The High Price of Materialism

The funny thing is, there was a time when there would have been nothing at all controversial about this video. I remember, I was there. Yet now, somehow, today it seems like it is controversial:

There is not a word of that I disagree with. I also think it’s describing the issues we will wrestle harder and harder with in the emerging 21st century economy, as everything our way of life is dependent on is changing so rapidly no one can keep up. The better we have the lower two tiers of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs covered, the faster we seem to forget or are frustrated in our desire to climb to the higher layers.

But I do know one thing: the least happy people I know are often the most driven to “succeed” and define “success” as acquisition of power and status and money (which, really, are all part of the same thing, and are in my view much like a narcotic: pleasant, positive, potentially useful, and seductively poisonous). Living a life where you consider “competition” the ultimate in nobility is extremely likely to end in misery, like the Silverback Gorilla Male who takes over his harem and then just waits until he’s old or injured so he can be killed and have his place taken. It’s not a happy life.

And I hope it’s not the type of life we’re evolving toward as a species.

(Thanks Paul.)

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  • jaymaster

    A couple years ago, I was signing for some packages at our office at work, and the UPS guy said, “You guys must make a lot of money here”.

    I said, “We do OK. But what makes you say that?”

    He said, “Well, you have all these fancy computers and stuff in here. And I see all those Mercedes, BMWs and Lexus out in your parking lot.”

    I said, “We park in the back of the building where you see the pick ups and econo boxes. We keep the front spaces open for the patients of the psychologist next door.”

    He said, “Hmmm, that ought to tell you something.”

    And I think he was right. I’m still wondering about the message, though. It’s been consistent for years. The folks coming to visit her are the best dressed, with the nicest jewelry, and the most expensive cars.

    Maybe she just has an exclusive clientele. But she is quite plain herself.

    It’s a chicken or the egg conundrum, in a way. I think about it often.

  • Socialist bunk, all you have to do is listen for the code words.

    socially just
    ecological friendly
    societal change

  • “Socialist” has become what “neocon” did in the Bush years: it means absolutely nothing except “people I disagree with” and its only purpose is to shut down conversation or change the subject.

  • Dishman

    I mostly agree with Sandi, “socially just” is a cultural codeword. From its usage, you can identify the culture the speaker is a part of. If “Socialist” is a meaningless word to you, perhaps you can suggest an alternative means of naming that culture.

    I suspect you wouldn’t appreciate my alternative name, which is where I disagree with Sandi, so I’ll leave it unsaid for now.

  • When you say something is a “codeword,” it seems to me you are already presuming to know everything important about the person using it and their “real meaning” rather than actually listening to the words they’re saying and asking them what they mean. It usually appears to be a way of avoiding engaging in meaningful discussion with them. As I noted, the word “neocon” underwent the same transformation during the Bush years.

    “Social justice” in my view sometimes can be used as an excuse for socially very unjust and unsound policies and attitudes. But it doesn’t have to. And the word “justice” itself is fraught with the same peril I note.

    All social organizations, even entirely voluntary units as small as two persons, are forced into a dynamic of trying to find equitable balance for all involved. Unless they’re incredibly lucky and never have any friction ever.

    “Socialist” has a specific meaning to me: the philosophy that the workers must own all means of production and private property is mostly or completely abolished. Webster’s backs me up on that as the primary definition. By that definition, there are almost no socialists in America, and anyone calling, just for example, the current administration “socialist” is a fool who can’t read a dictionary. Yet this usage is common, leading me to conclude that, like “neocon” (which used to simply mean a liberal who was hawkish on national defense issues, i.e. people like me) it is now broadly used merely to smear a huge swath of the population so we can dismiss them and not think about anything they have to say (except to assume them sinister).

    If you doubt that “socialist” has become a meaningless word in the current American political lexicon, please identify for me any nation on Earth which is not socialist, and explain how that nation is not socialist. Also, point me to any time in American history wherein this was not a “socialist” nation, and explain why it was not socialist. I don’t think you can, if you use the word so broadly as it’s used here by Sandi.

  • Dishman


    I have no materialistic/consumerist inclinations of my own.

    I acquire possessions only for their utility. Status means nothing to me, so acquisition for the purpose of status means nothing.

    The message offered here is one I accepted many years ago. It was easy, as I had no conflicting inclinations. In that regard, I could easily ignore this message. “If it doesn’t apply, let it fly.”

    I’m realizing now that my accepting it has had a severe adverse impact on my life. In particular, status through material acquisition is one of the few ways in which I was equipped to signal my mating value. I understand that success there is a poisoned fruit, but I have enough sense to not actually swallow the poison.

    This is one piece of false data for which I am ‘differently happy’.

  • Holding “Socialist” views does not make one a card carrying socialist standing upon the official party platform. Still working towards making everyone equal is a socialistic attribute, as is wealth redistribution. But by using your strict definition, one can distance them self from the socialist label while still holding some of the same values.

    If I claim someone is a “socialist,” then you might be correct to say: “it means absolutely nothing except ‘people I disagree with’ and its only purpose is to shut down conversation or change the subject,” but I didn’t say that.

    You are correct that there are almost no socialists in America, however there are a large, and growing number, that hold some socialist views.

    My comment was to the apparent socialistic views in the video clip, I did not say that the clip author, or you were card carrying socialists. There is a difference Dean, and you know it, and I presume that is why you use the word “specific” if your definition.

  • I viewed it as a video about the psychological cost of deriving status from consumerism and the view that excessive exposure to marketing that suggests that happiness is derived from consumption of certain goods is deliterious to the psychology of a lot of people. This seems to match my perceptions of many other people, although not everybody.

  • Dishman

    There is absolutely nothing that is without cost. (A half dozen potential counter-examples come to mind, and I’m prepared to rebut all of them.)

    Evaluating cost alone for a single alternative is highly misleading. The question is whether the costs and benefits outweigh the costs and benefits of alternatives.

    This is a non-trivial exercise.

    It’s easy to show that consumerism has an adverse effeect on some people. You have personal experience with the adverse effects of consumption of certain goods (alcohol in particular). The non-trivial question is how things would have been different under different social conditions. I’ll note the incidence of alcoholism in Russia, particularly by the man who “signed legislation outlawing the Soviet Union”. Separating the variables is a non-trivial problem.

    Focusing only on the costs incurred by some individuals following a set of choices actually obscures the question. Which choices ended up making a difference in their outcomes? How can you tell?

    Were they able to better survive some bad choices because of other good choices? How much does that confound the issue?

    I believe there is sufficient evidence that I made a bad choice based on information like that presented in the video, and that the outcome for me was substantially more difficult than it would have been otherwise. Would you care to debate that point in private, or will you yield it?

  • jaymaster

    I mostly agree with Dean on this one. Which is why I responded with the psychologist anecdote.

    The chicken or the egg question is whether folks are driven by marketing to act in ways they normally wouldn’t, and thus, the marketing is creating desires that wouldn’t normally exist, or whether the marketers are acting on natural desires in certain folks to meet desires that already exist.

    I’m tangentially involved in marketing, and from what I’ve seen, it’s all about the latter.

    But I also picked up some “socialist” vibes in the video. Kinda along the lines that if everybody had equal material wealth, people wouldn’t be motivated to buy certain products that would make them feel good or superior. But history shows that’s not going to happen.