Stop the Great Chastisement, I'm Not Getting Off

Why aren't opponents of consumption happy about the recession?

If there’s a silver lining in the clouds over the global economy, Live Simplers are the people you’d expect to find it.

Proponents of voluntary simplicity, critics of excessive consumption, localists, sustainability advocates, and other mild-mannered critics of consumer culture have a lot to brag on these days. They have stooped for years under the tyranny of big-box retailers, SUVs, wall-sized televisions, crap culture, gourmet coffees, and self-storage facilities.

And here it all is going tits up, just as the Live Simplers knew it would. Greedy financiers, scheming moneylenders, and ignorant American fatsos are all getting their comeuppance, oozing bad debt, punished for living beyond their means. Affluenza has been cured. Its related ailments—shopoholism, work-life imbalance, expenditure cascades, status anxiety, positional externalities—are in remission.

What political faction can claim a win this vast? Libertarians are finding few takers for arguments against market intervention. Social justice types must explain away the redistributionist antics of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Only the Live Simplers can say with straight faces that they told us so. But gloating has never been their style.

“I’m sorry that it happened this way,” says John de Graaf, national coordinator of the Take Back Your Time campaign and one of the authors of Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic, a 2001 book based on a late-’90s public television documentary. “I’m not riding high thinking this is a great thing. I would rather see us wean ourselves gradually than have it go off like a bomb.”

That more-sorrow-than-anger spirit sets the Live Simplers apart from their occasional bedfellows, the hardcore Collapsitarians, who are generally excited to see the whole mother burn to the ground. Yet it’s the Live Simplers who have contributed the most context to the current mood. If, for example, you have recently been emailed the popular “What the World Eats” photo essay—juxtaposing pictures of American and European families and their weekly food supplies with pictures of fancifully garbed families in Bhutan, Chad, and other distant, underfed lands—you’re seeing a trick essentially drawn from Affluenza. The genius of the simplicity movement was to shape a political argument (an extraordinarily broad and total critique of commercial exchange) into a spiritual koan (why am I so unfulfilled by my Big Macs and gadgets when simple Bushmen have all the soul nourishment they need?).

A vision that broad, however, turns out to be difficult to follow to its logical conclusion. David Wann, president of the Sustainable Futures Society and one of De Graaf ’s two co-authors on Affluenza, describes the overstimulated economy of the post-Reagan era as a “completely toxic loaf,” yet he also supports the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act’s $550 billion economic stimulus component—both because more than $100 billion of that spending is targeted at environmental-ish initiatives and because “we don’t want the whole ship to sink.”

Why so squeamish? De Graaf cites humanitarian concerns. “The enormous expectations in the American economy, unmatched by increases in real wages, and the gap between the rich and poor, all led to this crisis,” he says. “Even I would not have predicted it would be as extreme as it is. I didn’t think it would be this high a price. This crisis is horribly painful for people.”

That’s an understandable concern, but then, what is to be done? If ending hyperconsumption was impossible in boom times, and belt tightening imposed by hard fiscal reality doesn’t count because it’s not voluntary simplicity, then how do you ever move masses of men to change their lives of quiet desperation?

And given that even during the boom few of us could spend $95 on a sea grass market basket or $145 on a Holy Lamb Organics diaperchanging pad, is radical economic change the best path to sustainability? President Obama plans to spend $31 billion just for green retrofitting of government buildings. Experience suggests that simplicity or localism at anything more than boutique scale is expensive. McMansions and PDAs (which are available in the grimmest developing-world hellholes) may or may not be excrescences of an overstimulated economy. But public libraries and organic farmers markets definitely are.

The third author of Affluenza has taken a path decidedly different from his colleagues’. Thomas H. Naylor, who now dismisses the work as a “cutesy book,” founded the Second Vermont Republic (SVR) in 2003. This separatist movement works for “political independence for Vermont and the peaceful dissolution of the Union.” The SVR’s goals include “Human Scale, Sustainability, Tension Reduction,” etc., but its rhetoric has a febrile, hot-medium quality that you wouldn’t normally associate with the Green Mountain State.

Naylor freely disparages the new administration (“if anything, Obama’s worse, because he’s smarter than Bush, and better able to sell that”) and draws a hard moral about the collapse of the global market (“technofascism carried to its logical conclusion: robotism, megalomania, globalization, and imperialism”). He is also sanguine about the market’s rough justice. “In the long run, it’s not going to be bad news,” says Naylor. “The global economy will be radically different under Obama, but he had little to do with changing it. This is the death spiral of the global economy.”

That’s still a hard conceptual leap for most Live Simplers to make. “Although some religious traditions have advocated a life of extreme renunciation,” wrote Duane Elgin in his 1981 book Voluntary Simplicity: Toward a Way of Life That Is Outwardly Simple, Inwardly Rich, “it is inaccurate to equate simplicity with poverty.” The Live Simplers seek a change not in people’s fortunes but in their hearts, and that’s a recipe for eternal disappointment. “Affluenza hasn’t been solved,” says Wann, “because there’s still this assumption that now we’re down, but as soon as we can we’ll get back up again.”

Contributing Editor Tim Cavanaugh is a writer in Los Angeles.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • Chad||

    Tim, you are right. People like us do see the silver lining in this mess - lower consumption, less waste, less environmental destruction.

    It's kind of like the few pounds you lose when you have the flu...a nice side affect to an otherwise miserable situation. However, it has nothing to do with the change we really need, which in this example would be a healthy diet and exercise.

  • Kyle Jordan||

    You know, this article really made me think.

    I just bought a $475 Strider SMF after reading it. Fuck these cocksuckers.

    CONSUME! SPEND! HOARD!

    Enjoy your fucking life while you're here!

  • anarch||

    the gap between the rich and poor



    ...is a phrase born of envy.

    robotism



    ...is what exactly?

  • Winthorpe||

    Nice article.

    I just sank $10,000 on a yamaha grand piano. I play Chopin on it. Does that make me a affluconsumer, cultured or a nerd?

  • ||

    Frog Prep. Watch and learn. :-p

  • ||

    Tim Cavanaugh Wonders Why Three Opponents of Consumption Who All Know Each Other And Wrote The Same Book Aren't Happy About the Recession

    FTFY.

    Seriously, it's like coming to a broad conclusion about libertarians by considering the opinions of Nick Gillespie, Matt Welch, and Tim Cavanaugh.

  • ||

    Actually, only two out of the three fit that title, since the last guy was positive about it.

  • Xeones||

    Winthorpe: nerd.

    Not that there's anything wrong with that.

  • ||

    robotism

    ...is what exactly?


    Government by robots.

  • Vines & Cattle||

    You're not looking hard enough...

    http://www.motherearthnews.com/Healthy-People-Healthy-Planet/Less-Waste-During-Recession.aspx

  • Reinmoose||

    "Even I would not have predicted it would be as extreme as it is. I didn't think it would be this high a price. This crisis is horribly painful for people."

    I don't think that the people you're talking to are "Live Simplers," Tim. I know some Live Simplers in my life and there is a little schadenfreude going on. I would not consider myself a Live Simpler, but, like many other libertarians I've found, I live within my means. Even I find it difficult to feel sorry for others for the terrible economic decisions they make.

    One of the problems with the Live Simplers that you talk to and with that breed of them in general is that they don't understand that when everyone does something it changes the frame. Even if everyone were to voluntarily shift down their consumption, it's not like everyone can keep their current jobs as engineers, chemists, and the like.

    One of the first things we learn in economics is that what's good for the one is not always good for the many, and in fact can be disasterous. (Saving is the common example)

  • ||

    I would not consider myself a Live Simpler, but, like many other libertarians I've found, I live within my means. Even I find it difficult to feel sorry for others for the terrible economic decisions they make.

    Well in this case, as I'm sure you know, it's people like you who live within their means who are going to have to suffer to prop up those who didn't. I'm in something of a similar situation; in one way I'm glad I didn't overextend myself financially, but in another way I'm resentful of those who did and are getting bailed out with my money.

  • ryan||

    I actually am a big believer in voluntary simplicity, but to me it wasn't about eschewing posessions or being anti-consumerism. It's about living within your means and taking time to think about the things you are buying. Do you really need it, is it something you will actually enjoy the use of? It's really about priorities. A "livesimpler" would still buy a house, they just wouldn't buy one with a mortgage they know they couldn't afford. It's really about fiscal responsibility which is very libertarian to me.

  • O\'Taktix®||

    I'm still trying to figure out why everyone is saying things are so bad.

    Housing prices are dropping, so I'll soon be able to afford a home of my own.

    Most retailers are offering insane sales just to get business, so in effect, the costs of goods and services are decreasing.

    In my area, which relies on tourism, we're seeing an influx of Europeans and (blech) Canadians, and spring breakers that can't afford Mexico anymore, because the dollar is so weak.

    Why are these bad things?

  • Coleman Mulkerin||

    The last quote of the article is sickening... I couldn't imagine having that much contempt for people who want to have a better life. Trade is not a zero sum game. Get out and peacefully trade with as many people as you can. And yes I consider living your life with the benefit of modern technology a better life.

  • Reinmoose||

    O'Taktix - It's a bad thing because it's politically and socially expedient to say in public that it's so horrible that these families making $60,000 in combined income bought $400,000 homes, a new $30,000 vehicle every 3 years, and furnished the damn things on credit.

    I happen to agree with you. There are upsides to just about everything, and even I see the reduction in consumption as a good control on waste. Places that are liquidating their inventories are filling want/need gaps with already used resources instead of with new resources. The horror.

  • ||

    I don't know if I would call fiscal responsibility and simpler living the same thing. The wife and I live completely within my means: no credit cards, no debt except a 15-year mortgage, never buy anything but used cars. But I still buy hunks of $30 a pound cheese, $60 bottles of bourbon, and have a house stuffed with consumer electronics. (I realized the other day that I have 6 iPods.) No one would say that I live simply, in fact I try to live as complexly as possible.

    I think the two ideas can overlap, but they aren't even remotely the same thing unless they are consciously blended.

  • Reinmoose||

    SugarO'Free

    While you're mostly right, I don't think an iPod is a good example of something that someone who lives simply wouldn't have. In fact, I suspect most of the Live Simplers were the first ones to get one.

  • ||

    Reinmoose,

    Just a thin-air example. I imagine the livesimple movement has a lot of tiers. The only ones I really dislike are the "I don't have a TV" assholes and the "I live in a tiny apartment in a large city and can't afford nice stuff so I'm going to call myself a minimalist to cover up for sour grapes" cunts. I know those two overlap significantly.

  • O\'Taktix®||

    While you're mostly right, I don't think an iPod is a good example of something that someone who lives simply wouldn't have. In fact, I suspect most of the Live Simplers were the first ones to get one.

    Not that I care about Live Simple-ing, but one could argue it's simpler to have an iPod vs. $1000 in CD's made of plastic, which, was we all know, is a petroleum-based product...

  • ||

    I just sank $10,000 on a yamaha grand piano. I play Chopin on it. Does that make me a affluconsumer, cultured or a nerd?

    Elitest!

  • Reinmoose||

    Yes, I agree. The "I spend $2500 a month on rent that my parents subsidize so I can't afford anything else that they don't still pay for like my cell phone, though I accept their aid relunctently and certainly don't need it" types

  • O\'Taktix®||

    And I live simple, I don't waste my money on spell check...

  • ||

    Correct spelling is so bourgeois.

  • Shannon Love||

    I can't help but notice how much the "Live Simpler" types remind me of the virtues of my paternal grandparents who came of age during the Great Depression. As lower-middle class rural types, they never bought a new car, never had fancy house etc but on the other hand growing up with them I never wanted for anything. Mildly religious, my grandparents thought that non-functional consumption bordered on sin. Growing up on a farm, reduce, reuse and recycle were not hippie slogans but mere habits of life many generations standing.

    It seems we have a cultural pattern wherein secularist reject the evolved cultural standards as "irrational" and then find themselves recreating a secular version of the same behaviors a few years later. The recreation of near Victorian standards of sexual conduct on campuses and business to avoid sexual harassment serves as another example.

    In my experience, "Live Simpler" largely just substitutes moral ostentation for material ostentation. You don't see a lot of these people being quite about their lifestyle. Neither do you see them avoiding imposing their choices on other people by force. In this too, they recreate the social and political mores of the puritan.

  • ||

    Awesome picture. The only thing wrong with it is the passenger door is open, meaning the girl was probably not driving that tank solo.

  • ||

    Opponents of consumerism wanted _other_ peoples' lives to change. The recession changed _theirs_. See the difference?

  • ryan||

    to SugarO'Free
    i see your point, either i am overlapping the ideas or i have voluntary simplicity completely wrong, lol. if $60 bourbon is something you can afford and is something you really enjoy then i'm all for it. like i said, to me, it isn't about anti-consumerism, it's about living within your means, which you obviously do. a lot of people don't and simplifying can get overspending and debt under control.

  • Warty||

  • ||

    The recreation of near Victorian standards of sexual conduct on campuses and business to avoid sexual harassment serves as another example.

    You haven't been to a college campus recently, have you? Victorian is pretty much the last word I would use to describe sexual conduct.

  • ||

    the gap between the rich and poor

    ...is a phrase born of envy.


    No, it's a statistic that measures the economic health of a country.

  • ||

    Tim, you need to get out more. In my experience most opponents of consumption are loving the recession, hoping it gets much worse, and are walking around with shit-eating grins on their faces as they say "told you so!" to everyone they meet. The only dark cloud is those pesky low gas prices, but as soon as they get back to $4-$5 a gallon all will be well.

  • ||

    Do you have to have debt to be a consumerist? Or do you just have to buy shit-tons of stuff?

  • Colonel_Angus||

    "Do you have to have debt to be a consumerist? Or do you just have to buy shit-tons of stuff?"

    How about this guy:
    www.youtube.com/watch?v=WZAjHrL3iHA

  • McKolohe||

    spring breakers that can't afford Mexico anymore, because the dollar is so weak.

    Actually at 14 to 1, the dollar is not weak against the peso.

    People aren't going to Cancun this year because every five minutes some news report is implying (and on Fox is saying it explicitly) that "ur goin' 2 die!"

  • economist||

    "the gap between the rich and poor

    ...is a phrase born of envy.

    No, it's a statistic that measures the economic health of a country."

    There tends not to be much correlation between economic equality and overall economic "health" as measured in overall productivity and growth. In general, dictatorships where one gains wealth by being an effective crony skew the statistics. If one takes into account only countries with relatively prosperous economies, there tends to be a negative correlation between equality on the one hand and economic growth and productivity on the other.

  • economist||

    Chad,
    I understand perfectly. The left wants the demise of consumerism to come from environmentalist goals, not for environmentalist goals to proceed from a weakening of consumerism.

  • economist||

    kevin,
    To be a consumerist, one need merely buy a lot. If you have lots of debt, then you are a "struggling homeowner" or "struggling household" that was tricked by the evil banks into taking on more debt than you could afford and deserve your fair share of the bailout.

  • ChrisO||

    I'm a member of the "none of your fucking business club." Don't like my spending habits or lifestyle choices? It's NOYFB. And vice versa. America has always had a puritanical edge to its culture, and the enviro/anti-consumerists are merely the latest form of it.

  • ||

    the gap between the rich and poor

    ...is a phrase born of envy.

    No, it's a statistic that measures the economic health of a country.


    Not really, although properly constructed it may not be a bad surrogate.

    Although probably not in the way you think, Tony. Poor countries don't have a big gap between the rich and poor (not counting the ruling elites, who are always rich). Rich countries always do. Ergo. . . .

  • Man||

    I just LOVE Paris Hilton's tits!

  • Lepri Khan||

    "Just a thin-air example. I imagine the livesimple movement has a lot of tiers. The only ones I really dislike are the "I don't have a TV" assholes"

    I was on the board of a non-profit with one of those. Smuggest bitch I ever met.

    So before every board meeting, I'd tell her about the incredible show on string theory or Einstein condensates or whatever, that I had just seen on TV.

    Stupid, smug bitch.

  • economist||

    ChrisO,
    You obviously didn't get the memo. We switched recently to "social responsibility". You're being antisocial. Psychological specialists will arrive shortly to help modify your outlook.

  • ||

    I think most Live Simplers that I know are more about the environmental aspects of it. Don't consume things you don't need to consume, and when you do, try and consume responsibly. I mean, I agree with the logic of it, but take issue with how much self-monitoring is really needed, compared to how much benefit it brings to the environment. Basically what I'm saying is, if it makes sense, it makes sense.

    All the argument about rich and poor gap is ridiculous. Most who complain about that gap don't realize that in countries where the gap is largest, the poor are generally wealthier than in countries where the gap is smaller. Plus it makes the odd assumption that some people "deserve" something more than what they have created or had voluntarily given to them.

  • ||

    Are you honestly opposed to public libraries? I'm willing to bet they've played an important role in the educations of most Reason staffers.

    You could have private libraries, but then you'd have to pay for membership, and people aren't going to realize they're not paying for public libraries in taxes. They're just going to see the membership fee and forgo. In any case, it makes sense to have public provision of education and educational resources even in capitalist paradise land: capitalism demands productive labor, and productivity demands knowing things. Note: provision != requirement.

    I like the idea of shrinking the state as much as the next guy, but I don't see why we all need to be stupider for it.

  • ||

    But living simply causes poor people to lose their jobs! It's your responsibility to blow lots of cash on shit you don't need so that someone can work in a factory producing it.
    If you can't take up collecting Obama bobble-head dolls, then at least eat out four times a week to support your local waitresses. Spread the wealth around!

  • ||

    I think someone demonstrated that income inequality tends to inhibit growth; but growth promotes income inequality (which explains contradictions found in previous studies).

    Plus it makes the odd assumption that some people "deserve" something more than what they have created or had voluntarily given to them.

    This is a moral question, and only applies in a perfect world where all capital is generated by (honest) individual ingenuity.

  • ryan||

    actually if you think about, even thrifty people would be losing out if others didn't consume too much than they need because then they wouldn't get any good deals at yard sales and on ebay. it even creates business opportunites for ebayers.

  • Mike Laursen||

    I just sank $10,000 on a yamaha grand piano. I play Chopin on it. Does that make me a affluconsumer, cultured or a nerd?

    I have to check the rulebook on this one. OK, it says you should have found a distressed grand piano on freecycle, taken piano restoration classes at your local coop arts and crafts educational center, then lovingly restored it while taking a year off from your white-collar job. Assuming you didn't do all that, we're going to have to put you in the affluconsumer category.

  • ChrisO||

    I just LOVE Paris Hilton's tits!

    I've seen better.

  • ||

    I think someone demonstrated that income inequality tends to inhibit growth

    Got a cite?
    (Preferably from a non-partisan economics journal.)

  • ||

    Did anyone else develop a strong urge to listen to Dark Side of the Moon after reading that?

  • Paul||

    Tim Cavanaugh:

    Well played, sir, well played.

  • Paul||

    The Live Simply movement is really a loose amalgm of ideas.. you know, kind of like the 'sustainability' concept in general.

    Many people in small ways have been happy with the economic downturn, just not all of it.

    For instance, plenty were happy to see gas prices rise sharply, and see people buying Smart Cars, riding their bikes or riding public transit.

    But there's a thread here, on that's either ignored, or simply too horrible to consider by many Live Simply types:

    1. Gas prices rise sharply.
    2. People tighten belts, downsize car, stop buying SUV's and other gas guzzlers.
    3. Ford, Chrysler, GM, whose fleet largely consists of said gas guzzlers see dramatic drop in sales.
    4. Lots of dues-paying UAW workers face layoffs and uncertainty.

    Often, the thread between item 1 and item 4 is lost, cut, or simply not followed.

  • anarch||

    Gentlemen, thank you for taking up my "born of envy" comment and instructing me further on it.

  • Brian Carnell||

    In case you don't have time to read 'Affluenza' while you're living simply, there is a DVD version (http://www.bullfrogfilms.com/catalog/affl.html) for the low, low price of $250.

  • Mister Presley||

    I did not have a TV for many years, but I did not consider that to be a badge of honor. In was a social handicap during football/basketball season, but I suppose that was an excuse to go to the bar.

    Seriously, people who brag about that are trying way too hard! Whether it is because of trying to look like an intellectual or masking lack of money, that is just an attempt to make people think you are smart.

  • John Markley||

    Dave,

    "In any case, it makes sense to have public provision of education and educational resources even in capitalist paradise land: capitalism demands productive labor, and productivity demands knowing things."

    Productivity also demands adequate nutrition, but that doesn't mean we should have government farms.

  • nfl jerseys||

    bwy

  • Scarpe Nike||

    is good

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