Sunday, May 11, 2014

Consumerism in Germany and the USA

How much stuff do you need to live?  How much stuff do you need to be happy?  How do you benchmark those needs?

I'm not even going to lie, I like shopping.  Everyone knows I like shopping.  But I only like shopping for fun things, like clothes or toys for my daughter.  I hate buying things like hair dryers, which is why mine is over ten years old and held together by packing tape.  There is no point in buying a new one because I know I will drop it in the first week and it will end up just like the one I have now.  But anyway, back to the point.   Like a typical American I always believed that more and bigger were better.  Success is defined by money and the big house full of stuff you can buy with that money.  Love and attention are shown with gifts and the more you spend, the more you love someone.  Buying things is good because it helps the economy, makes the world turn and so forth.  Stuff shows your character, individuality, and defines you.  You are the car you drive, the dishes you eat from and the house you live in.  That's the driving message behind consumerism.

But it's not just about stuff, it's also about winning.  Societies balance delicately between a need for cooperation and competition within the society.  We need each other to create great things like roads and cars and jobs but we also compete with each other for resources.  When some people gain an advantage they try to hang onto it and pass that advantage to their children.  In societies with great inequality, like the US, the deck is stacked grossly unfair.  If one person wins it means someone else is going to lose.  You reap your success from the disadvantaged. 

I am going to suggest something a little bit radical that not very many people may understand, but I would rather pay more taxes, have less money and live in a society with greater equality.   I am not about to take you on a little ego trip of my own self righteousness.  There are actually logical reasons for this: while acquiring things does make people happy, that happiness only lasts as long as the desired object is new.  To keep that level of happiness they must keep acquiring more stuff, locking a person into a never ending cycle.  That kind of happiness is not sustainable.  Material goods take up time that you could be spending with people. Inequality also trends toward more violent crime and less stability.  Nothing good has ever come from hungry children and homelessness.  What if you choose not to be defined by the things you own, but rather the things you do?  Maybe, I am not my Coach purse and J brand jeans?    Maybe I am a mother and wife and friend and pet owner. 

There is consumerism in Germany but it doesn't feel as all consuming as it does in the US.  A good example of this is the difference in attitudes about engagement rings.  In the US having a large expensive ring is an important sign of social status for many women.   It shows the world that you have the disposable income to conspicuously consume a frivolous piece of jewelry.  A large ring is also equated with partner devotion, since one partner has chosen to spend a considerable amount of money on this piece of jewelry that is then displayed.  In contrast, many Germans don't buy engagement rings at all.  If they buy a ring it will later double as their wedding band.  The rings tend to be simple with a small setting or no setting at all.  The focus of the engagement is not on the ring and it's unlikely that the ring will be displayed in the same way it is in the US.  Seen from the outside American engagements start to seem driven more by consumerism than by the monumental task of choosing a life partner.

I only had a vague idea the pressure to consume was so relentless until I stopped living in the US.  It is a relief to live in a place where strangers are not engaged in a senseless competition with no end and no goal.  Stores are mostly closed at least one day a week.  Holidays are more about spending time with people you like.  If I'm going to be judged on anything, it's probably the car I drive and that is something I can live with.  Sometimes I spend a few spare minutes hating on the curtains was inherited from the last tenants and imagining what it would be like to actually invest time into personalizing my living space.  But I don't have enough desire to invest any resources knowing I'll likely be moving again in a couple years.  This kind of unattached living is working out great with a toddler and a dog.  I really don't care too much if they spill juice on the carpet or if I've washed the sofa covers so many times they have faded unevenly.

I am always going to struggle with guilt for having white middle class privileges.  I grapple with finding a balance between my desire to succeed and my desire to live in a fair society.  I want to win but I don't want there to be homeless kids in the world or hungry people.  Europe does equality better for now.  I hope that American influence doesn't seep too much into German society.  Sometimes we can be a bad influence.


Two articles worth reading if this topic interests you-

Mother's Day surprisingly dark history
Concern for Equality Linked to Logic, Not Emotion