I recently spent a day in a room with public school teachers, education experts, and humanities types. I was the only one there with any experience in empirical data or the kind of formal logic commonly used in empirical disciplines. My time with this group (I get to do it again for 2 days in May) will form the basis of a number of posts, but here’s the first.
One of the things that gets this group worked is consumerism (they often use the label capitalism but consumerism is more accurate). “Consumerism is the capitalist system trying to keep the worker down.” “Consumerism is destroying the planet.” “Consumerism is nothing but lies designed to keep us all unhappy.” If you’re reading this I’m sure you are familiar with this type of statement. I’m not going to discuss the veracity of these statements here (there is some truth here). I want to focus on a glaring hypocrisy.
Shortly after the outpourings affirmation of anti-consumerist ideology the discussion moved onto relative poverty, specifically decrying the unequal distribution of income for people identified as indigenous. (To be honest there was some actual discussion education related topics in between, but nobody want to hear about that).
I want to be clear – there are some people in this country living in deplorable conditions, many of them on reserves. In many cases, these living conditions count as absolute poverty and need to be addressed. Not tomorrow, but now! (Yes, I do have a suggestion, but it definitely isn’t politically correct and would likely piss off a number of people who were in that room to no end). Absolute poverty isn’t what they were talking about so I won’t either.
The concern was that some people are getting richer faster than others, as it always is with relative poverty. It isn’t about the fact that some people don’t have enough to meet a standard of living we would consider basic in this country (living high off the hog in most of the world).
So what does an increase in relative poverty without an increase in absolute poverty mean? It means that some are getting richer faster than others. So what does becoming richer really mean? It means you have more consumption opportunities than before. Consider your stereotypical working class joe. They are in no danger of starving to death, generally have a decent roof over their head, and can even afford some luxuries. So why would anyone be worried that other people are becoming relatively richer? The only possible reason is that consumption and *gasp* consumerism yields benefits. For the argument to make any sense it must be that the group getting richer is gaining happiness and those not getting richer are not. Remember that the only meaningful difference is consumption opportunities. If consumer is so “bad” we should be celebrating any reduction in consumption opportunities of any group. The worry about relative poverty is the worst form of keeping up with the Joneses.
So which is it, is consumerism bad or is relative poverty bad?