The gold standard of the American dream has long been home ownership and basic financial security. Our generation is actively being shown that this artificial horizon is no longer attainable. For the average person, the promises ingrained in our society are dangled like a carrot for motivation instead of as a reward for hard work. Forces such as inflation, expensive education, and poor health and healthcare all undermine the goals we are supposed to pursue, keeping us from ever getting ahead. The rules are changing, but so are we. We’re starting to look closer at our quality of life, asking: “is it worth it, do we really own our homes, does my job actually provide security?”
We work long hours, usually both partners, life rushing by all too fast in an effort to afford houses that can be taken away from us at the stroke of a pen. Medieval peasants, in some ways, had more rights to their land than we do now. They at least had the freedom to work their own estates for their subsistence. We’re slowly heading towards a new form of feudalism, where we give our allegiance to the companies that protect us from poverty. We shoulder ever more tedious work in the name of higher wages to afford our constantly increasing cost of living. Deep down, something about this inflationary cycle seems unnecessary, a regression even. This technological serfdom serves no purpose other than to keep us too tired to do anything except consume, salving our weary bodies and spirits with more spending. It's a vicious cycle.
“An economic system which can only expand or expire must be false to all that is human,” - Edward Abbey
One day, you realize that it doesn't add up to work that much for something so tenuously held. Everything you’ve built can be taken away, even if you think you’re in the clear. Whether it’s foreclosure, a layoff, or medical bills, debt snowballs quickly in our economic system. Suddenly you’re paying interest on your interest with no end in sight. And that’s if you’re not counting legal problems. It’s been calculated that the average law-abiding citizen unknowingly commits three felonies per day. One mistake can mean a lifetime of underemployment at best. Do not pass go. Do not collect $200. It’s a lousy game, but we put up with it as long as it happens to someone else, as long as it’s not your life being ruined, as long as you don’t have to speak out. We don’t question the games, just so long as we’re allowed to keep playing.
Speaking of games, deep down, how many habits are compensation for not being fulfilled with your work? How many hobbies are to distract you from the meaninglessness that comprises the vast majority of the modern workday? How many cocktails does it take to unwind from the stress, from the separation from self that occurs so frequently in our information economy? We have all the data in the world, but no personal connections anymore. We’re paid to represent a corporation, to really be the brand these days, and that reacts negatively with our core attributes as individuals and it manifests itself in larger ways.
“Well first of all, tell me: Is there some society you know that doesn’t run on greed?” - Milton Friedman
Where does this come from? Well, at some point, the accumulation of material goods became a bigger priority than free time. Labor and leisure fell out of balance, and we compensated with consumption. “Work more to buy more” is cyclical behavior, but that’s the yardstick we use to measure success. In addition, the erosion of boundaries between work and play has a negative impact on our quality of life and derivatively on society as a whole. Idle time allows people to recharge, to heal, to think about making a contribution outside their own survival. So why should only those of us fortunate enough to enjoy wealth be allowed to experience meaningful amounts of free time? The average person has been getting more leisure lately, but it’s most often in the form of unemployment. There isn’t much middle ground—yet.
With a reasonable amount of planning, we can easily reduce the amount of time we work. Individual choices can add up. We’ve made it a badge of honor to scorn leisure, but that’s reversible. We start with defining a middle ground that’s attainable without the extremes of wealth or unemployment. It’s about finding the balance between making what you need to live on and what you need to enjoy life. If you don’t need extra money, there’s less pressure to support things you don’t believe in. Imagine the decline of everything from needless busywork to predatory business models. We need to check this behavior, beginning on an individual level. Otherwise we’re slowly going to rot.
It’s well documented throughout history how empires sink under the weight of increasing bureaucracy. It happened to the Romans and it happened to the Soviets. It’s happening to America, and the signs are already there on a personal level. Our problems as a society are to some extent the magnified effects of an unhappy people turning inwards and becoming more self-serving. We only look out for our own interests. It’s the difference between doing business with kin instead of contracts. The difference between helping a friend and charging a customer. We’ve lost our connection to the land and valuing the bottom line is reinforced far more often than relationships. We consume to excess, flaunt our riches, and mask our anger with contemptuous waste. It fools a lot of people on the surface, but it doesn’t really work. Numbness and escape don’t erase the weariness brought on by modern life. Is it worth turning old and gray in the pursuit of wealth, possessions, and empty pleasure?
In the story of the same name, Siddhartha is asked if he is looking for a job because he’s fallen on hard times and has nothing, but he responds:
“No...I lack possessions of my own free will, so this is not a hardship."
“But what will you live on if you have nothing?”
“Never before have I occupied myself with this question. I have been without possessions for a good three years now and never found myself wondering what to live on."
Having as much stuff as your neighbor isn’t the answer. Whether the damage is reversible on a larger scale, we can still make things better on a personal level. Letting go of things we don’t need is essential to this goal because allows us to focus our incomes on what we do value. If we make a collective decision to live in such a way that we have security without reliance on unproductive jobs, we have taken the first steps towards securing our freedom.
"In itself, and in its consequences, the life of leisure is beautiful and ennobling in all civilised men's eyes.” Thorstein Veblen
You may not be interested in things like vanlife, tiny houses, or homesteading for their own sake—I certainly wasn’t at first—but options like this are our gateway to freedom. It’s equally doable in anything from an apartment to a typical suburban home. Get out from under a housing payment. Reduce your need for external electrical power (alternative energy is DOABLE!) or offset your groceries by growing your own food. Take pride in your power to provide for yourself and stop supporting companies that care nothing about you. Determine if your purchase motivations are the result of advertising. Your dollars have power, and the market often tries to earn them through manipulation. Recognize that how you spend is how you vote.
That's a huge first step. Democrat, Republican, third party, it doesn't matter at this point. The total disenfranchisement of the American voter is upon us at the national level. There is no oversight over our voting process and there are documented examples of inaccuracy from our privately owned voting machines. Even when we do pick an official, his decisions are most likely swayed by the lobby of whoever gave him enough money to get more TV time than his opponent.
That's the reality of our system at this point. Little transparency or accountability, combined with conflicts of interest like lobbyists and unlimited congressional terms, all continue to keep our government held captive to corporate interests. That joke about requiring politicians to wear suits like NASCAR with visible sponsorship logos for each donor doesn’t seem like such a bad idea. Knowing the origin of someone’s funding gives you X-ray vision of their motives. No wonder the money is so intentionally obscured with paperwork and acronyms like Super-PAC. I don’t mean to come across as jaded. There are still good people in politics, but they are marginalized and usually in no position to challenge the status quo. This isn’t the path to bringing hope or change. Systems with this much inertia don’t respond to minor corrections.
That's why how we spend our money is so important. It's the only vote we have left. It’s our only voice that is still heard. There is hope in that. Companies don't survive on stupidity or by being unresponsive to their markets. Corporate personhood only buys so much leeway after all. By spending each of our dollar votes conscientiously, we can exercise our last remaining control over the direction we're heading.
The new form of voting is important, but any tangible changes are going to start with being good to each other on a personal level. In computer science there’s a saying, “Garbage in, garbage out,’ explaining how incorrect starting data produces poor results. Angry, upset, hurting people who feel trapped in life are bound to produce a poor society. Most economic systems can be good, and any can be bad. They’re just a template of our available options. It’s not just what we do as a society, it’s how we do it, and there’s no need to be miserable. The old dream we were promised isn’t an option anymore, but that rarified fantasy is still being waved just out of reach. We have to decide in significant numbers that we want change.
What we buy determines what the market does. How companies respond to our perceived desires steers the course of nations. There are so many negative feedback loops rising from our personal behavior that, when magnified to a substantial portion of the population, cause entire waves of demand to be created for the market. In blind pursuit of our ingrained lifestyle, we allow our fears and indulgences to be catered to and we practically wish whole market segments into existence without stopping to weigh the consequences. We’re focused on the wrong landmarks and wondering why we’re not going where we want. It’s all coming full circle, and the mirror that the market is holding up to our society reflects some pretty ugly things. We have a responsibility to do more than just watch. There is still another way.
I’m not just asking. I’m showing.
"The difficulty lies not so much in developing new ideas as in escaping from old ones.” John Maynard Keynes