and a foosball table for the basement rec room.
“I should have a PDA too. I know I’d be a lot more organized if I had a Palm Pilot. And, oh, yeah, how about all the fancy electronic equipment for a home theater?
“I’ve already picked up a few of these things — but not the big ticket items. (Maybe if I pray harder, God will help me with those?) The ache I feel is more than ‘want.’ I need this stuff, Father. People like me already own stuff like this. Every time I turn on my TV I’m reminded of what I don’t have. Sure, sooner or later most of this stuff will end up in the Prairie View landfill south of town. And we both know I’ll just want more. As Miss Piggy would say, ‘More is more.’”
It’ll be a blue moon before any priest hears a confession like that from me or anyone else. Catholics may have a long tradition of feeling guilty about lust for people, but lust for things is another matter. We are good Americans. We want just as much — or more — as the next guy, and we don’t feel the slightest twinge about it. Even bishops who ride around in BMWs and live in opulent mansions do not readily embrace the simple life. The Gospel says it would be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven, but most Americans are willing to take that gamble.
“After all, what is the American Dream?” Notre Dame economist Charles Wilber asks rhetorically. “To get ahead. Or to get your children ahead. And what does that mean? It doesn’t mean living more simply. Typically, it’s translated into getting a better house, a better car, better clothes, better health care—all the things that money buys, none of which are very simple.”
But at what point does the drive to acquire become a bad thing? And are we there yet? Catholic social teaching cites three instances in which excessive consumption is immoral, says Wilber, who played a major role in drafting the U.S. bishops’ 1986 pastoral letter on the economy. Catholic social teaching considers excessive consumption morally questionable when other individuals or nations are in need, when the environment is threatened or when it becomes the primary goal of life.
Using that standard, one could make the case without too much difficulty that, as a nation, we are guilty as charged on all three counts. This is, after all, the country with bumper stickers reading “The Guy Who Dies With The Most Toys At The End, Wins” and “I Live to Shop.”
On the matter of consumption, however, we are apparently damned if we do and damned if we don’t. On the one hand, we should consume less for all the Catholic social teaching reasons. On the other hand, with the stock market tumbling, companies laying off workers, endowments plummeting and everyone cutting back, we are told we need to consume more. With a sputtering economy, can we lower consumption? Are there reasons we should try? The answers, as usual, tend toward gray.
Notre Dame Professor of Economics Amitava Dutt illustrates the point: “Although higher consumption may seem unethical,” he says, "when demand is not high enough, as is the case now, it can be argued legitimately that higher consumption actually may help everyone. By creating demand, we create jobs, raising income, helping the poor not only in this country but perhaps in poorer countries where people may be producing these goods.
“On the other hand,” Dutt reverses, “increased consumption may not be beneficial if people go into debt to finance it. If debt burden grows, this shifts income distribution from the poor to the rich, and therefore demand might go down because the rich typically consume less of a percentage of their total income. Also,” he points out, “the luxury items that the rich consume generally are not produced in poor countries, so poor nations are not likely to benefit.”
In any attempt to determine the ethics of consumption, Dutt says it’s useful to consider the most basic question: What is the point of all the binge buying? What is the rabbit we’re all chasing? The classic answer is “happiness.” But studies have shown that after a certain point consumption does not yield happiness. In fact, it may make us unhappy, Dutt says.
Economist Richard Easterlin of the University of Southern California found that once basic needs are met, economic growth does not seem to improve overall welfare. Various studies have found that people report being happy when they are “ahead” of someone else. Our position relative to others is the driving force for this “happiness,” if indeed that is what it is.
“I may want a bigger house,” Dutt explains, “but then if everyone has a bigger house, it no longer has value. And so we are right back where we started, still unhappy.” It comes as no surprise, then, that many Americans complain they are on a “work-spend/work more-spend more” treadmill.
We do, in fact, have more today than ever, but lured on by the advertising media, we want even more. The explosion of closet space in new housing is one tiny but telltale sign. I once lived in a house that was built in 1938. Typical of homes of that era, it had two bedrooms and two narrow closets. Compare that with today’s “McMansions,” which commonly feature walk-in closets that rival the size of either bedroom in my 1938 house.
For all that prosperity, we don’t seem that happy_. Boston College economist Juliet Schorr reports that 39 percent of those who earn between $50,000 and $100,000 and 27 percent of those who earn more than $100,000 say they cannot buy everything they need. We may live in the richest society on the planet, but we are also the most materially dissatisfied, she says.
Still, most of us cling to the idea that greater consumption means greater happiness. Eugene Halton, however, argues that the consumption culture enslaves the unwary—which is most of us —by using happiness in “bait-and-switch” tactics. In all of its enticements, consumer culture suggests happiness but really offers pleasure, the Notre Dame sociology professor says. “Yet happiness is something other than pleasure,” he points out. "Basically happiness is social, the way we relate to people, the way we love our family, friends and neighbors.
“Consumer culture offers pseudo-relationships in a pseudo-society,” he asserts. “If you buy this car, you can have a relationship with a beautiful woman like the one in the commercial. If you buy this brand of clothing, people will be impressed with you. We’re ‘brain-rinsed,’ a kinder, gentler form of brainwashing, to believe this.”
One of the effects of the consumer culture, Halton argues, has been a reduction of awareness, of connection to the real world. Once upon a time people socialized by interacting, playing cards, chatting. Now, more than likely, they sit together and silently watch a TV program, ironically, sometimes of people having conversations.
“The end product of all this is what I call ‘Big Zombie,’ the ultimate couch potato, devoid of human emotions, substituting virtual experiences for the real thing,” he says. “Big Zombie lives in his big, fat McMansion, drives his big SUV and sits sedated on the couch pressing buttons to get further reinforcement of that consumption self. That to me is the ultimate diminution of consciousness.”
Last fall, in his core course, “Making the Modern Material World,” Halton had his students play a game that demonstrates just how deeply ingrained consumer culture is in our psyche, especially among young people. He gave each student a stack of colored Post-it notes and then paired them off. The pairs were told to tag any brand they recognized on the other person. An incorrect guess resulted in a Post-it on the forehead. Within a few minutes the 18 students were awash in colored tags, while Halton and I were among the few sporting colored paper on our foreheads. In an impressive display of consumer IQ, the students were able to identify just about everything they saw.
As another consciousness-raising exercise to demonstrate the strength and pervasiveness of consumer culture, Halton asked his class not to shop on the day after Thanksgiving, which traditionally begins the Christmas buying orgy. A number of students described the incredulity and annoyance directed at them by friends and family when they declined to take part in the buying ritual. Consuming has become our identity, and if we don’t do it at the appropriate time, to the appropriate (excessive) degree, something must be wrong.
Competitive spending—keeping up with the Joneses—has long been a hallmark of American society. It is, after all, the turbocharged engine that drives the economy to the promised land of Prosperity. But the difference today, Boston College’s Schorr asserts, is that the Joneses no longer live next door. They live in that mansion on MTV’s Cribs or in the chateau on Joe Millionaire. The luxurious lifestyle as seen on TV is now the standard for rich and poor alike.
The result, some argue, is a bad case of “affluenza,” defined in the book and PBS documentary of the same name by John de Graaf as “an epidemic of stress, overwork, waste and indebtedness caused by a dogged pursuit of the American Dream.” One telling symptom of people living above their means is that the average credit card balance for a U.S. household is $7,500, up from less than $3,000 in 1990. On average, Americans pay more than $1,000 per year in interest and fees. Meanwhile, last year 1.3 million Americans declared bankruptcy.
I understand how easy it is to slide down that slope. Our consumer culture keeps fanning the flames of desire, and the banks do their best to remove the obstacles to satisfying those desires. At least three times a week I receive a letter from yet another bank inviting me to add a VISA, Discover or Mastercard to my already bulging deck. The cards typically have a credit limit between $5,000 and $20,000. If I had accepted all of the past year’s invitations and played those cards to the max, in theory I could be $720,000 in debt right now. For the most part, I have resisted the temptation. Not as much as I wish, but more than 1.3 million of my fellow affluenza-afflicted Americans.
Since newspapers, television, radio and others forms of communication are global, consumer culture is taking root in the most foreign soil. Now everyone in sight of a TV wants the same stuff. Even China, the last bastion of communism, this past January launched Everyone Wins, described in press reports as “a TV quiz show that markets the enthusiasm of greed to the masses.” The program is, perhaps, part of former President Jiang Zemin’s promised strategy to raise China’s 1.3 billion people to a middle-class lifestyle by 2020. Shopping malls are sprouting in Shanghai and elsewhere in the country. And while raising the lot of the average Chinese is a good thing, the untempered embrace of consumer culture is worrisome.
“When we export our materialist consumption-maximizing free market system, we encourage people in other cultures to emulate our worst (ecologically speaking) habits,” asserts ND Professor of Psychology George Howard. His newest book,_ How Should I Live My Life?,_ considers the psychological dimensions of over-consumption and its effect on the environment.
Indeed, imagine the impact of millions of Chinese in their SUVs stuck in a bumper-to-bumper traffic jam on the road from Beijing to Shanghai. The exaggerated scene may not be as far-fetched as it sounds. “Orange County,” a new housing development featuring 5,000-square-foot California-style homes with all the amenities, including SUVs in the driveways, has sprouted this year north of Beijing. Meanwhile, two six-lane highways have been built nearby. “Chinese people like the image of the American lifestyle,” real estate developer Weighdoon Yang, vice president of SinoCEA, has said.
The problem, bluntly put, is that we—6 percent of the world’s population—are using 35 percent of the world’s resources, and everyone else wants to catch up to us. But we live in a world of finite resources, and there is no way the planet will allow that. So what are we going to do about it? Or do we continue to disregard Aldous Huxley’s admonition, “Facts do not cease to be facts even because they are ignored”?
Our response to a challenge is determined by the ideas that shape our beliefs. Unfortunately, when it comes to consumerism, the social sciences have not been helpful in this regard, Howard asserts. To our collective detriment, he says, virtually all the behavioral disciplines have borrowed the idea from economic theory that organisms “maximize utility.” “It’s as if the social sciences are determined to convince human beings that the ‘winners’ in life are those who die with the largest bank accounts, those who have consumed the most pleasurable experiences and those who have the largest number of offspring.”
We believe that the only way to achieve a satisfying life is by “maximizing our individual goods.” However, in our mad rush to buy things, social scientists tell us we’re really trying to get happiness, security and freedom. That’s what the “haves” have and the “have-nots” want. But what if there were another way to get those goods? An environmentally friendlier way that eliminates the stress of overwork?
The Voluntary Simplicity Movement thinks it has the answer. The ideal of this diffuse movement is to scale back, slow down and enjoy life: Get out of debt, live below your means, cut back on work, do the things you really want to do. Some folks are even able to retire early. To live a life of frugal luxury, they say, you need to be clear about what you really need and be happy with what you have. The movement is not about asceticism nor is it about buying only cheap goods, followers say. It’s about doing/having/being more with less.
Scores of books, magazines, websites and study circles now advise people on how to simplify their lifestyles. There’s even The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Simple Living, part of the popular simplified “how to” series, which shows just how mainstream the movement has become.
Boston College economist Schorr says the voluntary simplicity gang tends to be white, middle class, college-educated, with no children at home. Often they’re folks who have partaken heartily at the table of consumerism—perhaps with too much gusto. They’ve often swallowed sizable credit card debt, which has left a bad taste in their mouth and taken away their urge to splurge.
One of the primary benefits of “downshifting,” VSers say, is personal freedom. By cutting back on spending and work, they gain the time and freedom to pursue other satisfying goals. For Dr. Peter J. Dalum ‘68 and his wife, Pat, who downshifted temporarily, it was the freedom to leave the United States for a two-year volunteer stint with the Catholic Medical Mission Board in Malawi, Africa. In preparing for the service commitment, the couple sold their house and two cars and auctioned off most of their personal possessions. "One might consider this to be a radical upheaval in one’s life," Dalum says, “but my wife and I found it to be extremely therapeutic.”
Downshifters insist they don’t deny themselves. They spend their money strategically and opt for the less expensive alternative whenever possible. Vicki Robin is the president of The New Road Map Foundation, an organization dedicated to advancing voluntary simplicity, and the co-author of _Your Money or Your Life, _ the movement’s founding “bible,” which outlines her nine-step program to “live more with less.” Robin says she lives comfortably on $19,000 a year.
Until now the movement has been a largely unorganized, diffuse network of like-minded people. However, if it is to have a transforming effect on society it must enter the political arena and move beyond personal lifestyle issues and shift to emphasizing the environment and social justice, write Notre Dame sociologist Joseph Rumbo and Stephen Zavestoski ’94, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of San Francisco.
It appears, in fact, that the movement is about to take that next step. The Simplicity Forum, an alliance of about 55 leaders, has announced plans for Take Back Your Time Day: October 24, 2003. For the event, modeled after the first Earth Day in 1970, organizers will encourage people to take all or part of the day off work to attend nationwide teach-ins and public events that focus on the epidemic of stress and overwork felt by many Americans and its harmful effects on health, family and community. Organizers see this as the first step in a campaign to transform the dominant culture to a “simplicity friendly” society.
Affluenza author John de Graaf says the Simplicity Forum chose the take-back-your-time theme because it realized that overworked Americans are concerned about the issue, even if they’re not yet into simplicity. “Everyone complains about never having enough time to do what they want. We understand that we just can’t tell people this is about sacrifice. We want to show that there is something to be gained from cutting back and simplifying one’s life.”
As soon as people begin to look at the issue, the link with wasteful consumption becomes apparent, he says. “We consume more throwaways and convenience food items for the simple reason we are in a hurry.”
But with an economy on the skids and many Americans fearful of losing their jobs, is this the right message at the wrong time? “We want to persuade people that this is precisely the time when this sort of thing is most important,” de Graaf says. Economically, he notes, “it would be better for more people to work less, sharing jobs, than for a few to work large amounts of overtime.” De Graaf points out that in 1933, at the height of the Depression, the U.S. Senate passed a bill limiting the U.S. work week to 30 hours, for precisely this reason. While the bill never became law because the Roosevelt administration withdrew its support, he says, the fact that the Senate passed the bill recognizes the validity of the approach.
Government can do a great deal to make society more simplicity friendly, de Graaf argues. “For instance, why not reward businesses through tax incentives, so instead of laying off people and making their remaining workforce work overtime, they have their employees share the work?”
The Simplicity Movement leader cites this as an example of the type of issue that should be explored in a bipartisan way. “Our society has made producing and consuming the ultimate values in life at the expense of other values that ought to be given consideration,” de Graaf says. “Our life is out of balance. The national dialogue needs to begin.”
John Monczunski is an associate editor of this magazine.