recently published in the NYTimes to be a highly interesting -- but annoying -- article.
This young guy who became rich
thanks to selling off a start-up company describes how he got sucked into
consumerism overdrive as he found himself driven to hire a personal shopper to help him furnish the dual-coast homes he was enjoying in high-rent Seattle and New York's trendy SoHo neighborhood.
But then, the rich guy reaches an epiphany after falling in love with a beautiful woman -- and traveling with her on an extended adventure. All made possible by his richness. He lost the girl, but gained a new attitude about "stuff." He had too much of it. So now he's living large by living small in a tiny-but-very-nicely-equipped apartment and traveling a lot.
Yet now, the man who became rich based on a technology market that exists only because of the creative energy of the competitive consumer
universe now bemoans "stuff" while touting his now-reduced carbon footprint. An exerpt from his viewpoint:
"We live in a world of surfeit stuff, of big-box stores and 24-hour online shopping opportunities.
Members of every socioeconomic bracket can and do deluge themselves with products. There isn’t any indication that any of these things makes anyone any happier; in fact it seems the reverse may be true.
For me, it took 15 years, a great love and a lot of travel to get rid of all the inessential things I had collected and live a bigger, better, richer life with less."
So. According to him, having more stuff makes people less happy. Wow, all those poor people scraping by in the warrens of India, the megacities of China and the slums of big city USA have really fooled us clueless middle classers. They already know how liberating it can be to live with six shirts, no CDs or DVDs, and a dozen shallow bowls instead of normal dinnerware! Hell, six shirts might even be seen as excessive.
The post-consumer sanctimony laced throughout the rich guy's tale of self-discovery really annoys me. First, it oh-so-fits an attitude commonly found among the urbanistas: big suburban houses are bad, tiny quirky city spaces are good. It's not at all shocking to see this sort of view touted in the NYTimes. Can't really bite the big city that feeds you, right? What would be shocking would be for someone to stand up for the suburbs.
While this rich guy enlightens us by saying "I had it, but you don't need it," he condemns the very consumeristic lifestyle that created him -- and insults our intelligence. Is there any argument that over-the-top spending (especially if you go into debt to do it) is an ugly thing? I say it's about time this guy grew up and got a clue.
But he's wrong about 'stuff.' The buying or making of things, and then buying or making better things is a crucial aspect of human survival and quite far from being "the reverse of happiness." Human beings have always worked to make their worlds better for them. Crude furs replaced by more sophisticated clothing. Caves and huts replaced by homes of wood and stone (and then augmented further by steel, aluminum, plastic and glass). Foot travel replaced by horses replaced by cars and planes. Indoor plumbing. Electricity. Refridgeration. Chemistry. Space travel that placed the satellites that established the global communications and data transfer network that makes the rich guy's new business creations possible. On and on and on.
Sorry, enlightened rich guy, but it is not a sin to buy a house big enough to support your family according to the lifestyle you prefer. Too many urbanistas seem mystified that huge numbers of people who live in the suburbs actually like their lives. They like having a car that allows them to go where they want when they want. They like having yards and gardens to tend. They like having space for big TVs, man-caves, craft rooms, playrooms, work-out spaces or whatever else a person might like. Yes those homes have to be maintained. And yes, that can be a burden. But it is one that's freely chosen.
Want more proof that cars and houses don't suck? Go to the places where lots of people who haven't had any money are starting to get some -- places like India, China and Brazil. When people acquire the means, the vast majority choose to spend that money on bigger homes, nicer things, cars and entertainment.
As the rich guy careens from one extreme to the other in his quest to find balance in his life, I suggest a happy medium already exists. It may be hard to find in the big city, but can be found in great abundance out here in fly-over country. It's called a suburb.
Yes, while the urbanistas pay thousands of dollars a month to live in walk-in closets, the combination of low-cost land and moderate-cost construction methods allow millions of Americans with middle class incomes to live in clean, safe, comfortable spaces within reasonable access to their places of work, school, shopping and entertainment.
Suburbs exist because people trapped in crowded cities were eager to get out as soon as they had the means to do so. It was called elbow room, the good life, achieving the American dream.
Write this down. Declining home ownership is an ominous sign of bad times to come.
The only real reason suburbs are weakening in America is that America itself is getting weaker relative to the rest of the world. While increasing numbers of people in other nations are entering middle class life, growing numbers of Americans are getting kicked out.
How will these out-of-luck folks respond? They will move back to the city, where it's much easier to be poor.
Think they'll be happier for having less stuff? Ask your grandparents -- or maybe your great
grandparents -- how wonderful and liberating life in the tenements was for them. I bet they can't wait to drop their rakes and vacuum cleaners to get back to toting groceries up several flights of stairs and bedding down with 4, 6, maybe even 8 of of their closest relatives. Cozy! Small carbon footprint!
Yeah, back in those good old days, people certainly had less stuff. Not so sure they touted it as a superior "lifestyle choice."