Affluenza, by De Graaf, Wann, and Naylor

For awhile in the late 90s and early 00s the term affluenza was fashionable, used to describe the rapidly spreading devotion to conspicuous consumption. It was the name of a 1996 PBS documentary, which was later turned into the book Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic by the series producer John De Graaf, in collaboration with David Wann and Thomas Naylor. It wasn’t nearly the book I hoped it would be, but I found it useful in a number of ways, and someone less steeped in this topic than I am would probably learn quite a bit from reading it.

The book never really breaks free from its origins as a TV documentary, which is a big weakness but also adds some small strengths. Like most documentaries, it is shallow, episodic, and peppered with anecdotes which are entertaining but don’t really advance the argument or deepen the reader’s understanding of a point. The first and longest part of the book is a parade of anecdotes and factoids, easy and engaging reading that is designed to elicit a “Gee, really?” response. A bit more thoughtfulness and a lot more background information would have produced something very edifying. Still, it does make for an absorbing survey of a broad landscape which the average reader, while inhabiting it, has probably not spent much time pondering. As such, it makes for a good first encounter with the topic.

To give you a feel for the ground covered, here are brief summaries of the first fourteen chapters of the book, each about eight pages long:

  • The centrality of shopping in the average person’s life
  • Extreme amounts of personal debt
  • Upwardly spiraling desire for material goods
  • The massive accumulation of personal property
  • The stress of earning enough money to acquire these goods
  • The effects of overspending on family life
  • How children are trained to be consumers
  • How the consumer economy destroys community
  • How materialistic lives become empty lives
  • The growing disparity between rich and poor
  • The strain that spiraling consumption puts on limited natural resources
  • The damage that consumer-centered industry does to the world
  • How shopping becomes an addiction
  • How business depends on a perpetually dissatisfied consumer

If any of those ideas never occurred to you, the corresponding chapter has plenty of material to get you started thinking about it.

The middle section surprised me, being six chapters (forty pages) of history describing how the American went from its fairly simple, self-sufficient beginnings to an end that is in total thrall to conspicuous consumption. Not heavy reading at all, yet accurate and comprehensive, an excellent short course in the several wrong turns we’ve taken over the past three hundred years.

The final section, nine chapters in seventy pages, consist of the writers’ ideas as to how the situation can be improved, and as such is pretty worthless. I say that with some confidence because the book is now ten years old, and each of the rays of hope that it draws attention to (voluntary simplicity, downshifting, cohousing, and more) are ideas which may have seemed fresh at the time but have not gone anywhere in the ten years since. This does not make the chapters themselves worthless, though. Each movement, though it never took off, embodied a possible response to some aspect of the problem, and by looking for the good in them, and also by thinking about why they failed to take off, much can be learned about that aspect.

Although in the end it’s not important, I have to point out that the execution of this book suffers greatly from making “affluenza” the glue that holds the parts together. Much is made of the disease-like nature of conspicuous consumption—how it is transmitted, the various symptoms and stages, the cure—but unfortunately the phenomenon is not disease-like at all, e.g. it isn’t contagious and doesn’t behave like an epidemic. A more accurate metaphor would be public delusion, e.g. the emperor’s new clothes; escape lies more in breaking free from a spell than in recovering from an illness.

I also need to note that there is another book called Affluenza, written in 2005 by an Australian named Clive Hamilton and focusing specifically on Australian culture. I skimmed it and did not find anything that isn’t more engagingly presented by the book reviewed here.

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Another anecdote from Black Swan

One more story from Mish’s prolific, observant, and plugged-in commenter Black Swan, found in comments on this post:

Yesterday morning, I was invited over to a friend’s house for Turkish coffee, something I had never tried before. My friend and her family own a shipping company, and they went through an expansion period in 2006. She and her family had been offered acreage in a new industrial park in a small Virginia town near Norfolk, for a couple thousand dollars an acre. They built a 100,000 sq. ft. office and warehouse complex. It cost them $2 million to build, and it has been sitting empty since it was completed. They also went on a residential real estate buying binge that same year. As you might guess, their timing was a disaster. She is very scared. 

They also own a big shipping complex at the Wilmington port, and that one, at least, is paid for. Their main headquarters is in NJ. She is getting freaked out about the deteriorating BDI figures. She desperately wants her shipping business to turn around, but she is seeing no evidence that it will. Meanwhile, she and her family, who put 20% down on all the residential properties they bought, are very much underwater in their mortgages. I gave her my vision of the future, and she has gone from fear to panic. Hey, she asked.  [Emphasis added]

Aside from the additional data point about what it is really like out there for mid-level business owners, I was struck by the fact that they paid 20% down on their properties—the old definition of prudent when applied to an individual,  yet in the case of a business probably a mistake because 20% will be lost upon default, rather than 10% or 5% or 0%. And, as a business, nobody will sympathize much about their losing that 20%, but neither will anyone spend much time scolding them about their moral failings in not somehow paying the other 80%. It’s just a business deal that went sour.

Black Swan is also right about the Turkish coffee.

The Turkish coffee she made me, for those who are as uninitiated as I was, was brewed on the stove from a mixture of coffee (ground to powder) and cardamom, in an 8 oz pot with a handle, called an Ibrik or a Cezve. It was boiled and reboiled. to the point of boiling over, four times, and then served in little dimitsse cups. It was extremely thick, but did not taste as bold as espresso.

It is very good, but more trouble than I am willing to take to make for myself. I’ve been fortunate to occasionally have some made for me. One thing Black Swan doesn’t mention is the sugar—I think it is always served sweetened, with the sugar brewed along with the coffee and cardamom, and the Turks generally like their sweets sweet.

In Cheap We Trust, by Lauren Webber

Recently I concluded that I have been looking at simplicity from an overly narrow and specific perspective. At some point I will write about why I concluded that, but one result was that I compiled a list of books that take a broader view of the subject and began working my way through them. I’ve finished seven of them so far (and discarded a couple after briefly skimming through them), and in the latest one I found the beginning of a thread that I think can tie together the others.

The latest book is called In Cheap We Trust: The Story of a Misunderstood American Virtue, and it was written by Lauren Webber. I picked it up because, based on a couple of summaries, I assumed that it portrayed cheapness in a positive light, and I wanted to contrast it with another excellent book I had just read, Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture by Ellen Ruppel Shell, which is not complimentary at all about that quality.

What I found, though, was that the two books are using the word cheap in different ways. Shell talks about cheap goods or services, those in which quality has been sacrificed for the sake of lowering the price. However, Webber talks about cheap people, those who take pains to minimize their expenditures, people we might also call thrifty or frugal or miserly, depending on how much we approve or disapprove of their behavior.

In fact, Weber mentions in the introduction that a friend had originally suggested she title the book Thrift: The Story of a Dying Virtue. She says she discarded the idea when she discovered in the course of her research that thrift was not dying at all, but had waxed and waned as a public issue over the course of American history. I think, though, that the title didn’t accurately describe the book she set out to write—but, in the end, probably should have written. For this book strikes me as being made up as two partially realized books, one of which is mildly engaging but confused and superficial, the other very valuable but in uncomfortable tension with the first.

Weber says in the introduction that she was inspired to write the book because of her cheapskate father, who trained her well in his ways. She knew that non-cheapskate view such behavior as at best eccentric and at worst obsessive, and she had qualms about it herself, but she felt that there was much of value in approaching life as a cheapskate and wanted to understand better why she felt that way. This is the thread that ties together the lesser book, which occupies the introduction, final three chapters, and conclusion, ninety pages out of 270. There is a chapter about how cheapskates do well by having a small impact on the ecology, one which looks at how different sorts of fringe groups, e.g. freegans, take cheapness to different ideological extremes, and one which examines the thinking that seems to motivate born cheapskates.

I thought this part of the book was actually damaging to the overall message, or at least the message I wanted to hear more about, namely the virtue of thrift. There is way too much about those who are obsessed with thrift to the extreme, and not nearly enough about how thrift fits into a balanced life. For example, the long section on freegans makes some interesting points about how much of a traditional consumer’s expenditures goes to waste (Winner says that even though she was already a cheapskate, she reduced her expenditures another 40% using skills she learned from them), she makes no effort to derive anything from their thinking which might be useful to someone who wants to live a traditional life. People devoted to saving money by living in old schoolbuses or abandoned basements can’t speak simply by their example to those of us open to making incremental changes but not radical ones. And the chapter on cheapskate psychology further portrays cheapness as a character quirk, albeit one that is sometimes endearing and often yields positive consequences.

But then there is the other part of the book, which probably should have the title Thrift: The Story of an Enduring Virtue, and it is very good while it lasts, being a history of thrift in America. Or, more accurately, a history of thrift movements, namely episodes when various parties for different reasons attempted to transform this homely and largely personal virtue into something large and visionary. Usually there was both a practical and a moralistic reason for doing this. Practically, the country (or those who appointed themselves as its guardians) periodically needed citizens to save money—to pay for a war, or to create capital for investment. Moralistically, those who made their living as a scold would seize on this practical need and use it as a platform to berate citizens for becoming dissolute and self-indulgent, exhorting them to raise themselves out of the muck via an industriousness and self-denial that would generate the savings required. Webber spends more than two hundred pages examining these recurring movements, and while thorough none of it is tedious or repetitive.

Unfortunately, the history comes with little in the way of reflection on its meaning. For example, thrift is a largely positive virtue, and one that was prevalent in the early days of this country, at least among the 90% of it outside the cities. Why would a virtue already widely practiced become the basis of a movement which exhorted people to practice it? Why did each of the many thrift-based movements end up petering out, requiring another one later on? And why did the actual practice of thrift, so widespread in the early days, end up disappearing almost completely?

I think these questions go unexamined because they are the subject of a book that Webber did not set out to write, one that does not see thrift as a virtue in itself but instead the outworking of some more basic virtues, including: contentment; a strong sense of “enough;” taking pleasure in meeting one’s own needs directly; a devotion to craft; balance; leisure; and probably others. Webber is unable to make a clear connection between, say, her father’s outrage over waste (e.g. fussing when the refrigerator door stand open longer than needed) and his ability to find extreme pleasure in a crisp apple or a leisurely walk alongside a river. But I think the connection is there, and she provides much valuable raw material for the reader to use in making it.

In Cheap We Trust is not the book it could have been, but it is still valuable for the ground it covers. I learned quite a few new things from it, and gained a fuller understanding of some things I already knew or half-knew. It did not teach me much about simplicity, but it pointed out many puzzling things that I need to account for as I go about fleshing out and articulating my own understanding of simplicity.

The problem is not how we pay but what we are paying

This graph (click here for a larger version), taken from the National Geographic, shows how various countries rank in terms of dollars spent on health care per person, average number of doctor visits per year, and average life expectancy. At first I didn’t understand it; I thought that the maybe the original graph excluded the United States and that it had been ineptly pencilled in. Then I saw the problem—our expenditures are nearly twice that of the country in second place (Switzerland), and more than three times the average. Yet our life expectancy is in the middle of the pack, and number of doctor visits at the bottom.

Again I make my tired old point: as long as health care costs are spiraling out of control, it doesn’t really matter what mechanism we use to pay them.

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Dentists in pain?

More intriguing anecdotes from Mish’s commenters; ‘tis the season, I guess. Lori in NC writes:

A friend of mine went to visit her doctor in Charlotte, the only person working was the dentist … from to start to finish, he did it all. He’d had to layoff all of his staff to keep things going. 

Another … my husband’s college roommate is an orthodontist in Greensboro, NC and has his wife working in the office. He’s at a point now where he may have to layoff his own wife.

To which James Cole replied:

Many of us have no dental insurance even though we have very generous employers. Dental insurance can ruin a company faster than Chinese competition. I expect to see dentists hurting, the days of easy money are over.

By the way, when I was a kid, our family dentist had no staff other than his wife who did it all from assisting at the chair to, billing, to reception. Only one patient at a time and one chair. But he filled a cavity for $7.50.

Awhile back we took six year old Jerry to the dentist and asked him to look at some cavities in his baby teeth. We wanted to know whether there was any reason to have them filled, since he would lose them eventually. Unfortunately, there was no way we could trust the answer, since quickly enough they were talking to us about EZ payment plans. We were left wondering.

Running out of money

Black Swan, commenter at Mish Shedlock’s weblog, offers another anecdote from the mid-level business circle he runs in:

We did Christmas Eve at at a McMansion that looked like a replica of an Antebellum Mansion. I got to talking with the owner, and he told me he only owed $180,000 on the house, which was decked out like a Martha Stewart Christmas spread. His big lawn is exquisitely manicured, and keeping it that way is a huge expense (my lawn is so bad that neighbors burn crosses on it just to get me to mow it). He has a beautiful trophy wife and two very young kids in private school.

He told me he was running out of money

He has a trucking business in Newport News, Va., which is located at least 4.5 hours from his home in NC. He just let his manager go because he can no longer afford him. He will now be spending 5 days a week, away from his kids, his beautiful wife, his manicured lawn and his mansion, having to totally run the business himself from the port. He’s worried that even that won’t be enough to save him. Many of his customers are now more than 180 days behind in their payments to him. If he pushes them, he loses their business. If he doesn’t push them, he doesn’t get paid. [Emphasis added]

The last bit there is something I’ve wondered about for some time: to what extent is a deeper crisis being delayed by creditors being slow to collect on debts? Like the fellow mentioned above, such a creditor may be solvent on the books, but he ends up raiding his own savings to get the cash needed to keep the operation afloat. Once the savings are gone, all he has left is debts which may never be paid and in any case can’t be used to fund a business.

The collapse of a complex economy

Here’s a brief but very good article about the collapse of Britain in the fifth century, after Rome was obliged to withdraw in order to defend the home front. The resulting post-Roman “recession” lasted for 600-700 years. Why?

The reason the Romano-British economy collapsed so dramatically should give us pause for thought. Almost certainly the suddenness and the catastrophic scale of the crash were caused by the levels of sophistication and specialisation reached by the economy in Roman times.

The Romano-British population had grown used to buying their pottery, nails, and other basic goods from specialist producers, based often many miles away, and these producers in their turn relied on widespread markets to sustain their specialised production. When insecurity came in the fifth century, this impressive house of cards collapsed, leaving a population without the goods they wanted and without the skills and infrastructure needed to produce them locally. It took centuries to reconstruct networks of specialisation and exchange comparable to those of the Roman period.