Tag Archives: Consumerism

All I Want for Christmas is a New Lexus or Mercedes – 2017

‘Tis the season of consumerist delights and gratifications. Chicago native Mel Tormé crooned that “Christmas was made for children,” but the current age of excess and inequality encourages well-to-do adults to wish true their materialistic dreams. As was the case in 2016, Lexus and Mercedes have new commercials that show the power of seasonal goodies to make adults act like children. Whereas the Mercedes commercial (like last year) tastefully gets its message across, the series of Lexus commercials (again, like last year) is over-the-edge cynical in its depiction of adults whose childlike behavior is excused in the pursuit of perfect holiday plunder.

American-style holiday gift giving – focused on children – has been around about 150 years, necessarily coinciding with standard of living advances achieved during the Second Industrial Revolution. American Christmas as an import of the St. Nick tradition from Europe is a convenient myth that helps keep a religious veneer on the American holiday season. More historically accurate, however, is the explanation of today’s American Christmas as the modern manifestation of the ancient rhythms of rest and indulgence connected to Northern Hemisphere winter solstice.

The practice of misrule – common in Europe and early America – was a moment of social inversion centered around the solstice (December 21st) and its accompanying spoils of gathered harvest, freshly slaughtered meat, and fermented drink. Misrule gave social permission – during a few days in December and January – for the poor to enter the homes of the well-to-do demanding to be served with food, drink, and money as if the peasants themselves were the well-to-do. Misrule consisted of rowdy public displays of excessive eating and drinking, the mocking of established authority, and demands made upon the rich by the working class. Now bring us some figgy pudding . . . We won’t go until we get some – and bring it right here! The Puritans of New England – yes, it’s true – banned the celebration of Christmas in the mid-1600s not because they had issues with the legendary December birth of Jesus, but because misrule had a tendency to get out of hand. So bring it right here!

Misrule, a social bargain whereby peasants agreed to give their goodwill and deference to the wealthy and powerful for the remainder of the year, became domesticated in mid-19th century America: peasant and working-class folks were pushed aside as children became the season’s focus of charity and display of social inversion. Christmas celebrations would newly consist of private family gatherings inside homes; roving bands of young men pounding on doors and demanding the spoils of misrule eventually disappeared. Gift giving – ah, the memory of good St. Nick – was rerouted and the church was most pleased to be part of a toned-down, family affair focused on another child, the babe of Mary. Not all churches in mid-19th century America held Christmas services, but soon enough, the tide turned and the modern Christmas holiday emerged – the often contradictory mix-match of the baby Jesus, consumerist greed, lights, excessive consumption, hymns and songs, a silent night, and an awfully noisy morning with gifts for the children (and some adults). Historian Stephen Nissenbaum astutely observes that “Christmas has always been an extremely difficult holiday to Christianize.” Absolutely correct – now more than ever!

There’s nothing wrong with owning a Lexus or Mercedes – they’re good cars to get from Point A to Point B in style. The same goes for Cadillac. The above mentioned commercials (follow this link for my take on a similar Caddy commercial), however, instill an alternative reality: possession supersedes function. Notice that none of these commercials actually showcases the promoted car in action, driven by the owner. What’s marketed and sold is not function but wished-for superlative status. During the Gilded Age – another age of excess and inequality – economist Thorstein Veblen coined the term conspicuous consumption to describe spending by the richest Americans to build up their prestige and image. Veblen criticized conspicuous consumption as characteristic of a regressive society, similar to the stratified European aristocracies that many American immigrants had left behind.

When we teach our children – by propaganda, creed, and example – that wealth and possessions determine status more so than service, commitment, and character we only perpetuate the regression of American society.

Santa, the quintessential icon and patron saint for a highly consumerist society, reveals much about our societal character and identity. The gift giving tradition of St. Nick sought out needy children. Today’s American Santa does it all – taking care of children and even affluent adults. When possessions for this latter group serve the primary purpose not of utility, but of self-aggrandizement, there’s an attached danger the adult Jesus warned of numerous times and in various ways . . .

On second thought – blog post title be damned – I think I’ll keep tooling around in my ’07 Accord for the foreseeable future. Happy holidays and Merry Christmas!

isbn 9780991532827

If you’re a member of a faith community – Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or other – consider a book study series of Just a Little Bit More. The full-length book (257 pgs.) is intended for engaged readers, whereas the Summary Version and Study Guide (52 pgs.) is intended for readers desiring a quick overview of the work. It also contains discussion questions at the end of all eight chapter summaries.

Readers of both books can join together for study, conversation, and subsequent action in support of the common good.

The Spanish version of the Summary Version and Study Guide is now available. ¡Que bueno!

¡El librito de JaLBM – llamado Solo un Poco Más –está disponible en Amazon y el sitio web www.blueocotillo.com!

 

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Happy Black Friday Eve!!

Happy Thanksgiving  . . . I mean, Happy Black Friday Eve.

Daaammmnnn – I’m doing my best to adjust to the new reality, but I’m having some trouble.

I’m so deplorably old-school. I just can’t get the hang of the new lingo or the new way to roll.

Gathering together with family and friends around the table and enjoying turkey, ham, Tofurky (that’s vegetarian tofu-turkey for you extremely old-school types) and all the trimmings, toasting the day of gratitude with some nice oaky California Chardonnay . . . I now realize this description represents a by-gone era, like a black-and-white Jimmy Stewart holiday classic.

Today – early twenty-first century – “Thanksgiving” is increasingly about getting ready for Black Friday Eve and Black Friday, the biggest shopping days of the American calendar year. Turn on the football games if you must, but get ready to go! Shop!! And for our hard-working Americans, go and get the Walmart, Target, and the plethora of mall stores ready to rock, stock, and roll! Push away from the table and do your duty!

This is our time.

Or, at least it used to be.

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blackfriday2811e
I saw commerce-based Christmas commercials on TV before Halloween this year. I’m not knocking commerce; buying and selling defines the modern world and provides goods, employment, services, and meaning for the vast majority of us. Market activity is a good thing – unequivocally. We’d rather the youngest generation – able, creative, and impressionable – become integrated into the world of commerce than one of other-worldly disinterest and hate, which in extreme cases, can lead to things like terrorism.

Even though commerce is a great civilizing force, it ultimately does not make the world go round. The words of a Jewish prophet from long ago, “Life does not consist of the abundance of possessions,” cut against the grain of commerce’s ability to dominate. Maintaining balance and perspective in the midst of all the pots, pans, smartphones, sofa chairs, and cars that surround us requires either poverty or discipline.

Thanksgiving Day 2011: Walmart, Kohl’s, Target, and Best Buy annex the holiday for commercial purposes by opening their doors at 10 p.m. That very night “customer versus customer shopping rage” is reported and responded to by police in at least seven states. This year, Walmart and Target are hitting the airwaves unabashed with advertisements inviting shoppers in at 6 p.m. for Black Friday Eve. Kudos to the checkout aisle workers who, upon handing shoppers their receipts, crack a wry smile and go subversive: Have a good Black Friday Eve holiday weekend. 

Not all Americans are falling for the ploy. The pushback to maintain Thanksgiving as holiday without street fighting at the local big box retailer is gaining momentum. Increased internet commerce mitigates the big box stores’ physical lure. And that really cheap 40″ LED television on sale for Black Friday? It truly is cheap – made exclusively on the cheap for Black Friday and only sold on Black Friday.

On the positive side of the ledger, REI, the national outdoor equipment store, is leading the way by being closed on Thanksgiving Day and Friday. Locally in Austin, Tree House, an environmentally conscious home improvement store, is also closing its doors to commerce on Thursday and Friday. #optoutdoors

Two exemplary theologians of our day – Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and Dr. Walter Brueggemann – have done excellent work lifting up the classic teaching of biblical Sabbath. Sabbath is time to give thanks, slow down, take inventory, breathe deep, and get away from some of the distractions of everyday life. I’m looking forward to Sabbath time this Thanksgiving with family and friends. And then I’m going to sleep in on Friday . . .

 

T. Carlos Anderson is the author of Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good (Blue Ocotillo/ACTA, 2014).

 

 

isbn 9780991532827

If you’re a member of a faith community – Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or other – consider a book study series of Just a Little Bit More. The full-length book (257 pgs.) is intended for engaged readers, whereas the Summary Version and Study Guide (52 pgs.) is intended for readers desiring a quick overview of the work. It also contains discussion questions at the end of all eight chapter summaries.

Readers of both books can join together for study, conversation, and subsequent action in support of the common good.

The Spanish version of the Summary Version and Study Guide is now available. ¡Que bueno!

¡El librito de JaLBM – llamado Solo un Poco Más –está disponible en Amazon y el sitio web www.blueocotillo.com!

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All I Want for Christmas is a New Lexus or Mercedes – 2016

‘Tis the season of consumerist delights and gratifications. Chicago native Mel Tormé crooned that “Christmas was made for children,” but the current age of excess and inequality encourages well-to-do adults to wish true their materialistic dreams. Lexus and Mercedes have new commercials that show adults taking the traditional place of children as the recipients of seasonal goodies. Whereas the Mercedes commercial effectively uses farce to get its message across, the series of Lexus commercials (four in all) is over-the-edge cynical in its depiction of ambitious adults who successfully manipulate children and the patron saint of all things materialistic, good ol’ Santa, in the pursuit of perfect holiday plunder.

American-style holiday gift giving – focused on children – has been around about 150 years, necessarily coinciding with standard of living advances achieved during the Second Industrial Revolution. American Christmas as an import of the St. Nick tradition from Europe is a convenient myth that helps keep a religious veneer on the American holiday season. More historically accurate, however, is the explanation of today’s American Christmas as the modern manifestation of the ancient rhythms of rest and indulgence connected to Northern Hemisphere winter solstice.

The practice of misrule – common in Europe and early America – was a moment of social inversion centered around the solstice (December 21st) and its accompanying spoils of gathered harvest, freshly slaughtered meat, and fermented drink. Misrule gave social permission – during a few days in December and January – for the poor to enter the homes of the well-to-do demanding to be served with food, drink, and money as if the peasants themselves were the well-to-do. Misrule consisted of rowdy public displays of excessive eating and drinking, the mocking of established authority, and demands made upon the rich by the working class. Now bring us some figgy pudding . . . We won’t go until we get some – and bring it right here! The Puritans of New England – yes, it’s true – banned the celebration of Christmas in the mid-1600s not because they had issues with the legendary December birth of Jesus, but because misrule had a tendency to get out of hand. So bring it right here!

Misrule, a social bargain whereby peasants agreed to give their goodwill and deference to the wealthy and powerful for the remainder of the year, became domesticated in mid-19th century America: peasant and working-class folks were pushed aside as children became the season’s focus of charity and display of social inversion. Christmas celebrations would newly consist of private family gatherings inside homes; roving bands of young men pounding on doors and demanding the spoils of misrule eventually disappeared. Gift giving – ah, the memory of good St. Nick – was rerouted and the church was most pleased to be part of a toned-down, family affair focused on another child, the babe of Mary. Not all churches in mid-19th century America held Christmas services, but soon enough, the tide turned and the modern Christmas holiday emerged – the often contradictory mix-match of the baby Jesus, consumerist greed, lights, excessive consumption, hymns and songs, a silent night, and an awfully noisy morning with gifts for the children (and some adults). Historian Stephen Nissenbaum astutely observes that “Christmas has always been an extremely difficult holiday to Christianize.” Absolutely correct – now more than ever!

There’s nothing wrong with owning a Lexus or Mercedes – they’re good cars to get from Point A to Point B in style. The same goes for Cadillac. The above commercials (follow this link for my take on a similar Caddy commercial), however, instill an alternative reality: possession supersedes function. Notice that none of the six commercials I’ve tagged actually showcases the promoted car in action, driven by the owner. What’s marketed and sold is not function but wished-for superlative status. During the Gilded Age – another age of excess and inequality – economist Thorstein Veblen coined the term conspicuous consumption to describe spending by the richest Americans to build up their prestige and image. Veblen criticized conspicuous consumption as characteristic of a regressive society, similar to the stratified European aristocracies that many American immigrants had left behind.

When we teach our children – by propaganda, creed, and example – that wealth and possessions determine status more so than service, commitment, and character we only perpetuate the regression of American society.

Santa, the quintessential icon and patron saint for a highly consumerist society, reveals much about our societal character and identity. The gift giving tradition of St. Nick sought out needy children. Today’s American Santa does it all – taking care of children and even affluent adults. When possessions for this latter group serve the primary purpose not of utility, but of self-aggrandizement, there’s an attached danger the adult Jesus warned of numerous times and in various ways . . .

On second thought – blog post title be damned – I think I’ll keep tooling around in my ’07 Accord for the foreseeable future. Merry Christmas!

isbn 9780991532827

If you’re a member of a faith community – Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or other – consider a book study series of Just a Little Bit More. The full-length book (257 pgs.) is intended for engaged readers, whereas the Summary Version and Study Guide (52 pgs.) is intended for readers desiring a quick overview of the work. It also contains discussion questions at the end of all eight chapter summaries.

Readers of both books can join together for study, conversation, and subsequent action in support of the common good.

The Spanish version of the Summary Version and Study Guide is now available. ¡Que bueno!

¡El librito de JaLBM – llamado Solo un Poco Más –está disponible en Amazon y el sitio web www.blueocotillo.com!

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Santa, Our National Patron Saint!!

A patron saint is defined as a mythical and revered guardian figure of a people or country. Who, I ask, is the patron saint of the United States? George Washington? Since he is a relatively recent historical figure, he is subsequently disqualified – we understand Washington and others like him (Jefferson and Franklin) to be founding fathers. Johnny Appleseed, Paul Bunyon, or John Henry? We’re getting closer, but most American kids would recognize only one of the three, at best. How about Uncle Sam? He looks the part in red, white, and blue – but what more do we know of him than his finger pointed beckoning citizens to national service? To be a national patron saint, all – especially children – need to understand the details of the candidate’s story. Santa is the only one who qualifies; he, unquestionably, is the American national patron saint in this current day of commerce, materialism, and consumerism.

Santa – unequivocally an American invention – has an interesting history. It starts with St. Nicholas (270-343), a Christian bishop who lived in Myra – modern-day Turkey. He had a reputation for favoring children; he brought them justice and gave them gifts.

jalbm st. nicholas

A depiction of St. Nicholas of Myra. Notice the bishop’s mitre, the shepherd’s staff, the cross, and the religious vestments.

The date of his death, December 6, became his festival day. For centuries, various places in Europe revered the saint and practiced gift giving on his festival day. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves if we make a direct unbroken link from St. Nick’s December festival day and its practice of gift giving to the Christmas of today. More so, there’s a deeper connection between today’s gift giving and the ancient rhythms of indulgence (sometimes to the point of excess) during the winter months.

The winter solstice, December 21 – the shortest day in the Northern Hemisphere – has a deep and long cultural history. The celebration of greens and lights at the solstice, as is well-known, predates Christianity by millennia. The early church, not yet consolidated in doctrine and calendar, celebrated the birth of Christ on different dates throughout the year according to local custom. Constantine corporatized the church in 325, bringing conformity to its doctrine. Pope Julius brought consolidation to its calendar in 350 and proclaimed December 25 to be the festival day of the birth of Christ. The church understood its position to be strong enough to compete with Saturnalia and other pagan festivals celebrating the rebirth of the sun, covering over them, as it were, with the birth of the Son.

Historian Stephen Nissenbaum (The Battle for Christmas, Knopf, 1997) astutely observes that “Christmas has always been an extremely difficult holiday to Christianize.” Absolutely correct.

Protestantism’s penchant to not revere saints meant that St. Nick didn’t make the trip to the New World neither with the Pilgrims, the Puritans, nor northern European immigrants (Nissenbaum says that American Christmas as an early 19th century Dutch import is an “invented tradition”). As a matter of fact, Christmas celebrations in early America had more in common with the ancient celebrations related to the rhythms of harvest and the solstice than they did with church teaching. In the Northern Hemisphere, the weeks preceding and following the solstice (what we moderns call November, December, and January) traditionally have been the time of gathering in harvests, slaughtering for fresh meat, and enjoying the products of fermentation, beer and wine. We Northern Hemisphere moderns who purchase fresh apples from Chile in May might have difficulty understanding this ancient rhythm, since we are able to procure most whatever we want any time during the year. Even so, let me ask you to entertain a few questions: Do you have a tendency to put on a few pounds over the winter holiday season? Have you ever signed up for a gym membership in January? December was and is the time for excess – eating, drinking, giving, celebrating, leisure – a time to enjoy the labors of year-end and a time for misrule.

Misrule, historically, was a moment of social inversion when the wealthy and powerful deferred to their dependents and poorer neighbors. Practiced in Europe and early America, misrule gave social permission – during a few days in December and January – for the poor to enter the homes of the well-to-do demanding to be served with food, drink, and money as if the peasants themselves were the well-to-do. Misrule consisted of rowdy public displays of excessive eating and drinking, the mocking of established authority, and demands made upon the rich by the working class. Now bring us some figgy pudding . . . We won’t go until we get some – and bring it right here! The Puritans of New England – yes, it’s true – banned the celebration of Christmas in the mid-1600s not because they had issues with the legendary December birth of Jesus, but because misrule had a tendency to get out of hand. So bring it right here!

One of the unwritten rules of misrule, however, was the continuation of a social bargain. The peasants, satisfied with the brief turning of the tables during misrule, were to offer their goodwill and deference to the wealthy and powerful for the rest of the year. If you’ve ever received a Christmas bonus at a job where you felt you were underpaid, you can see that misrule is still with us. It’s the misrule bargain: accept your once-a-year bonus and do not grumble about your low pay for the balance of the year – a gift given in exchange for goodwill.

Misrule became domesticated in mid-19th century America: peasant and working-class folks were pushed aside as children became the season’s focus of charity and display of social inversion. Christmas celebrations would newly consist of private family gatherings inside homes; roving bands of young men pounding on doors and demanding the spoils of misrule disappeared. Gift giving – ah, the memory of St. Nick yet alive – was rediscovered and the church was most pleased to be part of a toned-down, family affair focused on another child, the babe of Mary. Not all churches in mid-19th century America held Christmas services. That began to change, however, and the societal move away from excesses so ingrained into the season by climate, culture, and practice was gaining momentum – until, that is, Sinterklaas took on American shape and form.

Sinterklaas, Dutch for St. Nicholas, became Americanized awfully fast. The Dutch version of St. Nicholas was transformed significantly to become the American Santa Claus: stripped bare of all religious symbolism and enhanced according to the traditional seasonal excesses. No mitre, but a cap; no shepherd’s staff, but a whip for his reindeer; no crosses, but gifts galore. The cleric red vestments were replaced by a snowsuit, covering an extensive paunch. As a matter of fact, depictions of Santa show his belly growing larger and larger as the mid-19th century gave way to the Gilded Age (1870-1900) and its proliferation of excess.

Santa-Claus-Pics-0415

Our modern Santa – with a little commercial backing.

 

James Farrell (One Nation Under Goods: Malls and the Seduction of American Shopping, Smithsonian, 2004) calls Santa the most appropriate icon for an affluent society. Santa made his first Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade appearance in 1924, and then became comfortably ensconced into malls when they came to prominence in post-WW II America. Malls in America: where else would Santa, the very embodiment of consumption’s blessings for the youngest members of our society, be more apropos? The united values of consumption and materialism are effectively reinforced in American malls. The domestication of misrule moves forward, as the bearded and bellied commercial icon par excellence looks into the eyes of a child and all but promises her that her material dreams will be fulfilled – with a similar misrule social bargain – as long as she behaves.

Ol’ Claus by Ferrell’s estimation is the national “symbol of material abundance and hedonistic pleasure.” Even so, the big old man has a religious aura – he’s supernatural and omniscient, somehow all-knowing of our activities, good and bad. In Santa’s kingdom, the nice receive pleasing gifts and the naughty get a second chance. And just like that, with a twinkle in his eye, he gives his divine like blessing upon our materialistic American Christmas. More Americans exchange gifts during the season than make traditional religious observance. What St. Santa represents – commerce, materialism, consumption – qualifies as the dominant religion of the land.

In my book Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good I argue that this dominant religion or ultimate concern (to use theologian Paul Tillich’s phrase) has for the most part been a good religion that has fed, clothed, sheltered, and employed millions – lifting many of these from the grips of economic poverty. But when this religion goes too far, and becomes an end in and of itself – the religion breaks bad and the societal common good suffers. Our unexamined proclivity to trust in economic growth as the healer of all our ills is misguided; economic growth has done its good work for American society, but we’ve reached a point of diminishing returns. Further gains in income and wealth for affluent societies don’t give its citizens the improvements once seen in the societies’ earlier and less affluent days. Since 1980, economic gains in the United States, going mostly to the richest Americans, have unfortunately helped exacerbate social problems related to inequality: mental illness, teenage pregnancy, obesity, incarceration rates, and (decreasing) upward social mobility rates. Many of these problems directly and indirectly affect American children, one out of every four of them living in poverty, in the richest country in the history of the world.

It’s naturally based in history that the Northern Hemisphere’s season of winter solstice and accompanying holidays come with a touch of excess celebration, leisure, and the sharing and consumption of material goods. The grand majority of us look forward to and appreciate the December/January holiday season. It’s good to have a change of pace and break from that which the rest of the year consists: work and necessary routine.

Santa, the quintessential icon and patron saint for a highly consumerist society, tells us quite a bit about our own character and identity as a society (and what it is we teach our children). Does it all boil down to this: If we have enough stuff we’ll be alright?

 

 

This blog post and others on this website are representative of my views and writing in Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good, distributed nationally by ACTA Publications, and available at http://www.blueocotillo.com, Amazon, or any other bookselling venue.

The Spanish version of the Summary Version and Study Guide is now available. ¡Que bueno!

¡El librito de JaLBM – llamado Solo un Poco Más –está disponible en Amazon y el sitio web www.blueocotillo.com!

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Vacations are for Slackers . . .

It’s summertime – have you taken a vacation yet? A recent national survey claims that 42 per cent of working Americans didn’t take any vacation days in 2014. Wow – keep that stat in mind the next time you have an interchange with a grumpy employee. Maybe he’s having a bad day in part because he hasn’t had time off from the job for a significant stretch. The United States is the only developed nation in the world that doesn’t lawfully mandate paid vacation days for workers.

Some Americans are workaholics and others actually like their jobs so much they don’t take any vacation days. Workaholics and job-lovers together, however, we can assume to be a minority. Other Americans in low-paying jobs are unable or afraid to take time off (lest they lose their jobs), and other Americans are uncomfortable getting away from the office or workplace lest necessary tasks be forgotten or mismanaged by others. Other Americans, because of our incomplete system of health care coverage, end up using vacation days as sick or family leave days.

Most Americans – whether vacation-takers or not – live in obeisance to the dominant religion of the day: the troika of materialism, commerce, and consumerism. On the surface, it’s a good religion that feeds, shelters, clothes, and employs us. But when the religion goes overboard – too many hours worked is but one example – it breaks bad and damages societal common good.

jalbm neal

The Caddy Man

By the numbers, the three people groups most devoted to working are South Koreans, Americans, and Australians. Only South Koreans take fewer vacation days and holidays than American workers; only Australians work on average more weeks per year than Americans. The Caddy Man, actor Neal McDonough, perfectly describes (albeit unintended) the dominant religion in America. Speaking incredulously of those woosified Europeans: “They take August off – off!”

Once upon a time (in the 1950s), many commentators, confident of increased gains in productivity and innovation, foresaw a shorter workweek and increased leisure time for Americans by the last few decades of the century. Those predictions fell completely flat. Americans worked, on the average, 160 hours more a year in 2000 than in 1970. America, historically associated with the opportunity to work, now seems to be associated with the domination of work (for those who can find it). Consumerism, of course, has brought about work’s ability to rule.

According to Adam Sacks of Oxford Economics – an organization that serves the travel industry – the average working American leaves five vacation days unused per year. Sacks calls it a culture of work martyrdom: those who don’t use all their vacation are more virtuous than those who do take all their vacation days. Vacations are for slackers.

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The star-forming region NGC 3603 - seen here in the latest Hubble Space Telescope image - contains one of the most impressive massive young star clusters in the Milky Way. Bathed in gas and dust the cluster formed in a huge rush of star formation thought to have occurred around a million years ago. The hot blue stars at the core are responsible for carving out a huge cavity in the gas seen to the right of the star cluster in NGC 3603's centre.

Hubble Space Telescope pic

Vacations are also for those seeking renewal and rejuvenation. One of the first stories in Hebrew scriptures tells of the Creator God taking a day off at the conclusion of an extended work project. The moral of the story: creativity and rest go hand-in-hand. We are capable of creating and doing good work on little sleep; but, over the long haul, you and I need rest and downtime in order to be effective in relationships and in work environments.

When will we see a change in the way working America operates? The typical reward for good work is increased pay. While many appreciate (and need) an increase in pay, when will we see a culture shift that rewards employees’ good work with more time off?

 

 

 

This blog and website are representative of the views expressed in my book Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good. JaLBM is available on Amazon as a paperback and an ebook. It’s also available on Nook and iBooks/iTunes, and at the website of Blue Ocotillo Publishing.

For book clubs, community of faith study groups, and individuals, the Summary Version and Study Guide of JaLBM is now available at the Blue Ocotillo website and on Amazon. It’s a “Reader’s Digest” version (fifty-two pages) of the full-length original with discussion questions at the end of each chapter. Join the conversation about social and economic inequality – without having to be hyperpartisan – and let’s figure out how capitalism can do better!

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The Dresser Drawers of Fast Fashion

Do you ever have trouble closing your dresser drawers because of too many clothes? Perhaps the excess serves to remind you to sort through your clothes and bag some of them for Goodwill or Salvation Army.

Filmmaker Andrew Morgan says Americans consume and discard significantly more clothing items than two decades ago. Who knew? His new documentary on the clothing industry, The True Cost, explains yet another aspect of American overconsumption and its negative consequences realized in places of production like China, Bangladesh, and India. Prices for many clothing items have been trending down for the last two decades in great part because of China’s entry into apparel production. According to an article in the New York Times, US clothing and apparel expenditure in 1987 accounted for 5.4 percent of all personal consumption spending. By 2009, that figure was down to 3.1 percent. Even so, we (and others in different parts of the world) have purchased more clothes, because the prices are so cheap!!I-have-too-much-stuff

This is a good thing, right? Global economic competition means people in the developed world get more choices of garments and shoes at better prices and people in the underdeveloped world are able to work. This is the process that raises people out of poverty. Yes – it’s been going on for close to 300 years . . .

But it has to be done in the right way.  Although laborers had been abused long before the advent of the industrial era, labor abuse achieved systemic perfection during the era. Conditions in sweatshops have been exposed by countless writers from Upton Sinclair (The Jungle, 1906) to Naomi Klein (No Logo, 1999). The unseemly similarities between the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in Manhattan killing 146 mostly immigrant garment workers and the 2013 Rana Plaza collapse in Dhaka, Bangladesh killing 1,129 garment workers and injuring over 2,500 are simultaneously tragic and shameful. We may have eliminated the drastic labor abuses in the American garment industry (and today only 3% of the clothes Americans purchase are manufactured in US factories, compared to 95% in 1960), but when we purchase and wear garments produced in questionable conditions overseas, we are complicit. Fierce global competition does lead to lower prices, but it also helps create abysmal working conditions for laborers.

Monsanto – the company that would slap a patent on Mother Nature if it could – sells its genetically modified (to guard against pests) and expensive cotton seeds to farmers in India. Most likely, you have some garments made from Indian cotton in your dresser drawers; India is the second largest producer and exporter of cotton in the world. Indian farmers currently (and historically) suffer from high rates of suicide. Monsanto (of course) denies that the high price of its seeds (manufactured in part with Indian companies) and associated farmer debt are linked to the recent rash of suicides. To be fair to Monsanto, there are other contributing factors to the suicides, such as alcoholism and personal domestic problems.

The Monsanto publicity department works hard on promoting an image of hard-driving multinational company stretching the bounds of science for the benefit of all humankind. But remember, Monsanto is the company that not only spies on, bullies, and sues its own customers, but it also owns the patent rights to “terminator gene” technology – the capability to make seeds sterile (and consequently force farmers to buy new seed every single planting season). They vow, however, not to use the technology . . . Right. Sounds kinda like Iran saying it won’t enrich uranium to weapons level grade. Which of the two do I trust less: Monsanto or Iran?

I have digressed – but it was purposeful digression. Remember the clothes we dropped off at Goodwill? Only ten percent of those items will end up on hangers inside the store for resale. The rest of it gets split into three areas: recycled rags and insulation, Sub-Saharan African resale markets, and landfills. The garment industry is the second most polluting in the world (behind the energy industry with its coal, oil, and gas), and globalization has made it possible to produce clothing at such low prices that many now consider clothing to be a disposable item – giving rise to the term fast fashion, akin to the term fast food.

Charlie_Chaplin_Machine

Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times (1936)

Theologian Paul Tillich, decades ago, accurately described the modern age we live in:

Man is supposed to be the master of the world and of himself. But actually he has become a part of the reality that he has created, an object among objects, a thing among things, a cog within a universal machine in which he must adapt himself to in order not to be smashed by it. (From Theology of Culture, Oxford University Press, 1959, 7-8.)

Fast fashion looks to be as unhealthy as fast food. Slow down, search for quality, make it last, reuse or remake it when possible, recycle, and – oh yeah – buy fewer items.

 

 

This blog and website are representative of the views expressed in my book Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good. JaLBM is available on Amazon as a paperback and an ebook. It’s also available on Nook and iBooks/iTunes, and at the website of Blue Ocotillo Publishing.

For book clubs, community of faith study groups, and individuals, the Summary Version and Study Guide of JaLBM is now available at the Blue Ocotillo website and on Amazon. It’s a “Reader’s Digest” version (only fifty-two pages) of the full-length original with discussion questions at the end of each chapter.

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America’s True Religion

(It’s been a year since Cadillac – spot on – defined America’s dominant religion. Let’s revisit this classic.)

The Cadillac commercial many saw during the February 2014 Winter Olympic Games coverage precisely embodies America’s true religion: the confluence of commerce, materialism, and consumerism. Check it out below.

Theologian Paul Tillich broadened the definition of religion when he described it as “ultimate concern.” The actor in the commercial, Neal McDonough, strikingly articulates America’s dominant religion step-by-step. “We’re crazy, driven, hard-working believers.” And then he tells us what we believe in, while striding aside the $75,000 four-wheeled object of adulation: “It’s pretty simple. You work hard, you create own luck, and you gotta believe anything is possible.”

Don’t get me wrong – on the surface, commerce/materialism/consumerism is not a bad religion, or ultimate concern. It’s fed, clothed, housed, employed, and provided for millions of Americans (and many others) and served the common good for a number of generations. Work, a vital component of the religion, enables our survival at the most basic level. But when it goes to excess – hours worked, inordinate material and consumerist pursuits – the religion becomes idolatrous. McDonough’s character becomes a type of high priest enticing us to a counterfeit promised land found via “just a little bit more.” Americans began to work more and more hours in the late 1970s, reversing a long-standing trend of declining number of hours worked. Whereas America has been historically associated with the opportunity to work, the country now seems to be associated with the domination of work (for those who can find it).

We do work hard (only South Koreans and Australians work more hours than Americans), but the American economic mobility that used to be the benchmark for the rest of the world has significantly eroded away. The philosophy of work hard and advance applies to an increasingly smaller group of Americans than it used to. Our high priest of materialism disparages that “other countries take August off.” Does he not know that time away from work has been assiduously fought for over the decades since the Industrial era brought its blessings and curses? A bit more than a century ago Andrew Carnegie’s steelworkers worked twelve hour days, seven days a week. The upside of that? They helped build the nation that later spawned characters like McDonough’s that imply poor people have no one to blame but themselves, lazy and uninspired.

Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good further details America’s true religion and calls for a counter movement based in economic democracy. The book is available through this website, and wherever books are sold. The following excerpt is from chapter 5:

Work is a great opportunity in the United States. We’re thankful for it even as it saps our energy and youthfulness. But, does work always deliver on its promise to take care of us? Whom does our work benefit – ourselves and our community, or are we unwittingly part of some larger design where our contributions are parasitically annexed for someone else’s gain? Is the pace we keep with our work one that gives freedom or creates bondage? Increasingly, our rates of consumption with their propensity toward excesses speak of bondage – exorbitantly so. Americans have 1.3 billion credit cards (four for every man, woman, and child) while our savings rate continues to plummet to nearly net zero.

All rights reserved. Blue Ocotillo Publishing, May 2014.

Just a Little Bit More is available on Amazon for slightly less than $75k.

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Economic Growth: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

In this current day when congressional Republicans and Democrats don’t agree on much of anything, there is one thing that creates a rare kum bay ya moment of unity for the two groups: economic growth. Don’t get me wrong – healthy economic growth provides jobs, creates necessary goods, and keeps the majority of us fed, clothed, and sheltered. Healthy economic growth is a many-splendored thing! However, for reasons I will explain below, we tend to become fixated with economic growth to the point where we proclaim it our societal salvation: the elixir to ameliorate all social problems from unemployment to social program funding deficits. To the contrary, I propose that the unexamined pursuit of economic growth in a finite world only makes our problems worse and hinders us from seeking and implementing actual solutions.

Let’s cut to the chase. As the Depression eventually gave way to post-World War II, vibrant economic growth in America lifted many out of poverty and pretax incomes between the richest and poorest Americans narrowed. Economic growth (annual GDP) hummed along at 4% and 5% yearly rates.  The US government published the first national poverty rate – 22.4% – in 1959, a significant improvement over the poverty rate estimates of 40-60% during the Depression. One of the main factors contributing to this strong growth was cheap and plentiful oil. As US production of oil was not able to keep up with demand, reliance upon cheap and plentiful foreign oil increased in the 1960s. The OPEC oil embargo of 1973 changed all that. Economic growth decreased to 3% during the 1970s and ’80s, and for the fifteen years of the new century it has hovered around 2%. One of the main factors for the decrease of the growth rate is the increasing price of energy due to the difficult and costly process of extracting energy sources.

Have you ever heard of the term EROEI? It’s an acronym for energy returns on energy invested. Back in the days of Rockefeller and the early American oil boom, EROEI was 100:1, meaning the energy equivalent of one barrel of oil input produced one-hundred barrels output. The area surrounding Titusville, Pennsylvania attracted oil drillers in the 1860s because of the ubiquity of oil springs – little creeks of oil! Those were, as they say, the good old days. Today EROEI for oil is about 15:1. Extracting petroleum from the bottom of the North Atlantic, for example, can be classified as an engineering miracle – albeit an expensive and extremely complex one. As the Keystone XL pipeline continues to be a point of contention in US Congress and American society, check if the sites from which you source information actually report on the EROEI of the Canadian tar sands. I’ve yet to hear a mainstream news organization mention EROEI. Some of the tar sands have a ratio as low as 3:2. Joseph Tainter and Tad Patzek, in their excellent treatise on our current energy dilemma, Drilling Down (Springer, 2012), tell us that to power a complex modern society a net energy ratio of at least 5:1 is required. Yes, the completion and implementation of the pipeline will create jobs – but at what cost? I’ve not even mentioned the accompanying pollution and strains on water supplies that the production of these energy sources entails, and the additional release of carbon into the atmosphere upon their eventual consumption and use . . .

To complicate matters, the Saudis are flooding the market with – just like the good old days – cheap oil. As I write this post in January 2015, gasoline prices in America are hitting long-time lows as the price of oil crashes the $50/barrel barrier for the first time since 2005. And, on cue, economic growth is up. Some are hoping (reports come out at the end of January) for a 5% growth rate – just like the good old days – for the fourth quarter of 2014. Will it last? Has the American economy made its long-awaited comeback to 1950s’ era growth? We’d be foolish to expect a return to what used to be. Cheap, high quality energy – coal powering the industrial era before oil became dominant at the turn of the 20th century – provides strong economic growth and is the essential foundation of the highly advanced society of which we are accustomed. A gallon of gasoline has the energy equivalent of four hundred person hours of work. Giddy up and then some!

So, YES, economic growth is a good thing. BUT, the good and strong growth we’ve experienced has been based principally on a cheap energy source. The fossil fuels coal and petroleum, essentially millions of years of chemically stored sunlight, have made possible a 200-year run of high-phase energy gain. Social commentator Richard Hienberg says we’ve gotten accustomed to a “perpetual growth machine.” For those who think the next high-yield energy source – methane hydrate is currently being touted – will pick up the slack when fossil fuels run their inevitable course of completion, I ask: Is it not narcissistic and irresponsible to think we have to continue on the same trajectory of consumption we’ve been on for the past 200 years? Financial advisor and writer Paul Kedrosky wisely opines: “I want to believe in innovation and its possibilities, but I am more thoroughly convinced of entropy.” In other words, the unlimited growth machine can’t and won’t last forever.

Australian economist Clive Hamilton calls our commitment to unlimited growth above all other things a fetish, “an object worshipped for its magical powers.” Unlimited growth is known by another name: cancer. The defining characteristic of a cancer cell is its inability to self-regulate. Healthy cells follow an established cycle of division, multiplication, and then, inevitably, death. Cancer cells are interested in only one thing: unlimited growth. Similarly, over-commitment to economic growth makes us susceptible to bubbles – the 1990s’ dot.com and the 2000s’ housing bubbles being the most recent examples. Economic bubbles are like cancer cells – they don’t know when to stop and they damage the common good.

What I’d really like to hear from a politician – a president, no less – is talk about a steady state economy. In this day and age, an elected leader – Republican, Democrat, or independent – tempts political death if he or she were to speak common sense and encourage steady state economics. That’s why it’s left up to authors and bloggers like me to do it.

My next blog post will cover steady state economy. Until then –

T. Carlos Anderson

And, in case you’re wondering, the EROEI of wind and solar energies are 20:1 and 13:2, respectively.

 

My book, Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good, is available at http://www.blueocotillo.com and wherever books and ebooks are sold, including Amazon.

 

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Black Friday Eve – I mean, Thanksgiving

The hallmark shopping day that is called Black Friday threatens to subsume the previous day, still known as Thanksgiving. Perhaps Thanksgiving needs to be put on some type of endangered holiday list. The following excerpt from Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good describes the dominant culture in the US since the early 1980s: the confluence of commerce, materialism, and consumerism. It’s like a religion in the sense that it is of “ultimate importance.” It’s been a good religion providing food, clothing, shelter and employment for many, but when it goes too far (as exemplified below), this religion breaks bad and damages societal common good.

 

Thanksgiving Day, November 24, 2011, was the day that a number of big American retailers—Kohl’s, Target, Best Buy, and Walmart—extended the biggest shopping day of the year, Black Friday, with a prelude. Their doors would open at 10 p.m. Thursday night and stay open through Friday.* The big, bloating turkey and trimmings meal that begets tiredness be damned; employees would need to report to work early Thanksgiving evening to prepare for the onslaught of shoppers.

That evening at a Walmart in Los Angeles, a woman doused fellow shoppers with pepper spray in order to get her hands on one of a few discounted Xbox video-game players available. The woman was accused of “competitive shopping,” using the spray to gain preferred access to merchandise in various parts of the store. She left after making her purchases; twenty people were eventually treated for minor injuries from the pepper spray. A Los Angeles police lieutenant described the melee as “customer versus customer shopping rage.” That same evening in six additional states other retailers witnessed similar violence.

Research shows that the same area in the brain is stimulated and rewarded when the following tasks are involved: making money, having sex, getting a good deal, and using cocaine. Dopamine receptors in the primitive brain light up when one “scores”—financially, sexually, or chemically. In one study, laboratory rats, when wired to receive electrical stimuli in the dopamine centers of their brains, opted to continually press a lever facilitating the stimulus—this “hit” eventually became more important than all other activities, including eating and drinking: death by dopamine. We humans are infinitely wiser than rats, but the options that titillate our lizard brain dopamine centers are more expansive as well. Thankfully, Black Friday Eve—rather, Thanksgiving—comes only once a year.

*Malls are following the trend to open their doors on Thanksgiving for shoppers, cooperating with the big retailers to essentially annex the holiday for commercial purposes. Chapter 5 of Just a Little Bit More further explores the role of malls in what I call America’s mythic religion.

 All rights reserved by T. Carlos Anderson and Blue Ocotillo Publishing, 2014.

Click here to purchase Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good. Paperback, $14.95. You will be redirected to the Blue Ocotillo Publishing website. JaLBM, admittedly, is not as much fun as an Xbox, but the lessons therein might inspire an Xbox-loving reader to consider ventures beyond the world of virtuality.

Click here if you prefer to purchase paperback from Amazon. Ebook available on Amazon, iBooks, and Nook.

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Playing the Game

How much money do you make? Do your possessions measure up to your neighbor’s? What does your car or truck (I live in Texas) say about your social status? The level of importance we lend to the answers of these questions determines the extent to which we are playing the game.

The confluence of commerce, materialism, and consumerism is the game – and in my book, Just a Little Bit More, I call this game the dominant force in American society. It has its good side: playing the game puts food on our tables, clothes on our backs, roofs over our heads, and money in our bank accounts. Not only that, it gives us purposeful activity and work (most of the time) that benefit fellow members of the human family. The playing of the game, however, can go too far. Americans work more hours than we used to, and the heightened pursuit of possessions and goods drives us into greater debt. Instead of the promised joy and fulfillment these possessions seem to promise, we can find ourselves stuck in a cycle of depressing and anxiety-producing consumption. This game will rule those who devote themselves to it.

The Gilded Age (1870 – 1900) was a previous era of societal fixation on material consumption. American economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen coined the term “conspicuous consumption” in 1899 to describe the spending by the richest Americans to build up their own prestige and image. Whether the Gilded Age or today: Isn’t it interesting that we almost always “compare up”? It can serve as positive motivation to see that your over-achieving neighbor has bettered her standing and that of her family by a combination of hard work and fortuitousness. But, comparing up – evaluating  your status in contrast to your neighbor who has more – can also erode a sense of shared community and eliminate a feeling of gratitude for what one does have.

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Since the 2007-08 economic swoon, to be a part of the richest 1 percent – unless your name is Donald Trump or Tom Perkins – has not been something about which to toot your horn. If you live in a household that has a yearly income of more than $383,000 in the United States, you are a 1 percenter. Most of us (but not all) reading this blog are not 1 percenters. There is nothing inherently wrong with being a 1 percenter. If it gives you a certain sense of relief to not be included in that exclusive grouping, momentarily repossess your unease. US households that take in $140,000 a year are included in top 1 percent of earners globally. Perspective is important; the United States has more 1 percenters than we might think . . .

The United States, because of advanced development and sheer strength of population, has half of the world’s richest 1%. Seventy million people make up 1 percent of overall world population (7 billion), and the United States has some 35 million people (about 11 % of US population) that are part of households that take in more than $140,000 a year. The remainder of the global richest 1 percent primarily come from Britain, Germany, France, and Japan. Conversely, 2.5 billion people (35% of world population) live on less than $2 a day, the majority of these being women and children. An incredible reality – and let’s not bicker about the definition of poverty – that one in every three humans lives with significant material deficiencies.

Thankfully, we don’t have to worry about those who live in poverty. This attitude – screw the poor – is also part of playing the game. All we (who don’t live in poverty) need to do is work and consume and the gate-keeper of the game, the Market, will take care of the rest! We just buy stuff and consume to our hearts’ content and we don’t have to worry about those “below” us. If they want some of what we got, let them get in the game and work for it. True enough for some, but not universally true for all. Adults, whether living on $2 a day or $383,000 a year, are responsible for their own actions and suffer the consequences of bad choices. Yet, it’s a fallacy (and if you identify as religious, it’s idolatrous) to believe that an ever-expanding market system will provide all that we and everyone else will need.

A regular reader of this blog, in agreement with the principles brought forth in Just a Little Bit More, asked me: So, what are we to do? Answer: Inform yourself and stay up to speed on the topic of inequality, be part of the conversation (especially with the younger generation currently being initiated into the lures of materialism), and, take positive action. Perhaps the most important part of taking positive action is to make sure you’re not playing the game. If you’ve got enough to eat, if you own a house that is in good shape, if you are shepherding a vehicle or two (or three) . . .  and you’re still playing the game – then it might be time to reconsider your values and your goals. The game is good up to a point. But beware: the continual striving for more and more, as with an addiction, eventually satisfies less and less. Compare down for a change. You might see a new reality and be inspired to play the game in a different way.

 

Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good is available at the Blue Ocotillo Publishing website.

 Thanks to Pastor David Moore of Austin, Texas for the suggestion, via conversation, of this topic. David, in talking on this topic, prefers to use a basis of individual earners as opposed to households. Using individual earners lowers the threshold considerably for top 1 percent earners globally – down to about $50,ooo a year – as non-workers (children, mostly) in households are disregarded. Pastor David’s Moore’s website: http://www.twocities.org.

 

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