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Consumerism and Thoreau

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In “No, You Can’t Get an Upgrade” in today’s New York Times, David Segal talks about the American drive to “upgrade” our lives. He notes that this drive is so basic to our American psyche that we barely notice it and that it drives the consumerism of our culture.

I would say that the characteristic that is embedded in our cultural DNA is “improvement”. Improve everything. Better filing systems, the shortest drive to work, faster services at McDonald’s, more value for less money, increased automation, etc. All the things that drive productivity improvements and increase profit margins. And I think this drive to improve is a desirable attribute that generally delivers positive consequences, though it personally makes me completely crazy, all the time.

But the personal consumerism that we seem to have collectively embraced reflects a culture that has totally lost its bearings. We get a new car after three years because, well, there are newer models available. That the existing car is completely usable is of little consideration. We buy designer clothes because, well, they must be better. I know people who are embarrassed to shop at discount stores.

We can grant that the new thing, the designer thing, the “branded” thing might actually be better: by most standards, a BMW probably performs better than a Chevy; the fabric and stitching on the Lauren polo shirt might wear and last longer than on a no-name, generic version.

But there is still the cost/benefit tension to consider: How much better for how much more cost? 10% more benefit justify 100% more cost?

By definition, the best is better. But that does not make it worth it. Far too often, the extra cost is simply money blown on a “brand” in a pathetic need for validation.

Segal’s article finishes with quote from Thoreau which resonates right my core:

Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind.

Damn right.

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