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Selling Me Things

“Don’t people see that we have gradually

become a nation of debt slaves?”

 

Julie:

 

Look, if we continue to passively accept our place in society as consumers — being valued primarily based on our financial wealth — and we go to extreme measures to display success to others through conspicuous consumption, how does that impact our freedom? Don’t people see that we have gradually become a nation of debt slaves?

 

This allure of consumerism — a profoundly shallow philosophy — rooted in some modern myth of personal fulfillment at the cash register, has brought a fierce and determined mass loyalty to high consumption, no-limits lifestyles. Physically, we may be free; but psychologically, we enslave ourselves to the shallow and unexamined opinions of our neighbors about our value in society — primarily as consumers. I truly wonder how many of today’s ‘consumers’ are aware of how they fell into that pitiful role?

 

In 1955, marketing guru Victor LeBow proposed a solution to excess post-war industrial production that would determine how we live our lives today: consumption as a way of life! The goal was to exalt the buying and use of goods into semi-sacred rituals and to seek spiritual and ego satisfaction in consumption. The result: limitless greed-based accumulation replaced limited need-based consumption. Fast-forward to today where material wealth and consumption have become the generic cultural source of value and identity for most people in industrialized countries, and Western consumer culture has spread virally to next-in-line industrializing high-population countries such as China, India, and Brazil. And In the aftermath of the collapse of communism in 1989, the trend toward anti-regulatory and free-market orthodoxy in economics and public policy accelerated. The genie of unfettered, guilt-free mass consumption was out of the bottle. Live to shop! Whadaya say, Rico?

Rico (responding with a song):

Selling me things, that I don’t need
Preaching me things, ‘bout the goodness of greed

Pushing me hard, for more, more, more
Scaring me ‘bout my, credit score

Society, you’re killin’ me

No way of living, no way to be

Society, you’re spinnin’ me

Ya tell me I’m winning, ya tell me I’m free

 

Twisting me ‘round ‘bout them sinful seven
Making me feel like they’s the, pathway to heaven
Sloth-pride-lust-anger, greed-envy-gluttony
They ain’t so bad, that’s what you’re telling me


Society, you’re killin’ me
No way of living, no way to be
Society, you’re spinnin’ me
Ya tell me I’m winning, ya tell me I’m free

 

Julie:

No way of living, indeed. Maybe it’s high time to break out of our compliant little consumer cocoons and begin to act more like artist-activists, challenging ourselves as engaged citizens to produce original ideas that have genuine life-serving value, rather than being duped into trying to shop our way to some elusive end state of perfect happiness and fulfillment.

Jack:

 

Unfortunately, what makes our consumption habits so difficult to change is the inconvenient scientific fact that wanting has a much more pleasurable psychological response than having. So we always crave more. That feel-good dopamine spike in the brain peaks with the anticipation of a reward, not with acquiring the reward itself. We have been evolutionarily burdened with flow-motivated brains always wanting more in a stock-limited world of fixed resources. There is also the bedeviling social fact that relative wealth is a stronger economic driver than absolute wealth, and this leads to idle displays of conspicuous consumption. So even though there is substantial scientific evidence of the rapidly diminishing returns to happiness with excess levels of consumption and wealth, people still feel the need to ‘keep up with Joneses’ and willingly become debt slaves — no matter that middle-class lifestyles today enable people to live with far more comfort, convenience, and security than monarchs just a few generations ago. And convincing people to reduce their incessant consumption habits is like trying to get them to quit smoking or eat healthier foods: they know that they should do it, but there's a very powerful and persuasive billion dollar advertising industry callously keeping them hopelessly addicted.

 

Tucker:

 

Look, we just need to find a new source of cheap energy to keep our economy growing. We have to have growth, because that is the way our financial systems are designed — debt must be paid back — with interest! Our current economic system has no easy route to a non-growth, steady-state economy. Its natural dynamics push it toward one of two states: continuous growth or collapse. There is no middle ground. Lowering taxes would put more money in people’s pockets, which would help boost consumption. Growing the middle classes in developing countries is the key to prosperity for all.

 

Jack:

 

Impossible. We have already overshot the carrying capacity of the planet with existing levels of consumption. That discredited global wealth-production strategy would only further enrich a few well-connected business folks like you, folks with mobile capital available for investment; but it would be a disaster for the environment and for future generations. To pursue relentless growth means blowing past several environmental planetary boundaries that define a safe ecological operating space for humanity and endangering the global ecosystem on which we — and all other species — depend for long-term survival. No, what we need is a large and steadily rising carbon tax, a consumption tax, and — dare I say — a tax on babies, not a tax-break for them! These would all send strong market-friendly ‘price signals’ to modify behaviors for the common good. Income taxes could be reduced or eliminated to compensate for these new taxes on environmental impact.

 

We should tax what we burn, not what we earn. Tax social ‘bads,’ not social ‘goods.’ Flying on an airplane, for example, should be vastly more expensive, as it the most resource-intensive way to spend your time, other than being launched into space, perhaps. Routinely traveling very long distances around the globe should not be nearly as cheap and easy as it has become for so many of us, frankly.

Is not wealth, after all, simply the ability to create and sustain things of value, such as human beings, trees, hospitals, universities, and other ‘far-from-equilibrium’ systems that would rapidly degrade without continuous energy and material inputs? Where are these continuous input flows going to come from in an ever more resource-constrained world? Can we adequately maintain the material wealth that we currently have if we are still racing to grow even ‘wealthier,’ with even more stuff to maintain with each passing year?

 

Jan:

 

Jack, what you propose would require more government taxes and regulations. That is not the solution. We don’t need to become a sissy European high-tax nanny state. We need hard-working people who don’t expect handouts from their government. We don’t want to encourage idleness in America.

 

Clara:

 

Jan’s right. Whatever happened to the good old Protestant Work Ethic? We need to reduce taxes and regulations and get the government out of the way to free up the innovation that we need to solve our problems and get people working hard again. There is nothing else to change. Progress must go on.

Lua:

I think you all should hear a story that we like to tell on our island...

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​© 2020 Rich 'Rico' Leon