The Excesses of Affluence

I had a fun time with this week’s essay, “The Excesses of Affluence.” My research took me to strange and exotic places I’ve never set foot in before — like Mikasa, a store that sells stemware and china, Claire’s, a shop that caters to the tween girl demographic, and Dollar Tree, an emporium for cheap, plastic goods imported from China. The unifying theme of these visits — along with stops at the Goodwill and the Henrico County landfill — is America’s addiction to hyper-consumption.

Americans buy far too much useless “stuff,” to borrow comedian George Carlin’s phrase: stuff that either wears out quickly or stuff that we lose interest in. This deluge of possessions fills ever more space in ever bigger houses, supports a burgeoning self-storage industry, feeds Goodwill and other charities, and winds up in the landfill. The waste is all the more mind bloggling when you consider how little it contributes to the sum of human happiness.

But the accumulation of stuff has a price: The debt service of American households has reached 14.53 percent of disposable income, a record high achieved during an era of persistently low short- and long-term interest rates. Simultaneously, the United States ran an unsustainable $818 billion balance of trade deficit last year. At some point, foreigners will withhold their cash, U.S. interest rates will rise, the consumer debt burden will spike to incredibly painful levels, and the era of frivolous, excessive hyper-consumption will come to a wrenching end.

Until then, excessive consumption of cheap and unnecessary material goods will require excessive consumption of energy to manufacture, transport and store them, which translates into more pollution. If the global warming scare doesn’t get you, maybe the brown cloud (pictured above) emanating from China will. Not only have we outsourced our manufacturing to the Middle Kingdom, we’ve outsourced our pollution. But pollution respects no national boundaries. There’s no escaping it.

And what does this accumulation of junk buy us? Only fleeting gratification — a sensation more than offset by the anxiety caused by too much debt (just see all the ads for debt reduction and consolidation when you type “consumer debt” into Google) along with the steady degradation of the environment.

This is not a problem that government can solve. The addiction to hyper-consumerism calls for moral reform. One individual after another, one family after another, must take it upon themselves to make more responsible decisions, one after another.

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15 responses to “The Excesses of Affluence”

  1. Anonymous Avatar

    Bacon’s insane walk through Stony Point reminds of the scene in “Nashville” where Geraldine Chaplin is a BBC documentary reporter wandering through a Tennessee junkyard muttering inanities into her tape recorder. Junked cars are dead things with “rust the color of dried blood…”

  2. James Atticus Bowden Avatar
    James Atticus Bowden

    For some time I’ve been mulling an op ed “In Praise of Stuff”. Should write it at CHRISTmas time.

    I used to have the moral revulsion. Now, I see the utility of stuff as part of the growth of capital. The growth of capital creates wealth, opportunities for many, many ways for people to make a living, and elevates material poverty to new standards.

    The moral dimensions were dilemmas when Cain killed Abel.

    I don’t know how sustainable the growth of capital is – but it is pushing 4 centuries in Western Europe – despite the wars (especially in London) – and 2 centuries in the northern US (from the time when there was enough capital accumulation to fund banks and grow it more) and 1 century in the South.

    I owe you an op ed on this.

    PS. The praise of stuff can include making stuff to clean the environment, produce more cleanly, etc.

  3. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    JAB, As I made clear high in the story, I think material abundance is a wonderful thing. I don’t want to return to the living standards of the Middle Ages. I have a problem only with *excessive* consumption. By excessive, I mean consumption that contributes little to human happiness, is fueled by an increasing mountain of debt, and causes unnecessary damage to the environment.

  4. James Atticus Bowden Avatar
    James Atticus Bowden

    Excessive, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.

    The material emotional emptinness, debt, and damage are not issues for the economics. I agree that they are important, but separate issues with different solutions – as best they can be solved.

    I want to make the argument how stuff , even junk, makes good economic sense to create capital.

  5. Anonymous Avatar

    Widgets for widgets’ sake. Bowden would have done well in the Soviet Union.

  6. James Atticus Bowden Avatar
    James Atticus Bowden

    Tsk, tsk, Anon.

    Widgets in a command economy would be the old Soviet economy.

    Widgets in the Deus Ex Machina of capitalism with individuals pursuing their free choices for goods and services would be our economy.

  7. Anonymous Avatar

    I cringe humbled by the power of your logic.

  8. Anonymous Avatar

    I am intrigued by the Deus Ex Machina comment and look forward to Bowden’s op ed. However, I also feel compelled to note the irony here: Bowden is a staunch proponent of judeo christian social values within our government system. However, frugality and a focus on non-materiality is espoused in biblical wisdom, e.g. as in the quote that states the rich man’s way to heaven is not an easy path. No arguments or perspectives are entirely whole cloth but this is a social values conflict inside the judeo christian world, as well as external to it. That he depends widgets as part of the capital machine reinforces what I see as an inconsistency in the part of politically oriented judeo christians.

  9. James Atticus Bowden Avatar
    James Atticus Bowden

    Anon: Good points all.

    Jim Bacon tires of too much theology discussion, but a bit is appropriate here – long before I pen the op ed.

    The New Testament says a lot (Jesus teaches a lot) about money and wealth, etc.

    The parable of the talents – and who made the biggest profit – is illustrative.

    The issue is not the gaining of profit or producing more, but if the act of doing so or the gain itself competes with God as a god with a small g in the human heart. Is that where a person places their trust and their time as treasure?

    My point will be that greed existed when civilization began in the river valleys in 3000 BC and the village could produce enough calories for one person to not produce food, but just make clay pots and another stand guard (and of course there is the oldest profession). When wealth was a string necklace with a shiny stone or shell, there was as much greed, coveting, as now. It’s the human condition to sin.

    The production of stuff, widgets if you please, if it has a value added persons are willing to pay – since our entire monetary and economic system is based on mutually agreed perceptions – and a bit more capital is created – it adds to the growth of capital.

    The growth of capital means we all don’t have to be farmers. Milton Friedman’s Economic History of the US said that per capita capital from 1870 to 1960 increased 90 times. It means everything for investing in technologies that change life – for the better. Likewise it produces opportunities for (many) people to make money doing what they love instead of what they must – that is real freedom.

    I tell my kids that money = freedom. Never worship it or its gain. But, know that it creates a material freedom – different from ‘know ye the truth and the truth will set you free’ which is spiritual freedom from sin.

    I’m not a ‘name it and claim it’ Christian.

    FYI, I propose that the majority should rule – if the majority makes decisions based on Judeo-Christian culture, that is fine.

    The conflicts across Christendom about wealth and money have been long-standing. You’ll find a wide-range of opinions.

    It’s interesting to me to see the support for socialism back lash in parts of South America, just as the continent is on the cusp of becoming a majority Protestant population – which will change its normative attitudes towards capitalism, wealth and money, etc.

  10. Ray Hyde Avatar
    Ray Hyde

    I thought it was a great article Jim, and humorous to boot.

    I see convergence between JB and JAB in the statements “One individual after another, one family after another, must take it upon themselves to make more responsible decisions, one after another.” compared to “FYI, I propose that the majority should rule – if the majority makes decisions based on Judeo-Christian culture, that is fine.” If one happens, then the other will follow.

    I happen to think that majoritarian rule can still be wrong: Democracy has an obligation to protect its minorities. But that is an aside to the point of the article.

    I, too, am aghast when I see the crap people buy. I’m more aghast when that crap is a subcomponent of something that ought not to be crap, but whichis rendered crap by the inconsequential sum of its crappy (and irreplaceable) parts. I’ll manfacture parts from scratch before I will junk something valuable. I’d rather spend four hours in my shop, cobbling something together out of nothing than spend a hour at the mall (and an hour there and back).

    I’m not alone. I just read a story in one of my yachting magazines about a guy who rebuilt the interior of his boat in 18 varieties of exotic lumber – by dumpster diving behind some cabinet shops.

    But JAB raises a point. A lot of people seem to want that crap, and if it makes them temporally happy, then who are we to judge? Granted, we all pay the costs of junking stuff, so maybe we should counteract the externalities with higher disposal fees: call it a matter of locational costs. Let the urban areas that create masses of junk pay their full locational costs by raising the costs of disposing of it in the suburbs.

    A recent article in the Post described an effort to reclaim a massive dumpsite in Lorton – by relocating all the trash. One of my customers in Lorton claims that the heat given off by that dumpsite has created its own microclimate down there. Yet the land has now become so valuable that it may be cost effective to buy new, cheaper land elsewhere, and move 100 years of junk accumulation. It is like re-mining spoil piles when the costs of ore refining change.

    Then there is the issue of what might happen if we actually stopped accumulatin junk. What would I have to work with? What would people who create, and sell, and dispose of junk do for a living? Some people claim that we could get along quite successfuly on only 15% of what we actually use.

    All we have to do is figure out how to deal with 85% unemployment. Maybe we would have people pay for the privilege of having a job: we could call it congestion pricing.

    As for the balance of payments. it turns out that the oil producing countries, along with China, Japan, Korea, and other new industrial states, are using that imbalance to invest in the U.S.

    With such large investments here, those places now have an interest in maintaining the peace and prosperity of the U.S., which can only be good in the long run.

    Assuming we don’t continue to artificially increase the outflow by exporting wars.

  11. Ray Hyde Avatar
    Ray Hyde

    “The growth of capital means we all don’t have to be farmers.”

    Except for those of us who are effectively required to remain farmers because we are prohibited from cashing in on our growth of capital.

    All I can say is, count your lucky stars. I spent the last four days working dilegently on the farm, and I did pretty well, by farming standards.

    But in the end, the amount I made wasn’t enough to pay the interest on the tractor for the same period, let alone put fuel in it.

  12. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    re: “working dilegently …..wasn’t enough to pay the interest on the tractor for the same period, let alone put fuel in it.”

    Please provide a definition for productivity in the context of acquiring capital.


    If you CHOOSE to do something that does not benefit you “capitalistically” – and you actually could have chosen a more productive and beneficial activity… to acquire more capital…

    what was your intent in the first place?

    obviously… using your time to pine away about your inability to convert your property to more money… while riding your tractor – at a loss – strikes me as … hmmm… as perplexing I guess.

    🙂 .. just tweaking here – no evil intended.

  13. E M Risse Avatar
    E M Risse

    Jim Bacon:

    Great column! As you know, this topic is a significant part of Chapter 5 of BRIDGES and you and provide good food for thought.

    Vance Packard would be amazed at how much further wrong things have gotten since his books on post WW II excesses were best sellers.

    The battery operated grill brush is a classic. My favorite at Brookstone’s, Sharper Image, et. al. is the quad watch winder. Sales of this product indicates that there are a lot of citizens who have four watches (or more) that require motion, not a battery or hand winding to keep running and that the owners are not wearing any of them on a regular basis. A Rolex runs for three days without motion.

    In Sur de Table and William Sonoma we now buy mainly oils, spices, baking chocolate and other consumables. There is no time to use any more of the compelling tools and utensils they sell.

    Our current favorite excess in these places is the set of seven matching ceramic knives and cutting boards. Cooks are to use each set exclusively for raw fish, cooked meat, etc. to prevent “cross contamination.” How about some soap and water?

    You hinted at the solution for Household Gluttony: Household by household self evaluation of what is really needed and what actually makes one happy and safe.

    There have been at least a dozen significant movements based on this principle over the past 150 years as the negative aspects of Industrial Revolution and Technology driven Mass OverConsumption of Business-As-Usual have become more and more obvious. We still see references to Voluntary Simplicity (Small is Beautiful) that was popular in the 70s. Unte Reader provides a list of candidate movements every two months.

    Our view is that the accusation proclivities have deep genetic drivers and only high cost / less availability will curtail accumulation.

    The real need in contemporary society is for better ways to sell, trade or potlatch excess so that it gets in the hands of those who can really use it to become more safe and happy. A comprehensive system would start with the “too-good-to-trash” shed at the land fill (Warrenton / Fauquier’s is called “Trash-to-Treasure”) and include hospital auxiliaries, Goodwill, yard sales, e-Bay and much, much more. For example this would be a great role for a new citizen based news media.

    The core problem is that no one makes a profit helping others give stuff away. This is “The Problem of Profit” which we discuss in Chapter 30 of “The Shape of the Future.”

    Corporate Gluttony (as opposed to Household Gluttony) is a whole different issue. Benjamin Friedman has written a book called “The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth” which has thankfully generated a cottage industry of detractors. One reviewer reports that Professor Friedman says he has never even heard of Herman Daily.

    Unfettered “Economic Growth” (including capital expansion) is just another form of the natural phenomenon that in cellular reproduction is called cancer.

    At this point it should be obvious to all that geometric growth and consumption is unsustainable in any economic, social or physical system.

    It comes from the same root as the idea that the church with the most souls wins.


  14. E M Risse Avatar
    E M Risse

    You may not have heard of Herman either….

    He spells his name Daly,



  15. Anonymous Avatar

    Risse – you can’t be serious!

    “Daly’s ideal economy is managed by wise government officials who don’t allow resources to fall below “desired levels” in reserve, and who restrain population growth with transferable “birth licenses” sold to the public.”


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