STUFF SPARKS JOY: Marie Kondo Understands What Tucker Carlson and Bernie Sanders Do Not

By Mangu-Ward, Katherine | Reason, May 2019 | Go to article overview

STUFF SPARKS JOY: Marie Kondo Understands What Tucker Carlson and Bernie Sanders Do Not


Mangu-Ward, Katherine, Reason


WHEN BERNIE SANDERS and Tucker Carlson agree on something, be afraid. The democratic socialist senator and the populist conservative pundit are not natural allies. But recently, they have converged on a single point of consensus with potentially terrifying consequences: Americans have too much stuff.

The far left of the American political spectrum is the longtime home of Starbucks-smashing protesters, militant recyclers, Naomi Klein acolytes, and Walmart boycotters--people who believe we are destroying the planet with our overconsumption of cheap stuff at the expense of workers' well-being. On his 1987 folk album (yes, such a thing exists), Sanders pinpointed "consumerism, the futile striving for happiness by earning more and more money to buy more and more things," as one of the world's great problems, a theme the Vermont independent has returned to while lamenting everything from the wide variety of deodorant choices on drug store shelves to Chinese imports.

A subset of conservatives has long espoused its own variant of anti-consumerism, typically concerned more with the corruption of the immortal soul than the planet. But in January, Fox News host Tucker Carlson highlighted how aligned the views of the populist right and the socialist left have become on issues of trade, industry, jobs, and markets. "Does anyone still believe that cheaper iPhones or more Amazon deliveries of plastic garbage from China are going to make us happy? They haven't so far," he asked, in the middle of an impassioned monologue imploring viewers to turn away from the idea that markets are a force for good. "Libertarians tell us that's how markets work--consenting adults making voluntary decisions about how to live their lives," he sneered. "OK. But it's also disgusting."

Sanders and Carlson are both fundamentally wrong about stuff and its relation to happiness. The person who best grasps the true dynamic isn't a pundit, a philosopher, or an economist. She's a self-help guru with two best-selling books and a new series on Netflix: the tiny Japanese deity of tidiness, Marie Kondo.

KONDO'S LIFE'S WORK is to help people sort their belongings, toss a bunch of them, and put the rest away neatly. She calls it The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. She asks her clients to hold each object they possess one at a time to decide if it "sparks joy." If it doesn't, one thanks the object and discards it. Sound anti-consumerist? It's not: The insight that under-girds her entire system is that stuff can, in fact, make you happy.

There is such a thing as too much stuff, of course. America's bulging attics and cluttered spare bedrooms are testaments to the burden that too many objects can impose. Anyone who has ever thought "I have nothing to wear" while standing in front of a packed closet knows that having an excess of choices cacophonously presented can be paralyzing.

But both the left and the right are subject to dangerous romantic fantasies about lives with limited choice. Conservatives tend to idealize a time when a less dynamic economy and fewer divisible assets kept families together in close quarters of sheer necessity, while liberals and progressives fondly imagine a world where the engine of the economy runs slower, work is more leisurely, and competition is less fierce.

Kondo does flirt with the idea that clutter makes you physically unwell--that it induces anxiety, bad eating habits, tension, and more. And she may be right. But if too much of the wrong stuff is bad for your health, not enough of the right stuff is much, much worse.

Modern food sanitation is enabled by inexpensive plastic. Modern medicine by disposable sterile needles and packaging. The dramatic worldwide reduction in malnutrition is a credit to diverse cheap food facilitated by global markets. In 1960, infant mortality in the U.S. was 26 per 1,000 live births. In 2017, it was 6. Adult mortality fell by more than half over the same period. …

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