Monday, July 14, 2008

Tangled thoughts on consumption, Cribs, and the new Hippies

Reihan has some typically intelligent remarks on the meaning of consumption and visible wealth; he's riffing on a post at Creative Capitalism by Jagdish Bhagwati.)

To begin with, Reihan is getting at something here that I find absolutely vital to my political mindset but frustratingly difficult to explain. As Reihan says, we can't expect government to create a moral attitude towards consumption and affluence. I know the Larry Kudlows of the world find a desire to reduce ostentation and excess in luxury to be anti-capitalist. But I find that kind of worship of wealth to be just a bridge too far for my tired pinko heart. Problem is, I have a hard time expressing that kind of thinking in an adequately pragmatic way. (I suspect that one consequence of the rise of blogs into our national consciousness is a thinking that is permanently guarded and oriented for the argumentative battlefield. I don't expect anyone to adopt any public policies based on my unsupportable beliefs; but they tend to be among my favorite. I kind of miss the elegance of thoughts that you could just think, and the mutual understanding of people who didn't need to explain everything to each other, if you get my meaning.)

Bhagwati, in his discussion of affluence that flourishes in the face of inequality, talks about wealth that is less threatened (and less threatening) because in certain times and societies "the rich do not flaunt their wealth by practicing an ostentatious style of living". This is an important idea to me; there are few things that make me worry for our nation more than the watching an episode of Cribs or one of those horrible shows on VH1 where some twit with a fake British accent tells poor and middle class people that they have no value. I believe it was Bill Maher who said that the rich have always been rich, but they used to have the decency to shut the fuck up about it. Rich people used to be, you know, classy. Now it seems like inequality isn't some unfortunate byproduct of great wealth creation; it seems for many people the whole point is to demonstrate how unequal things really are.

That's why I admire Reihan's support for a new hippie aesthetic, a return to a notion that less can actually be more, and that the purpose of wealth is to enjoy life, not to accumulate material goods. With apologies to Wil Wilkinson, I don't think that humans are capital-acquiring machines. We should privilege values of limited asceticism (not self denial, but self restraint) that have little to do with tax policy. A more temperate and respectful public face of affluence might take the sting out of income inequality, and I think the never-ending minor deprivations of dignity is a not-insignificant chunk of the sad condition of America's poor.

The problem here is obvious. This is all very easy to parody, and many have, for a long, long time. Visceral dislike of hippie culture has been a bedrock not just of conservative culture, but of Slate.com style contrarian-leftism, for years. It's easy to mock, and there is a iron-clad belief that any such kind of post-materialism must by necessity be sanctimonious and self-righteous. It's heartening then to see a card carrying conservative like Reihan espouse these values. To me, judgment has always been besides the point; I want to live simply, to be in this age but not of it, and to reject things that are crass, obvious and stratified-- but I'm rejecting the things, not the people who consume them. And, you know, I still feel in my core a sort of distance from the body politic, and I'll take what meager tools I have to protest-- silence, exile, cunning. You know what I mean.

(Reihan's writing has a way of making me feel like I'm reading the first tract in some esoteric new religion, one whose god I don't believe in and whose teachings I won't follow, but whose iconography and architecture are truly beautiful. But, uh, that might just be me.)

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