I am concerned that this topic may get your hackles up. I’m getting dangerously close to your panic button. I don’t want to lose you and so I begin by admitting my own guilt.
The black beauty in my one-stall garage is testimony to the fact that I am an unrestrained consumer. I am a man of limited means and the “crip-mobile” — that’s what I call the handicap-equipped van in the driveway — has nearly 150,000 miles on her engine and does not meet the extent of my wife’s needs any longer. Geez, the radio doesn’t even work!
I’m upside-down on car payments, meaning it wouldn’t sell for what I still owe on it. That’s because I chose a payment plan I could afford which means the bank owns her until I die.
She’s a two-door coupe with foreign emblems on her hood and trunk. But, I hasten to add, she was made in the U.S.A. IWhen I drive her, I feel like I’ve got the world by the tail.
Which I don’t. What I have are debts I could be paying instead of making car payments! I really don’t need that car.
I also own every type of communication device known to man — a desktop computer, a laptop computer, an iPad, a Kindle and a smartphone. I love my phone almost as much as my car!
Because of her mobility issues, my wife is unable to go to the mall shopping so she shops on the Internet where impulse buying has no bounds. No, I didn’t say she does that. She’s my editor and if I did, the words would disappear!
So don’t feel too bad if you feel a little pain while reading this essay. I want you to. Unrestrained consumerism is the unwitting partner of unrestrained capitalism.
It’s no wonder we are unrestrained. We work long and hard hours, get in the car which the bank still owns, creep through rush hour traffic to our home with its bank or rent payment overdue, plop down in the Bubba chair in front of the mindwasher and get our kicks from non-stop commercials that show us how the other half lives. We just have to have that item we’ve just seen on our screen!
Every other commercial tells about a new miracle drug we must tell one of our doctors about the first chance we get. Then there are the gadgets only available on TV. We’re encouraged to lose weight or improve our looks for a price, though pushing back from the table is free. There’s a party at the local pub with a rock band and dancing. We must attend. Oh, look at that dress. Isn’t it lovely and on sale! The newest model cars are available and you don’t even have to buy them. You can lease one for no money down and a low, low monthly payment. Might as well since someone else will own it anyway, whether it’s purchased or leased.
You wish there would be a commercial about how to accumulate wealth. Oh wait, there it is! And then there are the targeted ads popping up on your Facebook feed, enticing you – and the bargain is merely one click away.
You reach for your drink. Bottom’s up!
Our Double Standards
There is both a social and an economic significance to this madness. I get a bitter laugh in the pit of my stomach as the person in front of me in the checkout line mumbles something about the person in front who is using food stamps and also buying a six-pack or a few treats not covered by the government. I shake my head in the parking lot when the critic unloads the bounty from her cart into her luxury SUV that will probably never be used for off-roading.
I neither judge nor condemn people with their SUVs or their six-packs for turning to consumerism as a means of dulling the pain wrought by a predatory economy. No, I sympathize with them and yearn to help them help themselves.
That’s the purpose of this course.
What does trouble me is the downward spiral this causes and the insensitivity we show for the poorest among us who slave for the unrestrained capitalists . . . and us.
On the surface, the focus of those of us who are socially responsible is to raise minimum wage to $15 an hour, twice what the federal government demands. Under that plan, if the lowliest of workers work a 40-hour week, it would catapult bottom dwellers well into the lower middle class. But 40 hours is unlikely because then their employers would have to pay benefits! And so, for most of them, it would put them maybe on the lower rung of the lower middle class. Which is sinking!
I’m all for raising the minimum wage of course, but it is a fight at the tip of the iceberg. I avoid being specific with statistics because they are all over the place, but we are talking about a class of citizens numbering one or two percent of the total population. If the cost of such a wage increase came out of excess profits, it would have little or no impact on capitalists, prices or Wall Street.
The battle is being fought as a matter of principal.
Although bottom-wage workers are miniscule in economics, they are big in life (theirs and ours) with numbers in the millions. The greater proportion of them are our servants in the food industry from the field to the grocery to the table to the restaurant. And if they aren’t on your conscience, they soon will be because you are more likely to slip into their class than they are to reach yours.
It’s a dog eat dog world and there’s always another dog in line.
And so I beg you for your own sake as well as others, change your attitude and your behavior toward the lowest of the service workers. It’s not your black heart that drives you. The economy makes you do it.
The next time you park your black beauty or your jacked up mega-truck in front of Walmart, think.
Kissing Your Money Goodbye
If social purpose is not your style, then think about this. The profit from every dollar you spend with a corporation headquartered way off somewhere goes way off somewhere. It gets reinvested in expanded markets somewhere else or it gets deposited in some foreign bank or gets used at the Wall Street casino to produce more money you’ll never see.
You may ask, why would this matter to you?
The answer is that it robs from the local economy and the local economy affects your income. It prevents money from circulating locally to generate profits locally and that makes it impossible for local employers to pay people like you better wages and benefits.
On top of that, your employer is dealing with unfair competition from the Big Box, forcing her to keep expenses low with one of her biggest expenses, payroll. She’s as unhappy about that as her employees who are her friends and neighbors. They matter to her but she is forced into a miserly role that her mom’n’pop never experienced. And unlike her corporate counterparts, she doesn’t end up with enough money to gamble on Wall Street or stuff under her pillow. She’s probably living on the edge of bankruptcy, which means you are on the edge of unemployment.
Next thing you know your taxes are going up to help the government take up the slack for people tumbling into the lower income bracket. Or supporting cost-shifting at the local hospital to cover the impoverished patient in the next room.
I ask you, is all that worth the few coins you will save at Walmart on too much stuff you don’t need? Of course not. You are on the losing end of a vicious cycle, shooting yourself in the foot. And now you know it.
But, but, but.
You say you can’t afford not to shop at the Big Box. Maybe. But you probably can. Unless you work for the low wages the Big Box pays, you’ll probably use the savings you earn by taking advantage of the disadvantaged to buy more stuff.
Wear Their Shoes
The purpose of this essay is not to offend you by putting you on the defensive, but to show that you have unintentionally been a key player in the escalation of economic injustice and, therefore, you have the power to change it.
There is a fundraiser called “Live Below the Line” that began in 2010 in the backyard of a share house in Melbourne, Australia. A share house is a household in which a group of usually unrelated people reside together because they can’t afford to live in a single family home.
Two friends who were both passionate about fighting poverty were worried about the ability of people to really understand at an emotional level the realities of extreme poverty. Over drinks, they hatched a plan to recruit people to live for five days with only the amount of food people can afford below the poverty line. They set $2 Australian as the goal.
In its first year, 2,000 participants raised over a half million dollars. Three years later that amount rose to over one and one half million and UNICEF took up the cause. Even international celebrities including Hugh Jackman, Ben Affleck, Tom Hiddleston and Josh Groban took up the challenge.
Beyond experiencing what it’s like to live on the other side, I see the “Below the Line” project as proof positive that it takes very little from us as ordinary individuals at the grassroots to make a big difference in the fight against economic injustice.
When we get to the Yellow Zone and the Green Zone of this course, we will dig deeper into that thought. Meanwhile, don’t worry that you’ll be asked to live on $2 a day or give up your wheels or any of your other stuff. To the contrary, if you must you will be able to.
Please move on to the next essay
Messed Up Media