As John Bardos, JetSetCitizen.com, stated in his post from Christmas Day titled, "A Not So Merry Christmas," if you are reading this your life is pretty damn good and you're among the 10% wealthiest people on the planet. John and his wife are hanging out in Thailand for a while, so he is seeing a world very different from back in the good ol' US of A and Canada. While I can't make any broad generalizations about Canada, though I do know some Canadians, I can say that the US of A is the land of conspicuous consumption and I don't think Canada is too far behind us.
Yes! There certainly is a significant percentage of the U.S. citizenry who live in poverty. But, even those, except the most impoverished in the U.S., live better than many of those who might be considered middle-class in most of the rest of the world. The U.S. is an economy that has thrived on consumption. As a nation based on a capitalistic economic system, there must be a robust consumption of goods and services for the economy to not only thrive. But, to survive, just as in most things in life, there is a propensity to over consume.
There has always been a small percentage of the population who are wealthy and considered the "Haves." The average or common man has typically had "enough." The "Have Nots" fall into two groups, as I see it. The first group consists of those on the lowest end of the economic scale or those we might label as being in poverty. The second group consists of those of modest financial means who want a lot more, but can't truly afford it, so consider themselves as "Have Nots" even though they may be living comfortably by the standards of the time.
Post Great Depression and World War II
What seems to have happened post World War II and post Great Depression is that the "middle class" as we have come to identify the majority of the U.S. population have determined that they want more and more and will have more and more no matter what it costs. With credit requirements becoming easier and easier and less restrictive, it became easier for people to buy homes, cars, furnishings, appliances, take vacations and just about anything else people decided they wanted and wanted now . . . instant gratification, if you will. The credit card was developed to make it even easier to consume more stuff. People financed Christmas, buying more than they could afford to spend at the holiday and paying for it the rest of the year. The same thing happened with taking vacations that could be financed.
Essentially, because of this new mentality of buy (have) now and pay later, we ultimately have become a society of conspicuous consumption. I witnessed this in my own family when I was growing up in the 50's and 60's. Every few years we had a new home, larger and with more amenities than the last. We became a three car family by the time I was 17 years old. A large screen color TV replaced the slightly smaller screen color TV that replaced the smaller black and white TV that replaced at least two earlier generations of small screen black and white TV's. New clothes, nice middle class vacations, newer furnishings in the home. And, all it required was that my father, a white collar worker in a pretty upscale engineering position in a well-established Fortune 500 corporation, who had a second job teaching night school, kept up with the payments for all the "Stuff." I didn't fully understand all the implications of our lifestyle or the debt required to maintain that lifestyle. I was young, pretty well shielded from it and enjoyed it. The cost didn't fully register with me.
Well, the cost didn't register with me until A. my father committed suicide at the beginning of my last semester of college, B. my mother, who my father never allowed to work, saw her lifestyle slide backward virtually immediately and C. I graduated from college and had my first few job offers and exclaimed, "Holy S--t, who can live on this?" So, I went to graduate school it earn a masters degree at one of the more prestigious (and accordingly, expensive) private universities in the east. I was fortunate enough to receive a graduate assistantship that paid for most of my tuition and gave me a small stipend to live on. And, if it weren't for my entrepreneurial spirit and my small, freelance recording business, I would likely have starved and not completed graduate school.
But, then I picked up a part-time position at a local community college as a "technical consultant." My hourly wage at age 23 was equivalent, or possibly a little more, than my father had been earning at the time of his death at 42 years old and the assistant to the vice-president of the Aerospace division of the Fortune 500 corporation (and in line for the vice-presidency one day, had he lived). That was the beginning of my climb to conspicuous and over consumption. The rest is history and I've described much of it in other parts of this blog.
It's Not Bad to Want
Here's the bottom line. It's not bad to want stuff. It's not bad to have stuff. What's bad is wanting stuff and falling into the trap of "instant gratification." In other words, before there were mortgages and especially ridiculously easy to obtain mortgages, people saved up to buy a home. The same was true for "a" car - yes, one car in a family, not a driveway full of them. We wore Ked and P.F. Flyer sneakers not Nike Air Jordan's with prices ranging from $150 to $500. We didn't turn our asses into billboards for the likes of Calvin Klein and other designer jeans with prices exceeding $100 a pair. We wore blue jeans or dungarees. We shopped at Robert Hall Clothes, Kinney Shoes and Thom McAn Shoes. These long standing retailers and their brands are mainly memories now.
Our world is so much different today. In 1950 the average new home was about 985 sq. ft and, depending on location, location, location could be purchased for about $5,000.00. In 2010, despite the economic crash, the average new home was about 2,500 sq. ft with price tags, again, depending on location, beginning around $250,000.00 and up (mostly up). A new Ford Mustang V8 fastback cost me $2,600.00 in 1967. Today, a comparable Mustang would be $26,000.00 and up.
Sure, salaries have increased, but so has every other aspect of our cost of living. But, the big difference is that there is so much more to consume. That has driven manufacturers (mostly not in the U.S., most likely) to offer hundreds of options to choose from such as iPhones and smart phones, computers of all shapes and sizes, iPads and Tablets, iPods and mp3 players, sporting equipment, expensive bicycles, tricked out wrist watches, clothes, clothes and even more clothes and over 45,000 separate items on supermarket shelves (up from about 7,800 in 1970).
The point is not that consuming or having things is bad, after all, that's what drives the economy of this country and much of the world because of our consumption. What's bad is over-consuming, the debt that is all too often increasing to have the stuff NOW - and here's one most of us actually say we think about, but I'll wager we don't . . . the garbage, trash and waste that is growing at astronomical rates.
No Answers For You Or The World
I don't have an answer for the U.S. or any other part of the world. I only have an answer for myself and that is to consume far less and only what I need and will use. There is nothing wrong with having some of the "wants" we each have, but most of the things we want we only think we want because of peer pressure, status or always wanting to be one step ahead of your friends/family. The reality is that we can all live without a lot of what we "consume." As the population continues to increase, if we continue to consume at the present rate, bankruptcies will escalate exponentially. That will hurt the economy causing prices to increase even more. We will continue to create more waste, trash and garbage that will endanger the environment, potentially, even more than carbon fuel emissions, which will also continue to increase. I'm not a scientist, economist, statistician, sociologist, etc. I'm just a simple pragmatist who has realized that I've done my share of damage to our world and I'm looking at what I see as reality. Ultimately, this will be unsustainable at some point in time and I don't think that point in time is all that far in the future. There is a realistic balance that must be found and we each have to do a little to make it work.
Perhaps, between the U.S. government teetering on the fiscal cliff and needing to raise it's debt limit to keep paying its obligations or go into default - along with many of the states and local governments - it's time to make 2013 a year to evaluate and reprioritize our lives and lifestyles. Most people won't. They will just continue down the road to perdition. But, I can guarantee there will be no personal freedom in more joblessness, ever increasing prices with incomes that are falling behind, less government services and increases in taxes and an uncontrollable garbage problem as our future.
"The Age of Plastic"
One day, if our species survives several hundred more years, archeologists and anthropologists will uncover "The Age of Plastic," a layer of the Earth that will include vinyl records, cassettes, 8 track cartridges, CD's, DVD's VHS and Betamax video cassettes, Tupperware, plastic soft drink and water bottles, cars, toys, tools, furniture and other furnishings, garbage cans and every other kind of imaginable use of plastic, because this stuff is not biodegradable and will not breakdown. This will be our legacy to the future of human kind, if there is a future.
I am a HAVE. I have chosen to downsize, simplify, economize and take control of my own life and not be influenced by endless TV & radio commercials, infomercials, incessant shopping network snake oil sales people, print advertising, direct mail, Internet banner ads and spam emails. I have determined what I NEED to live happily, comfortably, debt free and within my means. I allow for some wants, but I ascertain that the investment in those wants is something that I'll truly gain personal pleasure and satisfaction from. I'll live without the myriad other things that are running through my head as I compose this sentence that I want, but truly know I can easily live without. I am not in the 1% or so considered financially wealthy. I am also not in the group considered to be seriously impoverished. Some might, by their measurement and standards, consider me to be in poverty. I don't. I HAVE what I NEED and I'm happy, debt free - and most of all living free.
You don't have to live like me or make the same choices I've made. Our lives are exclusive of one another. I've made my choices and continue to modify my lifestyle to that which works for me. My only suggestion is that, if you want to enjoy living free, you evaluate your own life, lifestyle, needs and wants and make the choices you feel will provide this for you.