Sunday, May 15, 2005

The Only Thing Wrong With Capitalism is the Capitalist

Today my father sent me an e-mail with a powerpoint* attachment enclosed. The powerpoint presentation was about Paul Allen (Microsoft’s #2 and 3rd richest man in America) and his new $200 million yacht, The Octopus. You can find out more about it here.

I ain't mad at you, Paul. You have $20 billion dollars. You could spend it on a lot worse things than a yacht. As a matter of fact, exhausting your money on petty consumer spending sprees is good for the economy. But then again, The Octopus is now the world’s largest privately owned yacht, and Allen already owned the world’s 3rd largest yacht before he had this one built. He who has the gold, makes the rules and in this case we can do nothing, but respect the fact that fact that Paul Allen appears to have a ton of gold and is unashamed of what his spending says about his own internal rulebook. I am not judging Paul Allen, nor do I have the time and inclination to research him so that I can judge him. He could be giving away more money to philanthropic interests than anyone else in America and his yacht (and the Trailblazers) is his one weakness. I am concerned about what Paul Allen's boats say about all of us and our own inability to recognize insatiability within ourselves. What I am wondering is how healthy is capitalism for the soul?

It just seems that there is some insidious force in the average man’s psyche that never tires of acquiring or at least managing physical resources. Although the uber-wealthy like Allen are not average economically, there is no logical reason to think the wealthy have a different psychological foundation, especially the noveau riche who achieve their wealth after a loss affluent childhood. I have read websites that claimed that an American with an income of $60,000 is in the top 1% of the world in terms of affluence. These websites might have a questionable way of arriving at their numbers, but we can all agree that the U.S. is grossly wealthy compared to South America, Africa, the Middle East, and most of Asia. Even with an adjustment for the relatively high cost of living in the United States, your average middle class citizen who has time to read this blog is a wealthy capitalist.

So this insidious psychic force that lies within the heart of the democratic majority is real. Whatever that force is, wealth (and the accompanying power) often gives that force enough leverage to allow us to endlessly try to demonstrate our own triumph over powerlessness and meaningless. But ultimately we never feel truly in control of all the factors that generate anxiety and threaten our contentment, nor do we ever come any closer to the certainty of our own meaning and significance. (In my own experience, I have not found tithing and charitable giving, to be any more fulfilling than spending or saving ). We can never insulate ourselves from the randomness of the universe, nor the smaller things we fear like betrayal, physical suffering, loss and grief.

But what is to stop a man with 20 billion dollars from pursuing his fantasy that having the biggest yacht and the third biggest yacht in the world are going to bring him the experience he is searching for. Nothing. After all, I suffered from the delusion that my original IPOD which only held 10 GB (approximately 500 hours of music) was not enough and I just HAD to have the 40 GB model. My friends (who are all capitalists and therefore not necessarily objective about consumer spending) probably encouraged me to splurge. Maybe they really empathize with me emotionally and understood the role music plays in how I experience life, but I think most of their encouragement is based in their attempt to resolve their own inner conflict concerning their consumer habits. As for the 10GB IPOD in question. I lost it while travelling, but I cannot help but think I did that unconsciously in order to ease the conflict, by creating an artificial need to replace what I had already grown accustomed to having. I did upgrade to the 40 GB model, rationalizing that the art is so important to me and my existence. Truth is that contained within my search for the bigger and better things, is the tacit admission that I suspect my current set of resources and belongings are far from optimally enhancing my experience on this planet. In short…I suspect that I can be happier if I buy stuff.

I mean don’t get me wrong. If hungry, I should recognize those feelings and feel blessed that I can afford to eat. But when I pass grocery stores and small family run restaurants in Mid City, to hit the tony coffee house on Melrose, or the California-cool diner on Beverly with the dope jukebox….I am obviously trying to satisfy more than just physical hunger. For some reason, I cannot always tell the difference between sincere emotional desire and unrealistic fantasies that can never be satiated. Without that ability to discern I am left playing an endless game of trial and error that requires an intense amount of being honest with myself. Whether the investment be money are time, it takes a lot of honesty to admit to myself that I did not get the results I wanted when I went to the club or when I went to church or when I hung with folks that I strain to be myself around.

I hope I am not just being optimistic in a "New Agey" kind of way when I say that I have learned more and more how to be truthful with myself over the years (and although I reserve a lot of grief/anger for what my parents did not teach me, I can never thank them enough for teaching me the one value of trusting myself that has saved me from self destruction time and time again). With my honesty I have learned from my experiences. I can eat a large meal and feel full, but that inner hunger is much harder to satisfy with consumerism. As I have acquired more money and power, I have not increased my ability to satisfy the internal hunger, but those “lotto” fantasies of the answer being out there in the places we go and the stuff we have (and in my case the intellectual capital I amass) are hard to let go of. How many gym rats know better, but suffer from a sneaky suspicion that another abs class is the key to maintaining their whole social standing? How many engineers know better, but suffer from a sneaky suspicion that more understanding of technology and mathematics will give them mastery over an internal world that is too subjective to interpret with objective scientific reasoning. How many billionaires know better, but suffer from the suspicion that they must answer to that little boy inside that still wants more and more big toy boats that they didn’t get as a child.

What a sneaky suspicion, but it is so ubiquitous that it nearly runs the American consumer economy. Plus having the means to address the suspicion means we all hold a great responsibility. And even those of us who are more conscientious of that responsibility have to contend with the pressure of general consensus, not to mention the fact that marketing/mass media has evolved into being the art of creating and amplifying our sneaky suspicions about what is missing from our lives in the most powerful yet covert ways, whether it is selling someone the new 3 series BMW or a bottle of Corona. An entire industry has popped up that attacks us psychologically every day and says, “bigger and better house, bigger and better car, bigger and better erections”….all the while implying the greatest fantasy of them all: bigger and better you. “Be like Mike” indeed.

And thus capitalism is the ideal economic system for allowing us the most empowerment towards chasing these fantasies and acquiescing to the sneakiest of suspicions. Of course it is also the ideal economic system for not restraining the destructive potential of our single-minded competition driven value system. It seems that capitalism is an arduous test of the spirit and the soul and the only real problem is that it appears that most of us fail the test and never get to enjoy the true freedom capitalism was intended to nurture within our democracy. What I appreciate about living in a relatively free country is that I have had the chance to experience unfettered capitalism and I am slowly being allowed to develop the wisdom to not succumb to its seduction. I still have lapses. As we speak, I really want a new set of noise canceling headphones for my IPOD, and I still frequently fail the test of turning off Nelly’s 'Tip Drill' video when it flashes across my screen and hypnotizes me at my most visceral level. (One of these days, I am going to do an entire entry about the marketing brilliance in terms of appealing to the fantasies of young men of that video). But I still wonder if one man’s decision to rebel makes a difference, so that is why I shared this with you today. I hope it spoke to you, but just in case you too feel too weak to resist the seduction, I leave you with this final quote:

‘Not one snowflake feels responsible for the avalanche’

Go with god.

mr. wilson

*I did not check the veracity of the information in the powerpoint presentation, nor has my father proved to be consistent in filtering out erroneous information in his prodigious amount of forwarding. However the information contained in the powerpoint presentation did stimulate the ensuing thoughts and whether the data in the presentation be true or not, I still find that it resonates with my own experience.


chad said...

I have been thinking about this subject lately as well...human attraction to the material. My focus has been more on material that is considered valuable because it assigns status to its owner. This seems to me to be the most illogical dimension of capitalism. I can understand why you might want a $200 million mobile home. It does have some function, but why would anyone want a piece of jewelry worth $200,000 dollars. I actually have an entry coming up on this very subject on my blog. Anyway, thank for making me think as usual. By the way, that quote is one of my favorites about snowflakes feeling responsibility for an avalanche. It's one of those quotes that gets ascribed to many people. I have seen it called an Eastern proverb, a Canadian saying, the philoshopical musings of Voltaire....I'm not really sure who said it first, but it does convict the heart.
From one renegade snowflake to another...
Keep fighting for your spirit and mind.

Trent Jackson said...

WOW....I don't want to spend anymore money ever. I so feel guilty...give me like an hour to really digest this