2 August 2008

Materialism makes you dumb

Reality television frightens me, for it seems to provide a never ending answer to the question: "How dumb can a person get?" This is the thought that hit me the other day as I sat with Puff watching a show by the name: "Till Debt Do We Part." The premise for the show is simple: A woman who is some kind of expert on financial planning goes around and helps out couples who have money problems. If the couple does as she tells them, they will have stabilized their finances, be on their way to minimizing their debt, and as a further reward she will give them five thousand dollars.

First thing I've noticed about the show: Most of the people appear to be well off. They live in big houses, have a couple of cars. This brings a question to mind: Why is she helping people who do not appear to need help? Do the wealthy not already have enough advantages? However, I also know that wealthy people can also be stupid with their money. In fact, wealth opens up a whole new realm of stupidity unavailable to white trash such as myself. I recall a study done a few years ago which indicated that 25-30% of Americans who make $100, 000+ say they do not have enough money to buy the necessities of life. Their problem is that they consider a monster home, a cottage, two new cars (preferably a BMW and a SUV), plus an executive toy or two, and all the etc. etcs that go with them to be "necessities of life."

Another amusing point, none of the people in trouble seem to know how they got into debt. Fool that I am, I always thought debt was caused by spending more money than you had, and to avoid debt you simply had to spend less money than is on hand. Apparently I really am stupid, and debt is caused by some mysterious voodoo just hovering out there in the ether, waiting to strike at unsuspecting nice people. Were more people to act the way I do, the economy would collapse, people would be jobless everywhere and a plague of locusts would hover o'er the land.

The show that I watched began with the pater familias explaining to the camera what he would not do to get out of his predicament. He would not give up his sports car, he would not give up his seadoo, he would not give up any of the "treats" he gets himself. He explained that, gosh darn it, he worked so hard he felt he deserved these treats- plus the additional expenses of storage and gas and so on- these kind of things are the gifts that keep on taking. For myself, I understand where he's coming from. I too work hard, and I also feel that every now and then I deserve a treat, or a little reward for my efforts. However, sports cars and Seadoos are somewhat out of my range, so instead of that, once a week I treat myself to a candy bar. I buy it when I am alone, and eat in on a bench where no one from the family will see me so none of the kids will come and ask me for a piece. Selfish, I know. I'll mention it to my confessor next time I see him. I sometimes think I 'deserve' to go and see a movie, but that seems to be pushing it a little.

To his credit, the gentleman in the show saw the error of his ways, and realized his family continuing to have a roof over their heads was more important than his treats. Good for him, and I say so sincerely. But why on earth did he ever believe otherwise in the first place? How many people out there believe that?

Apparently many people do. Much of our culture and economy is based on jealousy and coveting. Advertisers whisper in our ears to go ahead and buy something, not because we need it, not because our old one is broken and can't be repaired, but because it will make us happier, or more sexy, or because the neighbours have one, or some star has one, or because we deserve it. Maybe we do deserve it, but I'd like to think we're better than that. As for the other promises, I don't know if they do make us happier or not, but they certainly make us more poorer.

I wonder if there are any studies done about materialism being like a drug. It certainly seems to me in my simple observations. It functions like cocaine- a little is all it takes at first, but then you need more. And more. And more, and still more, and more often. I've seen people behave like that with- for lack of a better term- stuff.

As I understand it, most of our new money is created through debt and realized as we pay back our debts. Debt, not labour and not manufacturing, drives the economy. Our way of life demands unhappy people mindlessly forking out credit cards in the belief that this purchase will bring them the joy all the previous purchases failed to bring. If people were to suddenly become content, and live within their means, our way of life would collapse. There are days when I don't see that as a bad thing.

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