Thursday, May 03, 2007

The Paradox of Plenty III: Consumer Alienation

I can tell from a drop-off in email that the Paradox of Plenty isn't striking any power chords with readers. I never know what topic will resonate, and that hit-or-miss quality is part of the fun. As models of human behavior, these are powerful concepts--but as models, perhaps they seem detached from everyday life. I'm hoping they will start resonating with readers as the global economy stumbles and then falls, and as people start looking for the underlying mechanisms which may be at work (other than greed, fear, ignorance and hope).

Despite the collective yawn, I press onward to the Paradox of Plenty: Consumerism. Let's begin with a clip from today's Wall Street Journal which concedes what we all know: Americans own more crap than ever before, but this surfeit of consumer goods has not measurably increased our happiness. No Satisfaction: Why What You Have Is Never Enough: (subscription required, hopefully you can read it at your local library)

"We may have life and liberty. But the pursuit of happiness isn't going so well. As a country, we are richer than ever.

Yet surveys show that Americans are no happier than they were 30 years ago. The key problem: We aren't very good at figuring out what will make us happy. We constantly hanker after fancier cars and fatter paychecks -- and, initially, such things boost our happiness.

But the glow of satisfaction quickly fades and soon we're yearning for something else. Similarly, we tell our friends that our kids are our greatest joy. Research, however, suggests the arrival of children lowers parents' reported happiness, as they struggle with the daily stresses involved. "

The article goes on to state the experts' answers for why this so: we aren't designed to be happy, and we are inherently poor at forecasting the outcome of decisions which were made to increase our happiness.

Fine. Let's stipulate those points. But there is another reason which won't make it onto the pages of the Wall Street Journal: the paradox of consumerism. The more you rely on acquisitions to fuel happiness, the less happiness you actually experience.

Let's look at a little chart I've prepared to illustrate what we all know to be true: the more you buy, the less you actually get:

please go to to view the chart.

A story will help illustrate this chart. Back in the good old days of kingly wealth and power, the King was suffering from a severe bout of anhedonia (loss of pleasure, inability to enjoy). "I have everything," he moaned, "but enjoy nothing." Summoning his court Wise Man, he demanded, "I want to eat the finest meal in the land. Make it so."

The Wise Man nodded politely (after all, this was his Lord and Master), and asked, "Are you willing to follow my instructions to the letter, My Lord?" The King was so disgusted with his boredom and ennui that he enthusiastically agreed. The Wise Man took the King outside, and handed him a pick and shovel. He then directed the king to dig an irrigation ditch from one end of the field to the other. Though the task was far beneath his status as ruling monarch, so degraded was the King's life and spirit that he reluctantly obeyed.

After a long day toiling under the hot sun, the King's hands were blistered and a thirst and hunger he'd never experienced gripped his belly and mouth. As the setting sun touched the valley's rim, the Wise Man allowed the King to cease his ditch-digging. Beckoning the king to a nearby tree, the Wise Man then offered his master a dry crust of bread and a wooden cup of water. The King partook of this simple meal with gusto, and after finishing off the lowly bread, readily agreed with the Wise Man that this was indeed the finest meal in the kingdom.

Here we have a truth which has been well and truly lost to a nation drunk with acquisition and the profit-driven "manufacture" of endless desires for more. Taking a page from Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs, we can describe the physiological and social needs for sustenance, shelter and civil society as "authentic" in the sense that deprivation of these basics renders any human unhappy.

But alas, the profit potential in real food and modest shelter is limited. So a trillion-dollar industry attempts to instill in you a craving for sports drinks (salty sugar water), a Lexus (a Toyota with a different nameplate), a manicure (you're worth being coddled) and Special Status (you're a bigshot).

But in a terrible irony, each acquisition of a new product or service provides a shorter and less intense "pay-off" of happiness. At the climax of this process, the "consumer" (at this stage, every human being has been reduced to a "consumer") has hundreds of media channels, thousands of free songs, thousands of movies, hundreds of snacks and foods, limitless choices in clothing and electronic gewgaws--and yet rather than feel a limitless joy with this cornucopia, the "consumer" feels bored and dissatisfied.

This alienation from self and authenticity is the ultimate fulfillment of consumerism. That we have reached this end stage of alienation is painfully obvious in the obsession with "luxury goods" and the frenzy to shout "Look at me!" louder than anyone else. It is stating the obvious but still worth noting that those truly wealthy in happiness feel no desire to attract the attention or approval of others, nor do they suffer under the delusion that a new trinket or toy will add to their well-being.

I take no pleasure in foreseeing a long, deep recession; I do not welcome it, I simply observe the causal conditions which guarantee millions will suffer financial loss and ruin. Most of you see the same causal conditions and foresee the inevitable collapse of real estate valuations and the entire bubble of debt which fueled the "boom."

Putting the two together--a collapse of the financial bubble and the alienation of the "consumer"--I predict the next wave of marketing will be aimed at "authenticity."

As millions of once-middle class citizens find themselves struggling under mountains of debt they can never pay off, as they grasp the fundamental emptiness of their McMansion and Lexus and iPod (assuming they're able to keep them), then their anger at those who benefitted from the "boom" (such as hedge fund managers who raked in $300 million a year each) will grow to a white-hot fury, and marketers, PR hacks and advertising gurus will be running away from "luxury," "status" and "lifestyle" and toward "authentic" themes and labels.

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