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Buyer's Remorse

By Akst, Daniel | The Wilson Quarterly, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

Buyer's Remorse

Akst, Daniel, The Wilson Quarterly

There are two things at which Americans have always excelled: One is generating almost unimaginable material wealth, and the other is feeling bad about it. If guilt and materialism are two sides of a single very American coin, it's a coin that has achieved new currency in recent years, as hand-wringing and McMansions vie for our souls like the angels and devils who perch on the shoulders of cartoon characters, urging them to be good or bad.

When Princeton University researchers asked working Americans about these matters a decade ago, 89 percent of those surveyed agreed that "our society is much too materialistic," and 74- percent said that materialism is a serious social problem. Since then, a good deal has been written about materialism, and magazines such as Real Simple (filled with advertising) have sprung up to combat it. But few of us would argue that we've become any less consumed with consuming; the latest magazine sensation, after all, is Lucky, which dispenses with all the editorial folderol and devotes itself entirely to offering readers things they can buy.

The real question is, Why should we worry? Why be of two minds about what we buy and how well we live? Most of us have earned what we possess; we're not members of some hereditary landed gentry. Our material success isn't to blame for anyone else's poverty--and, on the contrary, might even ameliorate it (even Third World sweatshops have this effect, much as we might lament them). So how come we're so sheepish about possessions? Why do we need a class of professional worrywarts--a.k.a, the intelligentsia--to warn us, from the stern pulpits of Cambridge, Berkeley, and other bastions of higher education (and even higher real estate prices) about the perils of consumerism run amok?

There are good reasons, to be sure. If we saved more, we could probably achieve faster economic growth. If we taxed ourselves more, we might reduce income inequality. If we consumed less, our restraint might help the environment (although the environment mostly has grown cleaner as spending has increased). Then, too, there's a personal price to be paid for affluence: Because we're so busy pursuing our individual fortunes, we endure a dizzying rate of change and weakened community and family ties.

There is merit in all these arguments, but while I know lots of people who are ambivalent about their own consumerism, hardly any seem to worry that their getting and spending is undermining the economy or pulling people off family farms. No, the real reason for our unease about possessions is that many of us, just like the makers of Hebrew National franks, still seem to answer to a higher power. We may not articulate it, but what really has us worried is how we think God wants us to behave.

And on that score, materialism was making people nervous long before there was an America. In the Bible, the love of money is said to be the root of all evil, and the rich man has as much of a shot at heaven as a camel has of passing through the eye of a needle. On the other band, biblical characters who enjoy God's blessings have an awful lot of livestock, and other neat stuff as well. Though Job loses everything while God is testing him, he gets it all back when he passes the test. Perhaps even God is of two minds about materialism. Here on earth, however, traditional authorities have always insisted that materialism is a challenge not just to the social order but to the perfection of God's world. James B. Twitchell, a student of advertising and a cheerful iconoclast on materialism, has observed that sumptuary laws were once enforced by ecclesiastical courts "because luxury was defined as living above one's station, a form of insubordination against the concept of copia--the idea that God's world is already full and complete."

America represents the antithesis of that idea. Many of the earliest European settlers were motivated by religion, yet by their efforts they transformed the new land--God's country?

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