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Course #4 -- The Menace That Is Materialism


Although socially acceptable in the U.S., unchecked materialism is, in many ways, a disease very similar to substance abuse or any other obsession. "Acquiriholics" suffer from a compulsion to acquire, whether it be the largest house; the biggest and most jewelry; a 27-inch / 40-inch / 65-inch / 312-inch wide-screen television; luxury cars with built-in fax machine, refrigerator, and jacuzzi; designer clothes, colognes, chocolates and cheeses. The crusade to acquire more, bigger and better, seems aimed to assuage ailing egos, while accelerating psychological and spiritual bankruptcy.

Fantasy lifestyles seen on television have an especially virulent impact by perpetuating this ethic. The drive to acquire is so engrained in the fabric of American society that discussing it as a problem is likely to be seen by many as heretical. The deluge of advertisements, images of wealth in popular media, and visual evidence of materialism in daily life convey the implicit message that it is a worthy endeavor to continually add to, and upgrade, our possessions.
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The consequences of the drive to acquire are many. First, marketers play into the public's susceptibility to the "sport" of obsessive materialism, advertising runs rampant, and the cost of living increases commensurately. The money spent on marketing has no correlation to actual product quality, and does nothing to improve it. Whereas R&D expenditures can produce a better or more cost-effective product, celebrities endorsing those products add nothing except for a price hike. Consumers gain nothing by millions of dollars being given to actors, athletes, and even cartoon owners for endorsements. To the manufacturer, it's part of the costs of doing business. But, they pass on the costs to consumers.

As name-brand athletic shoes are often $130 a pair and beyond (often with only pennies going to the worker in Asia who actually made them), most of the population feels the pinch. Only by securing one's own slice of the economic pie is it possible to remain afloat, keeping up with the spiral of costs. As long as advertising yields increased sales, the spiral will continue upward. Consumer boycotts of goods that are overpriced because of their marketing costs would be the only effective means for change. In the meantime, it would be admirable if manufacturers at least had low-income-consumer rebate programs.

Second, especially since the 1980s, many lower-middle-income and lower-income individuals spend their very limited "disposable income" on expensive jewelry, cars, clothes and appliances. Paradoxically, this instant gratification is, for many, a way to cope with the frustrations of not achieving career or financial success. Some people bring themselves out of depression by going out for a "good shop", rather than turning to saving and education to work oneself out of the slums and doldrums. Many who still can't pay for their wants acquire them criminally, through shoplifting, burglary, and drug money.

Third, unchecked consumerism is economically wasteful. If Americans continue opting for consumerism instead of investment, then long-term wealth and productivity will increasingly be the victims. This is easily evidenced by the US trade deficit which has become monolithic as the profits from consumer purchases increasingly flow to foreign-owned companies.

For example, catering to wanton wants of U.S. consumers is part of how Japan made its fortune and came to rival the U.S. as an economic leader in the post-World War II decades. Yet, after Americans aided and abetted Japan's economic success, the U.S. kicked, cried, and screamed foul, especially during the 1980s. The Japanese corporations had merely been wise, acting in their best interests, harnessing the capitalist credo, and catering to our appetite to acquire. Americans, as a nation, wished that we had thought of it. If U.S. corporations had done everything that their Japanese counterparts had done, we would have patriotically hailed our companies, flying the banner of championship, just as we do in cases where they do succeed. But instead, we were beaten at our own game, as other countries fed our cravings. Our own national habits of profligacy made others victorious as we defeated ourselves.

Fourth, rabid consumerism takes a huge toll sociologically. It further divides the rich and poor, fostering social ills running the gamut all the way down to homelessness in the case of those trapped beneath the avalanche of costs without the financial tools to excavate themselves or their families. If you're not a winner, then you're a loser. The increase in crime has also been a natural consequence, as can be expected whenever the great divide between haves and have-nots widens further. Unlike in centuries past, now, with the help of television and accessible shopping malls, the have-nots know full well what they are missing, and they then go about getting it.

Fifth, the race to acquire has distorted the personal psyches of many in the US. Some people succeed in the game and find victory shallow, as the thrill of a new acquisition wears off and leaves them unfulfilled. Others struggle or fail in their effort, concluding that they had failed in life. Just as acquiring goods assuages some egos, the inability to acquire goods devastates many others.

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Ideas / Solutions

The challenge is how to replace "acquiriholism" with a preference for prudent use of capital for long-term benefit. The answer is simple, yet as vastly complex as the scope of the problem. There must be a shift in popular attitudes from the short-term gratification of consumerism to an attitude encouraging investment, conservation and production.

Renunciation of the materialist ethic poses a dilemma. Must we forego the fridge?, abandon autos?, avoid DVDs? Are we to regress to periods past, when computers were mere material for sci-fi writers? Is the key to reform found in simply tuning out the advances of the industrial, post-industrial and information ages? Absolutely not. There would be no joy in returning to the pre-microwave era, even if it were at all possible to do so.

Instead, there is a need for a shift in focus. One solution is to recognize the shortcomings of "acquiriholism", design an alternative code for the future, and present it in the schools, K-through-12, in different forms for different age levels.

A national council could be formed, with members including recipients of national teaching awards, university presidents, clergy, Secretaries of Education from a few States, corporate leaders, sociologists, and parents of young children.

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The Council's efforts to develop an appropriate curriculum could center on three principles. First, the principle of "less is more" could be stressed as a desirable attitude toward material goods. Corollaries could include an emphasis on not "keeping up with the Joneses", and the notion that happiness is not defined by our possessions.

The second maxim would be that charity is a more valuable use of disposable income than a never-ending pursuit of goods. An example for young children could be that eating a second orange doesn't bring as much pleasure as the first one did when your friend has not had any. The sharing makes each orange tastier and more valuable.

The third theme would be the creation of a culture of saving rather than spending. The benefits of savings and investment can be conveyed to even the youngest of students, by showing that foregoing an expense today allows greater spending in the future when there is a greater desire to purchase something that is even more expensive. Along with this would be consumer awareness lessons on the cost of credit, and the perils of hyper-extended credit. Economists who are concerned that students should not be taught to withhold spending are likely to be appeased by the macro-economic benefits to the nation of encouraging investment and savings in financial institutions.

A fourth emphasis could be that which emphasizes the need for each of us to preserve the world's limited resources. This could include a touch of the "threat of doom" approach, stressing the dangers of overly burdening our ecosystem by over-consumption and over-pollution. Examples of positive habits for young children could include the use of both sides of every sheet of paper, and retaining virtually anything that still has some use. For older students, there could be contests to create contraptions that are powered exclusively by wind, sun, water or other renewable energy sources.

This curriculum could be integrated into existing academic studies for younger students, and, for ninth-, tenth-, or eleventh-grade students, it could be included as another course in the sequence of mini-courses, as described earlier.


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