Ebenezer Scrooge says ‘humbug’ to simpler times
By Erik Richardson
[If things seem grim as we begin to hear the bells tolling all around us with the early start of the high holy retail season, we need merely look to the voice of reason, Ebenezer Scrooge, to guide our way to the clear, snowy light of Giftsmas morning. Recently, we at Outpost Exchange talked with Mr. Scrooge to find out his thoughts about the messages of two spirits, so to speak.]1
As grim as the recession may be, it is not just the ghost of Giftsmas present, but the ghost of Giftsmas future that holds before us the darkest days: the death of the bright, shiny consumerist era.
With the recession, people in the streets are talking a lot about how they are returning to a simpler life, less focused on material goods.
OE: So tell us, Mr. Scrooge, is there really any cause for hope that we will come through this period with our planned-obsolescence lifestyles intact?
ES: I beseech you, my fellow Americans, do not rush to trade in your Escalades for compacts, nor give up your Wall Street dreams of a big, juicy, roasted bonus trimmed with taxpayers’ money.
OE: But as the “Black Friday” sales have begun to launch a month ahead of their traditional day after Thanksgiving, even former Fed chairman Alan Greenspan has revealed that 40 years of economic theory – based on the idea that the market is best directed by personal interest – was flawed.
ES: Bah, humbug! Greensleeves just needs a couple of weeks in the Bahamas and he’ll be fine.
OE: Well, he is hardly alone. Surely at some point we have to allow that if enough people want a simpler, more earth-friendly, post-consumer society, the market should be able to provide that product as it has others.
ES: Oh, don’t talk to me about vague idealism; that’s the kind of imaginative fiction that slows down the great clockwork capitalist machine in the first place, whether it’s 19th century England or 21st century America.
OE: Fair enough. We but we’re not just talking theoretically; we have brought along some examples of a changing level of demand for a post-consumer society. Let’s look at each of these in turn, and see what you think.
Our First Spirit: Kristen Ottesen,
Historic Preservation Consultant
OE: We talked with Kristen, whose husband runs a related small business specializing in architectural renovation and restoration. She is a good example of the recession accenting a trend that was already in place; in this case a family that launched its own business.
We now get movies and cds from the library, kids clothes from consignment shops and garage sales. I don’t buy anything for myself unless it is on sale. I’m sure this will continue even as our incomes grow.
As for others around us, I’d say that even though a lot of people talk about making similar changes in their lifestyles, the majority of them just keep on with “business as usual.” Plenty of people around here are still driving SUVs. On the other hand, I hear the restaurants are suffering because people aren’t eating out as much.
OE: It sounds to me, Mr. Scrooge, like there is a shift from meaningless “things” to more meaningful shared experiences with people.
ES: Buying less and checking books out from the library? Well, that kind of talk sounds crazy. In fact, even though there has been a lot more talk about a simpler lifestyle and growing your own food and so on, the primary effect of all that talk is really counterproductive as it undermines the economy further and deepens the recession.
OE: What a surprising view. It seems like maybe if we didn’t constantly bombard people to make them think they “need” the newest car or the biggest house, then there would still be plenty of things to go around, and we might have time to find happiness in the things we have already.
ES: That’s falderall. If our years of experience have told us anything it’s that people don’t care about happiness. People care about excitement! Junk like happiness and a sense of peace are boring, boring, boring. Did you ever think about why nobody sits around reading a book or watching a movie about people who are happy and contented? I can tell you! It’s because it would be boring.
OE: There seems to be a theme to your thinking. Perhaps we can come back to it later. Let’s turn to our second case.
Our Second Spirit: Tom Waechter, Assistant Director for Planning with the Ofﬁce of Design and Construction Management at a major university:
TW: I think one good thing that will come out of the current threat of economic collapse is that it is providing the required crisis to push “green” concerns up the ladder a rung or two.
Part of what we are learning from the current recession is how inaccurate our view of the economy was for a long time — in terms of how it works, the role of high consumer spending, and the detrimental function of various financial markets and institutions. There is a fundamental reordering of an economy that relied on consumerism for 70% of its resources and only saved one or two percent for a decade or more.
Of course the situation is complicated by the common perception —fed by the media coverage, though with some economics underpinning it — that cutting back too much on our spending prolongs the recession by decreasing sales, therefore jobs, therefore even more spending, therefore even more jobs, etc. In response to this, I would have to say: Don’t believe the hype. Not all spending is equal in terms of how it helps the economy, and the current meltdown has shown us a little more clearly how many “hidden” costs have been hidden from us.
Currently our life of illusory convenience comes with a cost as well, both for your personal income, for the economy as a whole … and it lacks a certain integrity. We have to realize that the difference is not between costs and no costs, but between costs we can see (and understand) and costs we can’t see. Trading off for more costs we can see is particularly important in its effect on our ability to make decisions that are in line with our real preferences and values.
The gardening example is a strong core case — everyone needs to understand what really goes into producing a product, and food happens to be the best mechanism for this lesson. That may mean less time flipping through cable channels, or playing Wii. But it certainly won’t eliminate entertainment, and may substitute an understanding of how things work that will provide small margins of purchasing power.
OE: How about that, Ebenezer? It sounds like the people you accused of being Soviet-style communists are turning the tables by pointing out that it is exactly the kind of over-centralized economy reminiscent of the Soviets that they are working against — the very economy that caused the empire to implode.
ES: Humbug! The reason that system didn’t work is that not enough people were given access to opportunities to indulge their natural desire for a constant stream of shiny, new toys, fancier and fancier houses, and the right to earn a quarter-million dollar bonus at the end of the year. Life in the Soviet Union was mostly boring.
OE: But your theory doesn’t really explain why, in the successful American capitalist society that has provided more of those opportunities to more people, you can have the rise of movements to support co-op community gardens and books like Get Satisfied: How Twenty People Like You Found the Satisfaction of Enough.
ES: That’s easy enough to explain. They’re just “sour grapes” types, like the fox in the fable — because they lack financial opportunities, they’re trying to convince themselves and others that having money is not the way to happiness. Why, if there’s any lesson you should have learned from Dickens’ novel about me, it’s that saving money and doing without is the source of all unhappiness. I wasn’t happy until I started throwing my money around, Bob Cratchit wasn’t happy until he got a fancy meal and a big, fat raise. That’s universal truth: true happiness comes from spending money. To people like your architect and your restoration consultant, I say: If you are not willing to funnel your tax money to shore up the businesses of overpaid, over-manipulative financiers and genetically-altered-food-producing agribusiness conglomerates, then you don’t deserve a big, beautiful SUV or a house with three times as many rooms as there are people living in it; and if you aren’t willing to live inside a credit-driven Ponzi scheme, then I can think of no more fitting fate than for you to have to go dig in the garden and cook your own food while hanging around and chatting with a bunch of other happy, contented people. Sounds perfectly boring to me.
1 There would have been three “spirits,” but the group was recently downsized due to the recession.