Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Needs and Wants

While cleaning out our house of the countless things we do not want and probably never needed, like towels embroidered with dancing cats, coffee mugs printed with witty sayings, and other non-essentials (motivated by our church's annual rummage sale for the benefit of Haiti), I happened to see a blog by Matthew Boudway, "How Much is Enough?"

And I began to think about the argument he outlines from a new book by R. and E. Skidelsky, How Much is Enough? Money and the Good Life. Their thesis seems to be important and controversial, certainly among Romneyites: that in most parts of the developed world, the basis for a good life already exists and that the endless pursuit of economic growth puts the good life, however defined, forever out of reach because we are constantly striving for more.

Is there no end to the constant pursuit of more wealth? A radical question. I think of the multi-million dollar annual salaries of Wall Street bankers and other CEOs; I think of the insatiability built into our modern economy whereby what we have is never enough since stores keep luring us to want more. And so we buy more. We are constantly been pressured to want more and more, and the person who has only one TV or computer or car, who lives a life without toxic acquisitiveness, is thought odd.

The authors use Aristotle, Keynes, and many others to develop their ethical approach to capitalism. J. M. Keynes, who in the thirties, predicted that per capita income would make working almost obsolete in a hundred years, has been proved wrong. It is taken for granted today in the first world, at least, that the pursuit of wealth is good, necessary, and an end in itself. It is assumed that such a pursuit has to do with happiness. Faust, in the legendary story, assumed that the total satisfaction of his every desire was worth the loss of his soul. He lost his deal with the devil.

The Skidelskys suggest that we need a corrective to modern economics, a shared understanding of what wealth is for--as well as agreement about what the good life means. If I compare the restless energy with which most Americans are always trying to satisfy their wants, not just their needs, with those in Haiti who will benefit from this month's rummage sale of our cast-off surplus items, I wonder which group has greater inner peace and contentment.

Are we not capable of controlling our insatiable needs for more gadgets? Do we need seven kinds of cereal in a household of four people? Do we need all those vacations, or are we so worn out from working to gain more income to pay for all the stuff we don't really need that getting away is the only thing that will give us peace of mind?

I look forward to reading the book since it promises from the reviews to raise important questions about our economy that we seldom ask: Is it the goal of modern life to satisfy our wants to the utmost with the least effort, as a classic economic theorist once said? Does a successful life mean merely an active, productive life, one that produces profit? If so, what about leisure and contemplation?

The questions raised here deal with so much that is basic, including how we define happiness, what a just society looks like vs. individual acquisition, and why we don't chose to limit our wants to our needs. Maybe we already have what we need but are not using it very well. Is endless growth and acquisition, rather than redistribution to those with real needs, the path we want to stay on?

I doubt if anyone running for office in this election year will raise such unpopular questions.

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