The Importance of Crass Materialism
Early on in my principles of economics course, I spend a good deal of time demonstrating to students just how fantastically far we have come (in America and the world around) in a material sense (and in many other senses too). Too much data to show here, but for example, in just the course of a century, the typical American has an income seven times larger than his 1900 predecessor. And that income buys a far more interesting and important variety of goods and services today.
But, it is argued, life is far more precious that focusing on material measures. Materialism corrupts the soul. And we need to look at more holistic estimates of what a good standard of living is than focusing on material advances. In future posts I will slowly share the preponderance of data I show my classes. For now, I want to address the criticism as an idea.
- An increase in the consumption of material goods does correspond to an increase in human well being. Why? Because the ability to purchase such “trifles” is a reflection of our ability to purchase the goods and services that are “necessities” and important. Do you wish to argue that people purchase trifles with their income before they purchase things like food, clothing and housing? Let’s discuss that some day. For now, consider that for a typical American family in 1900, 72% of their budget was spent on food, shelter and housing. Today, that fraction is in the mid-30% range. So, it is twice as easy to secure the basic needs today (this assumes that we were not also 7 times richer … so in reality we are 14 times more able to consume the basic needs … if something was a need in 1900, it cannot have become more of a need in 2010). Thus, we could not have even tried to purchase much in the way of material goods back when living standards were measurably lower. Consider the consumption of material goods to be the thermometer in the boiling cauldron of life (OK, so that’s not the best analogy).
- The goods themselves may appear to many to be trifles. But it is not exactly the goods that are the focus of our consuming behavior. It is the stream of pleasures that one gets from the goods that surely counts. We bought our daughter some plastic rings with some animals inscribed on them. Useless junk. $1.00 wasted. Right? But it gives her and us great pleasure to see her wearing them, and we even get to use them in other games and crafts projects we play. And right now, the reason I am blogging it, is that she left those trifles in my jacket pocket for me today, so that I can think of her while I am at work. Just trifles, right? But even if you wished to call this a trifle, two questions come up. First, what counts and what doesn’t? Is the book we bought for our daughter a trifle? What about her little toy guitar? How about that “extra” sweater? Second, who gets to decide what is a trifle and what is appropriate for me? And what should I be spending my $1.00 on?And if you think money cannot buy happiness, try spending some time at the park with your kids while you have to spend 14 hours a day chopping wood in the field and picking weeds all day. Well, maybe my 4 year old could be there helping.
- If material goods do not matter, then why is there so much apoplexy about the “redistribution” (as if someone distributes it in the first place) of income? After all, the point is to transfer resources from the people who have “useless” material goods to other people so that they can purchase more … material … goods?
- A good economist cannot look only at material consumption and its possible suppression as a short-run, one-time, redistributive issue alone. There are very serious long-run consequences of such an anti-materialistic view.
- Do we not have a choice? Given our miraculous amounts of wealth we do have many, many, many ways to spend our produced income. But there is no rule, no advertising genious, no nefarious ugly capitalist dude making you spend your money on trifles. After all, the same nefarious ugly capitalist dudes are trying to get you to buy things which are not trifles, like for-profit education, books, health club memberships, and the like. Can you argue it both ways?
- The costs of necessities has plummeted so much that even the lowest wage earners would have an easy time purchasing a bundle of necessities. (note that one problem, a major problem, of poverty, is the inability to work enough productive labor hours …). A two-earner family each earning the minimum wage full-time will take home about $29,000 per year before taxes. After the “social insurance contribution” is taken from them and various sales taxes are taken, they would have about $26,000 of after-tax income to spend – totally excluding any transfer payments or help from anyone. If you spend $800 per month on housing, another $800 per month on food and $100 per month on clothing that still leaves another $6,000 to spend through the year. Remember that public schools are free, health care is free, and that I am totally overstating what you could reasonably be expected to pay for housing and food (our family probably spends $700 per month on food, including going out).Again, I cite this point as merely a technical matter, it doesn’t mean that the poor CAN do it, I am just talking about resource abundance here.
- UPDATE: Hayek wrote in the Constitution of Liberty that a family’s ability to pass on socially valuable morals, tastes, knowledge and traditions is closely tied up to its ability and possibility for transmitting wealth across generations. He was discussing this in the context of the justification for material bequests, but he could just as easily have changed his discussion to capture the intra-temporal issue as well.
You are so right, Wintercow.
The other day I happened to pick up my grandfather’s diary, wherein he records daily events during the ’30’s, including such entries like, “plowed ten acres,” which probably meant my father plowed ten acres. What is not noted is that the ten acres were plowed by horses.
If it is easy for me to forget how tough it was just seventy or eighty years ago, think of the perspective of college students today. Your students are fortunate to learn the facts of economic history.
Your daughter’s rings would not be on her fingers had the world not changed for the better over the last few centuries. (They may be banned as hazardous, if Henry Waxman picks up the scent of a tort opportunity.)
We, of course, enjoy the benefits of cheap food from fields plowed by tractors, fields planted in Roundup-Ready seeds. The engines in the tractors were milled by machines that three decades ago were controlled by computers.
Today I was listening to a radio program on NPR, the subject being that humans are destroying the earth. They did not mention the Rizzo family or my family in particular, but it was clear they had us in their crosshairs. While they were not specific, it was clear that we all, particularly the misanthropes, had better change their ways, although I am sure they would agree that buying a few plastic rings for one’s daughter would be OK.
By the way, if the thermometer in the boiling cauldron of life is accurate to plus or minus one degree, how can one predict the atmospheric consequences of reducing world carbon emissions with electric cars?
You got it right about the boiling cauldron, Wintercow.
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Wintercow, you claim to teach economics, yet nowhere in your discussion of crass materialism do you ever acknowledge, let alone identify, any negative aspects of crass materialism. Indeed, the examples you provide have nothing to do with crass materialism; the title of your discussion is false and misleading. I don’t even see any evidence that you understand the basic definition of crass materialism. It’s almost as if you want to deny it exists, with the rather specious argument that people have a choice about how materialistic they want to be. There may be a grain of truth in the “choice” argument, but it is only a grain.
In a culture that fosters crass materialism, in which consumerism becomes the raison d’être, when someone’s worth is largely determined by monetary standards, when the American “dream” more often than not involves being independently wealthy or a rich and early retirement, when we presume that our material advantages are somehow a privilege that we no longer need to earn with effort and sacrifice, and when our favorite leisure activities involve spending gobs of money and wasting gobs of time on mindless distractions, then I think the “streams of pleasure” you speak of may not be as harmless as you imagine. Buying plastic baubles for your young daughter is one thing; your daughter growing up with the expectation that Life comprises an endless stream of pleasure, as defined by the purchase of both things and “experiences,” is quite another thing.
You imply that anyone who criticizes crass materialism is trying to argue it both ways. Again you are not using examples of actual crass materialism. If I may use a crude analogy, it’s like arguing that drug addiction doesn’t exist because people have a choice about how much they use. Your “nefarious ugly capitalist dude” is both your friendly neighborhood pub owner and the guy who sells crack cocaine, but you only want to talk about the friendly neighborhood pub owner and ignore the rest. Your argument doesn’t hold up because you are ignoring the very problems you’re supposed to address.
You teach economics, so you really knocked yourself out by giving yourself the “challenging” problem of figuring how a two-income family can make it.
If you’re going to argue that the poor people of today have it so much better than the poor people of a hundred years ago, I’ll ask “So what?” In 1964, would you have argued against civil rights legislation on the grounds that blacks were much better off than when they were slaves a hundred years prior?
I’m all for economic freedom and progress, but you seem to be under the impression that what we have today is economic freedom. By any chance, have you read The Fine Print by David Cay Johnston? And for goodness’ sake, where do you teach economics and where did you get your degree in Economics?
Spot on, this article really does not hold up to any scrutiny whatever your opinion.
I couldn’t agree more or put it in better terms.