In 1958, when economist John Kenneth Galbraith appropriately described the United States as ‘The Affluent Society,’ 9.5 percent of U.S. households had air conditioning, about 4 percent had dishwashers, and fewer than 15 percent had more than one car. By 1980, when Ronald Reagan’s successful bid to replace Jimmy Carter was based on the widespread sense that people were suffering economically, the percentage of homes with air conditioning had quintupled, the percentage with dishwashers had increased more than 700 percent and the percentage with two or more cars had about tripled. Yet, despite the astounding economic growth — despite owning more of the gadgets, machines and appliances thought to constitute ‘the good life’ — Americans felt significantly less well-off than they had twenty-two years earlier.
— Paul Wachtel, The Poverty of Affluence
This little paragraph, encountered in a book not about economics, has been floating about in my mind, stoking a bit of turmoil in my head, seeking a way out.
Is accumulating things really the same thing as “living the good life”? Should the fact that so many of us have accumulated so many things contribute to our sense of well-being? Or is the accumulation of so many things in part responsible for our sense of ill-being? I certainly am not in the privileged position of the austere unworldly prophet, setting out to preach to others, to criticize them for their choices in life. I have much, and have no plan to sell all and move to a commune. But this ever-growing dissatisfaction that I see around me, this distressing feeling that no matter how much there is it’s not enough, that no matter how much there is there is really not anything, seems to be overwhelming, and I humbly seek some small explanation.
The summer of 1968 was another era, perhaps another universe entirely. The United States was in conflict with itself, the young people of Western Europe were breaking loose from their traditional roles, and Czechoslovakia had declared itself a free society in defiance of the Soviet Union. And in the midst of all this I happened to visit France. My stay in Paris was in late summer, after the French student agitation had slowed, but tensions were still apparent. One afternoon I chanced to be walking on Boulevard Saint-Germain approaching the Universitè when a row of shiny black vans stopped suddenly and black-caped gendarmes with riot gear poured out onto the sidewalk about a block ahead of me. I decided it was a good time to cross the street. But later that day I had an odd conversation with a French businessman, a man perhaps fifteen or twenty years younger then than I am now. He was disgusted by the upheavals of middle-class youth who, he said, had been given everything, the finest things of life. Why, he asked, did they reject all these fine things, choosing instead to live in apparent poverty and rebellion. Why were they so ungrateful. I don’t think I understood it all then, or now, either, and I certainly didn’t know how to explain to him that perhaps these young people found the “fine things”, the material goods of 20th century Western culture, to be wanting in some way, that perhaps they were looking for something more fulfilling.
But I don’t know. I don’t know if the turmoil of the 1960s is relevant to the turmoil of the 2010s. Events in the Arab world a few years past seemed reminiscent in some ways to the early days of ’60s protest, of the excitement of “Prague Spring” before it was so brutally terminated. But events in the United States around the same time had a different feeling to me. The shared feelings, the idea that people need to look out for each other, seemed to have been reversed. Instead of asserting the importance of protecting every person, of encouraging all to succeed, some protests seem to demand that only some succeed and the rest can go starve.
I thought once upon a time that people thought that we are “all in the same boat”, and that each of us is responsible for the survival of all. Now the mood of many seems to be “I’m in my lifeboat by myself — you stay out of it”.
At the same time, I see the actions of Black Lives Matter and the student movement rising from the despair of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shootings, and some small hope arises that that spirit hasn’t been lost entirely.