2011 Resolution

Resist manic materialism.

I have no one really to blame because I chose to watch MSNBC while preparing for the 2011 cycling season one morning last week.  It was the morning after 20 inches of snow fell throughout the Northeastern U.S. Business analysts worried “How will the conditions affect retailers since post Christmas shoppers will stay home?”

Does everything always have to be interpreted through the lens of economics?

I should have switched to the Zen Cable Network, a mythical creation of mine where a slow, beautiful, non-narrated slideshow with acoustic guitar accompaniment was looping. Slow moving shots of young people up and down the seaboard sledding and having snowball fights while parents sipped coffee and talked against the backdrop of translucent, oddly beautiful cities.

Manic materialism is the increasingly common practice of defining as many life activities and events as possible in economic terms. How does this—a winter snow storm, schooling, an art form, food, healthcare—make people more or less wealthy? It’s the result of our collective idolatry, and as a result, it’s our unofficial national religion. No activity is immune from its influence. Every life activity and event is reduced to whether it generates wealth.

And make no mistake about it, wealth is defined one way—materially. How much money do you have, how big is your house, how nice is it on the inside, how luxurious is your car, where do you vacation?

Schooling provides a poignant example. Why are U.S. opinion and business leaders over involved in reform efforts today? For one reason—our international economic competitiveness is slipping. As a result, our relative wealth is declining. That’s why math and science content is routinely privileged at the expense of humanities and social studies education. The business leaders at the education reform table are in essence asking, “How in the hell is an affinity for literature or history going to translate into more money for more people?”

Maybe I errored in using the phrase “our collective idolatry” a few paragraphs ago. Maybe all of us are exceptions, a fringe minority that believes we’re more social, emotional, dare I even say spiritual beings, than economic ones.

In prioritizing close interpersonal relationships, maintaining work-life balance, and consciously living below our means, we provide a viable alternative to manic materialism and threaten the status quo.

What else can and should we do in 2011 to provide a social-emotional-spiritual alternative to manic materialism?

4 thoughts on “2011 Resolution

  1. Manic materialism results from our consumerist culture — change the culture, change the manic materialism. It’s the hardest thing in the world to do. We can individually resist materialism, but that only creates pockets of change, not a collective one. For that to happen, government must set the example.

    It’s the same thing I believe about education – for us to really improve, we can’t have pockets of excellence (Ivy league, private schools, etc.), we must develop a culture of education, which I have been advocating in my blog. Change can only come with that cultural shift.

    • Interesting. In terms of a cultural shift, I think there’s more hope in individuals forming pockets and then overlapping pockets of resisters than in government since its focus is economic growth. Wonder how people would respond if our government borrowed from Bhutan’s and started advocating for “gross national happiness”? May sound like touchy-feelly nonsense, but it’s an intelligent, interdisciplinary, humanitarian approach to government.

      • I do agree that gov’t is more concerned with economic growth, but if it would only look beyond its term in office. I guess what I’m saying is that everyone is concerned with change, reform, intervention, etc. that it always results in short term gains, if at all. Having the gov’t shift its focus to changing the culture is a much more holistic perspective that can have long-term sustained changes for education AND the economy. Imagine if our students are better prepared to think critically and do better in int’l assessments, the economic impact would be tremendous. That’s the kind of long term thinking that other nations do – China has massively reinvested in infrastructure and education over the past 20 years – and both are now (and will) paying immense dividends for the economy.

      • Agreed; however, we are the government. Politicians don’t think medium and long-term enough because they’ve concluded it doesn’t help them get reelected. Long-term thinking would inevitably require sacrifices–reduced spending and higher taxes for starters. The only way to tip the political balance and change incumbents’ thinking is to reward those who tell us what we don’t want to hear about things like fixing Medicare and having to reduce military spending in order to provide all students with meaningful educational opportunity. Governor Brown and California are going to provide a very interesting case study. I suppose Britain is another one. Sometimes I think Mexico’s one six year Presidential term would foster bolder, less popular, longer-term thinking. Thanks for reading and commenting.

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