The Afflictions of Affluence
Robert J. Samuelson, writing in Newsweek, makes a point that I’ve made here many times:
It may seem a bit unnatural, but more and more of our social problems and complaints stem from our affluence, not our poverty.
The obvious example is obesity:
In 1950, Americans devoted a fifth of their disposable incomes to food (and less than a fifth of that to eating out). Now food’s share is a tenth (and almost half is out). We eat what pleases us, and so why should anyone be surprised that the average American now consumes about 150 pounds of sugar and sweeteners annually, up roughly 20 percent since 1980? The only saving grace is that some of the extra food “is thrown awayÃ¢€”otherwise, all Americans would weigh 300 pounds,” says Roland Sturm, an obesity expert at the Rand Corp.
Compared to worrying about starving to death in the winter, dying during childbirth, or the various things that killed us at far younger ages a couple generations ago, though, obesity is a pretty good problem to have.
The other maladies Samuelson describes are almost laughable:
Getting wealthier spawns other complaints. One is the “time squeeze”Ã¢€”the sense that we’re more harried than ever. We all know this is true; we’re tugged by jobs, family, PTA and soccer. Actually, it’s not true. People go to work later in life and retire earlier. Housework has declined. One survey found that in 1999 only 14 percent of wives did more than four hours of daily housework; the figure was 43 percent in 1977 and 87 percent in 1924. Even when jobs and housework are combined, total work hours for women and men have dropped.
Psychologist Barry Schwartz of Swarthmore College makes the broader point in his new book, “The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less.” Our individual culture worships choice, but too much of it leads to choice congestion. Consumer Reports now “offers comparisons among 220 new car models, 250 breakfast cereals, 400 VCRs, 40 household soaps, 500 health insurance policies, 350 mutual funds, and even 35 showerheads,” Schwartz writes. People feel overwhelmed by the time it takes to make the “best” choiceÃ¢€”and may later regret having made the wrong choice. Purchasing blunders may irritate, but bigger mistakes of choice (in careers, work vs. family) can be profoundly depressing, Schwartz argues.
Indeed, it makes one long for the good old days of the Great Depression.
As material wants are satisfied, psychological desires ascend. But these defy easy economic balm. “Most of what people really want in lifeÃ¢€”love, friendship, respect, family, standing, fun … does not pass through the market,” writes Gregg Easterbrook in his book “The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse.” (Note how paradox pops up in these titles.) Indeed, affluence may make matters worse. In 1957, 3 percent of Americans felt “lonely,” according to a survey cited by Easterbrook; now 13 percent do. Although more people can afford to exist apart, it may not be good for them.
Unlike the economic problems, I suspect this is probably a real one. We’re marrying later, divorcing frequently, cobbling together unorthodox family units, and moving around the country far more frequently than our ancestors. Plus, we’ve got a lot more leisure time to worry about issues like fulfillment rather than, say, how we’re going to make it through the winter. We’ve moved a little further up Maslow’s Heirarchy and can now feel “lonely” rather than “hungry.” A pretty good trade, I’d say.