(Yes, it’s long. This is an essay that I wrote for my Global Economics class. Global Econ essay — it’s really not as stuffy as it sounds. Summary: How the American Dream stimulates the economy at the cost of Americans’ not living full lives. Healthy economy=boring life. Enjoy!)
Dave Bartels, therapist at a clinic for recovering heart patients, says that most of his patients are CEO’s or management at large companies. They all come into the clinic with severe heart problems and large bank accounts. Dave says that he asks every one of them, “Was it worth it?” They had the houses, the cars, all the stuff that mattered, but now, each of the heart patients, driven to their demise by stress and overexertion, is facing severe setbacks and finding death to be closer than they thought. “Was it worth it,” he asks, “all the money and wealth, and then the heart attack?” Dave says that every single one said “no.” It wasn’t worth it. And yet that is the driving force for America, the American Dream. The American Dream, the pursuit of wealth and the desire to have the best, drives the American economy, but costs its people the richness of life.
“In the words of George Carlin, the comedian and satirist, America became a land of puzzling contradictions, a nation of “bigger houses but smaller families; more conveniences but less time; wider freeways but narrower viewpoints; taller buildings but shorter tempers; more knowledge but less judgment.” (American Mania, Whybrow, p. 3) According to Carlin, America has become everything that is material. Everything is bigger and better, faster and more efficient, but the things that should matter more than the material things, such as family, opinions, and time, are being lost at the cost of the pursuit of material things.
The economy is driven by people buying things. When stocks are falling, houses stay on the market, and people lose their jobs, everything freezes. People don’t buy as much because unemployment leaves them without any money to spend, and they are afraid to invest in an unstable economy. When things freeze, and people will not buy, the economy suffers. It is times like these when the government encourages spending to stimulate the economy and get everything going again.
Americans’ way of life is threatened when they are not consuming. In a society where the economy booms when people are buying, if everyone stopped consuming more than what they needed, the economy would surely suffer. “We now live in a country that has more cars (204 million) than registered drivers,” states the author of Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic (p.33). “Do we have stuff, or does it have us,” asks the author (p. 32). “In a world filled with clutter, we too easily become overwhelmed, lose our way, and get swept along in a current that carries us to the mall for more stuff, or to the car dealership for a new car – nothing down.”
Commercials, infomercials, advertisements, they’re all out to buy consumers. A lot of the things they’re selling are worthless anyway, pieces of junk. In the movie, The Pursuit of Happiness, which is based on a true story, Will Smith plays a salesman who tries to make a living selling Bone Density Scanners. The machines are very expensive and considered a luxury by doctors. They are nearly the same as an x-ray machine, but twice the cost. The salesman tells someone that the machines he sells are pointless. He was the salesman, and even he knew that his product was a waste of money. How many worthless products are there? How many salesmen try to convince society that they have the best product, even if their product is junk? These people, companies, corporations, they are in it for themselves. They do not care if the buyer can afford what they are selling, if they need the product, or if the product will benefit them. They are concerned for their well-being, for gaining more, and keeping up with the Joneses.
Similarly, in a recent scandal, Bernard Madoff was caught in what is said to be the biggest fraud in history. Because of his greed, many people went to bed as millionaires, and woke up with nothing. Their whole life’s work vanished. Also, Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe has millions of dollars, and is living a lavish lifestyle, throwing parties for which he requests a couple thousand bottles of wine and the same amount of livestock to satisfy his rich guests. Meanwhile, in his country people live in poverty. CEO’s of large companies brought in millions this year with large bonuses, while unemployment rates continued to climb. These men are consumed with the pursuit of wealth, even to the extent of causing others to suffer for their gain. What happened to working together? Being neighborly?
Unfortunately, these traits of selfishness and isolation which encourage consumption and achieving the American Dream are not a fad. They are growing with each generation as this author describes in Affluenza:
We keep consuming, partly because we’re convinced it’s normal. Writes columnist Ellen Goodman, “Normal is getting dressed in clothes that you buy for work, driving through traffic in a car that you are still paying for, in order to get to the job that you need so you can pay for the clothes, car, and the house that you leave empty all day in order to afford to live in it.” Erich Fromm reminds us about the risk of settling for “normal”: “That millions share the same forms of mental pathology does not make those people sane.”
Jan English-Leuck tries to make sense of child behavior as it relates to lifestyle. “When I shadow a three-year-old around, on the surface, that wouldn’t seem to be an encapsulation of our culture,” she said. “But when that three-year-old turns to his little sister and says, ‘Don’t bother me, I’m working,’ that’s worth overhearing.” Has the child already made the connection between the hours spent working and all the stuff his parents accumulate at the house? (Affluenza, p. 36)
Over consumption is becoming normal in society. Children are growing up, not knowing what it is like to be neighborly, and to live life without the sole purpose of gaining and accumulating.
“We hear the same refrain all the time from people: I have no life. I get up in the morning, day care, elder care, a 40 minute commute to work. I have to work late. I get home at night, there’s laundry, bills to pay, jam something into the microwave oven. I’m exhausted, I go to sleep, I wake up and the routine begins all over again. This is what life has become in America,” states Gerald Celente (Affluenza, p. 38).
And what he said is true. Americans live for work. Not only do men go to work, but women as well. Not necessarily because they want to, although many do, but because they have to in order to “make ends meet.” Child care is normal in a country where mothers used to stay at home, and whose role was to be responsible for her children’s upbringing. Parents do not have a lot of time to spend with their children because of their busy work life. Children go school so that they can go to college and get a good job, and the cycle begins again.
Where is the enjoyment in life? When people reach the end of their lives, what do they do with the amount of things accumulated? People live for what they can have, always wanting more, never being satisfied. Many people don’t live an enjoyable life. They don’t find the opportunity, or the time, to be with their children or spouse, enjoy a walk in their neighborhood, read a book, or pick up a hobby. “The pace of life has accelerated to the point where everyone is breathless,” says Dr. Richard Swenson. “You look at all the countries that have the most prosperity and they’re the same countries that have the most stress.” (Affluenza, p. 39) So, what’s the point?
Although the economy is in a slump, it will pick up soon. New companies will arise, stocks will boom, houses will sell. Government systems will slowly move out of debt, before plummeting back into it. The cycle moves on, but at what cost? Economic systems will survive at the cost of the peoples’ enjoyment of life. Forget smelling the flowers, picking the blueberries, or watching the sun set. Life is no longer about life. It is about the American Dream, accumulation and consumption, “me-first” attitudes, keeping up with the Joneses, and being better than your coworker, neighbor, or sibling. As long as the systems that govern the globe do not fail, life will continue – quantity increasing, quality decreasing, people growing richer, but ever-increasingly losing the richness of life.