The Many, the Few, the Stuff

Is there a lot or a little?

Who has it?

These are the basic questions of how we struggle and endure on this pale blue dot. As flesh-and-blood creatures, humans are dependent on all kinds of stuff for our basic survival. Food and water, soaps and medicines, walls and roofs, clothes and shoes. We’re also dependent on other flesh-and-blood humans. To get, give, and exchange stuff with. To nurture us and teach us. For communication and community. For friendship and love.

Our existence is thoroughly material. Stuff and people. Things and bodies. We can only survive by sheer will for so long before we must sip water and chew food. If you left a newborn by itself, it wouldn’t make it very long without nourishment and the protective care of a guardian.

Loneliness at any age is disorienting and dispiriting. We are wired for touch, talk, and relationships. Poverty and homelessness are agonizing and imperiling. Everyone needs a baseline of stuff to protect and care for their body, and a safe place to rest and call home.

Whether there’s a lot or a little, and if it’s evenly distributed or held by just a few, make a significant difference in the quality of our lives and how much struggle it takes to get by. If there is abundance & equality, it’s much easier for everyone to meet their bodily needs and move beyond surviving to thriving. If there is scarcity & inequality, we’re much more likely to come to blows with neighbors or a police state, to have fewer trusting and supportive relationships, to scapegoat others for the lack of stuff or its uneven distribution, and to claw and scrape just to make it another day. Abundance & equality is the future we should fight for. Scarcity & inequality may be the future we end up with.

Today, we’re faced with abundance & inequality, but the kind of abundance there is can’t last forever. We extract, process, and ship far more than the planet can support and renew. It’s overabundance. And yet, much of the bounty is wasted–while too many needlessly go hungry or lack other stuff all humans need and deserve.

Even in the allegedly best and richest country in history, the average American struggles to cover their needs paycheck-to-paycheck, while the Few in the upper class makes tens or hundreds of times more and fortress themselves with excess. The inequality between the Many and the Few is stark and ingrained.

Even amongst the struggle of the Many, some have a much harder time of it than others. In a society with a patriarchal, white racial frame, being black or brown or a woman frequently adds additional obstacles to meeting material needs. Individual people have an individual experience within the broader tug-of-war between the Many and the Few. We need to pay attention as each person points out the intersecting injustices they encounter simply for being who they are.

To have a future of (sustainable) abundance shared equally, there’s a lot of work to do. Protesting and pressuring the Few. Voting better people into office. Imagining better futures. Right now, there’s more stuff out there than the planet can support, with an elite Few controlling and enjoying most of the overabundance. This isn’t coincidence. It’s the long-term result of extracting, storing, and selling stuff without laws and distribution channels that ensure everyone’s needs are met. The result of pursuing more and more, without reasonable restrictions to prevent a small group of people from ending up with it all–and wrecking the Earth along the way.

It’s immoral and insane—making the lives of the Many much more difficult than they should be. There’s solidarity to be found in the universals of our material struggle. If we can achieve that solidarity, we can start building a different, humane arrangement of stuff that gives everyone a chance to thrive.

Making Relationships Last

Around Valentine’s Day last year, I wrote about the need to go beyond showing love on just a couple big days with big gestures if you want to be truly romantic. A thoughtful gift or a meal shared at a trendy restaurant on February 14th can be a wonderful thing. But there are a lot of hours and days through the rest of the year when there isn’t a holiday to celebrate and you create (or don’t) the love in the air. Turning romantic sparks into long-burning flames is what makes a relationship a lasting one.

OK, great. Sparks into flames. What are some ways you can do that? As someone who has been married for 7 years–and together for 8 years prior to that–I’ve learned a thing or two about keeping a relationship strong, fun, and new. Not perfect (you can ask my wife about the boneheaded things I’ve done). But lasting and growing.

Be really, really good at talking and listening to each other. It’s nearly impossible to over-communicate and be too good of a listener. Work toward being able to talk openly about everything. Yup, even that. (What did you just think of? Have you talked about it?)

Be really good at talking about things that are going well, and things that aren’t. Every couple argues. You’re going to have competing goals and desires, misunderstandings, and silly skirmishes about things like figuring out what to eat (You pick! No you pick!). You have to learn how to argue well. How to disagree honestly and patiently. How to maintain your own dignity and point of view, while doing everything you can to respect and understand theirs. Figure out what the healthy, mutually beneficial resolution is, and how you can get there together. Arguing well is about finding your way back together when you got miles apart. Not who has the best one-liners and Exhibits entered into the court to prove a point.

The rest of the time–when you’re not arguing (which is hopefully most of the time)–you have to be forthcoming about how you feel, what you plan to do today, how you can get errands and chores done together, and everything else that’s happening in your lives. Keep the conversation going back and forth all the time. If you frequently find yourselves on the couch or in bed quietly immersed in each of your phones, you’ve got some work to do.

Don’t let things become predictable and routine. You shouldn’t be exactly the same person today as you were to your mate yesterday. Learn and grow. And encourage your significant other to learn and grow, too. Do things that enable you to learn and grow together. Classes, vacations, documentaries, hanging out with new people, and other things that will cause you to stretch what you think and what you do. Things should never stay the same between the two of you for very long. You both should know and feel that the relationship is going somewhere. That you’re growing in the ways you want to individually, and growing closer together.

Do surprising little things each day to show your mate how important they are and how much you care about them. Notes and doodles, an inexpensive gift on a random afternoon, home-cooked meals, massages and other loving touch. Sometimes small, unexpected things can change the course of a whole day and how good you feel about each other.

Make sure you have shared values. Sometimes opposites attract. They balance each other out in just the right ways. But if you have completely antithetical outlooks on life and core values, you’re very likely going to arrive at an impasse and part ways eventually. Incompatible religious or political beliefs. Whether or not to have kids or how to raise them. A generally hopeful and optimistic perspective versus a mostly cynical and nihilistic one. Some values and beliefs can change over time or be accommodated. Others are deal-breakers. You and your mate need to know that what matters to each of you most is at least complementary–if not very similar.

Don’t keep score. It doesn’t really matter how much or how little your significant other has done for you today or this week. If you truly love them, you should be more concerned about their well-being than your own. If they truly love you, they should be more concerned about your well-being than their own. You may do all the chores this week. They might surprise you by doing all the chores next week (because they know things shouldn’t be predictable and routine 😉 ).

Your relationship is probably not going to last if you’re doing exactly enough to keep things 50-50. They did ten points worth of good relationship stuff, so I guess I’ll do ten points worth of relationship stuff. It’s definitely not going to last if you’re angling for 40-60 or even less. It’s not a relationship if only one person is doing the majority of it.

True, lasting relationships become a virtuous cycle of enjoyment and fulfillment when you trust that being selfless with each other will meet each of your needs and desires. You give them your honesty, attention, time, patience, creativity, benefit of the doubt, generosity, faithfulness, and the rest of you, and trust that they’ll give you the same.

If you can talk and listen well; learn, grow, and surprise a little everyday; make sure you share what matters most; and don’t keep score; your relationship will burn with more and more heat. And you’ll know that your future together will be even brighter.

Presents

After World War I, mass production was on a roll in the United States. Assembly-lines had been vitally used for the production of tanks, planes, ammunition and more. After the war ended, millions of personal goods were able to be produced through the same efficient assembly process. Corporations were worried about overproduction.

Up until that time, the average person bought things primarily on need. Necessity, functionality, and durability. What would happen when nearly every person had all of the things they need? How would stuff continue to be sold if most everyone felt like they had enough?

Business executives realized they would have to transform the way people think in order to keep turning a profit. Paul Mazur of Lehman Brothers declared, “we must shift America from a needs to a desires culture. People must be trained to desire—to want new things even before the old had been entirely consumed. We must shape a new mentality in America. Man’s desires must overshadow his needs.”

A new desires-based culture took shape in a short amount of time. An anonymous journalist declared in 1927 that, “a change has come over our democracy. It is called consumptionism. The American citizen’s first importance to his country is now no longer that of citizen, but that of consumer.” Thanks in large part to the propaganda techniques of Sigmund Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays, the masses were effectively manipulated into buying things they didn’t need. It’s more subtle than ever. From Bernays to today there has been an active effort on the part of businesses, media, and others to nudge you into fulfilling desires with stuff. This is what keeps the gears of our economy turning.

Black Friday is nearly here. It’s the perfect storm of the tradition of gift-giving during the holidays and modern consumerism. You’ve probably already seen enticing deals over the last few days. In 2015, American holiday retail sales totaled over $626 billion. Whether it’s out of nostalgia, a desire to be generous or seen as generous, a sense of obligation to do what everyone else is, getting a little something for yourself, or otherwise, we all collectively spend an absurd amount of money during the holiday season.

We have allowed too much room for wants in a world of needs. We get nudged from all directions and spend without much pushback or critique. It would be banal to point out the major, persistent human problems that could be fixed with $626 billion. But I’m sure that you can think of a handful. What if we addressed some of those problems instead of keeping the consumerist machine running?

I often wonder how many people have been sucked into maxing out credit cards or the promise of layaway because they feel like there isn’t another choice but to handover hundreds of dollars this time of the year. But after a major recession less than a decade ago, with many people struggling to find full or liveable employment, who has a bank account that can keep up with the desires culture we’re tangled up in?

This holiday season, don’t be a consumer. Be a person. Consumer is too simple and loathsome for the complexity and uniqueness of who you are. The common good is not contingent on buying everyone you know something wrapped in a box with ribbon.

I love Christmas. I will shamelessly bump Christmas music at every opportunity and make and eat all of the holiday treats I can. But this season does not have to be about stuff. What are the wants on the wish list–on yours, your children’s, your significant other’s? Can we maybe indulge fewer of those?

What are the needs around you? Everyone is going through something. Tight finances, health battles, struggling to find reasons to wake up and go out in the world. Sometimes the depth of the holiday season is not the blissful cheer of cookies and carols, but the way you can humbly and simply be there for people.

Perhaps your “gift” to others this season is just to be a better human. Is there someone who could really use you taking them out to coffee and listening for awhile? Can you cook for friends or family? Can you do someone’s chores? If there’s gotta be something wrapped up with a bow, can you figure out a thing they need and will use for awhile?

If that sounds simplistic or boring, it’s likely because we’re so saturated in the culture of consuming. Being a better person is not something you can gift-wrap. Getting people things they need is not as flashy as breaking the bank. But it shouldn’t be about the extra–about “packages, boxes, or bags”. When we do holidays right it’s about the people and the moment. The extra is truly extra, and we likely could do without. If you want to show someone this holiday season that you care about them, be sensitive to what they need and come alongside them. Presence, not presents.

This Week in Upgrades: April 11

Hello there! Welcome to a new week. I don’t know about you, but I’m locked in a real battle with my tiredness. Last week was a long one without a lot of free time.

But in the time that I did have, I’ve been enjoying reading After Nature: A Politics for the AnthropoceneThe US, along with the rest of the world, needs to take a good look in the mirror about our relationship with nature, and what we need to do now to adapt to climate change. After Nature has a lot of great things to say about that, and I’m sure some of it will end up in future posts.

It was a busy week for human things happening the world. Here are some of the most interesting:

Twitter announced that they’ll be offering employees 20 weeks of paid parental leave. That’s not bad compared to other businesses and some US cities, but still not even close to other countries. Paid maternity and paternity leave of several months should be in every presidential candidate’s platform.

In encouraging environmental news, wild tiger populations are growing for the first time in 100 years. The world’s wildlife has been decreasing dramatically in recent decades.

Quartz took a look at the paltry state of public transportation in the United States and who will fix it. Plenty of room to improve where I live.  How about where you are?

Such a curious thing that we have moving stairwells everywhere. Have you ever wondered about the invention of the escalator?

The more we study bacteria in the gut, the more we understand how important it is. A recent study shows how they relate to brain function.

Speaking of bodily health, almost all of us will probably have checked WebMD at some point. Is it trustworthy?

Continuing the conversation about stuff: fast fashion is not sustainable. Let’s fill our closets with stuff made to last, yeah?

Have a great week!

 

The Common Good, Part 1

When someone says the economy, what comes to mind?

Does it feel like something that applies to your daily routine, or some kind of abstraction–a massive machine running in the background? When the nightly news talks about how the stock market performed, do you directly connect that with what’s going on in your life?

When you think about your job and your income and the things that you’re able to do when you’re not working, would you say that you’re well-off? Or do you wish that things were a bit different?

Why do we work in the first place? Why do you work where you work now (if you have a job)? There are likely a number of reasons. Some people genuinely love what they do–they keep coming back to it with eagerness every day. Others work to keep busy–maybe not in love with their labor, but busyness is better than boredom or unemployment. Still others work one or two or three (or even more) jobs simply because they’re trying to make ends meet. They don’t have a choice.

Even if you’re not in such a desperate and heartbreaking situation as working multiple jobs for low income, surely the great majority of us on some level are working to earn money. Few are those who can do what they love most or who are in such a stable financial situation that the paycheck is an afterthought. And even many of those who are quite well-off with what’s in their bank account continue to show up to work everyday to try to increase that amount.

Money–even for those who have plenty–keeps us returning to our daily grind. Why is this?

Think about what money does. Money is the way we quantify and exchange value as a collective. Increasingly, many things in the world can be bought and sold. All of those goods and services are assessed a value in terms of the dollars they’re believed to be worth or what people would be willing to spend to get them. Anyone with enough earned value–money–can quickly hand it over to acquire things. Amassing money can become an end in itself.

Money enables us to get stuff. The more money we have, the more stuff we can get. The more work we do–more hours or higher wages–the more money we have to get more stuff. More, more, more.

And there’s plenty of stuff.

According to the National Retail Federation, Americans were predicted to spend over $630 billion on holiday shopping in 2015. That’s spending on stuff that’s purely for fun, in a short period of time. Through the year in 2014, the average American spent over $6,700 on food, $17,800 on housing, $1,700 on clothes, $9,000 on transportation, $4,300 on healthcare, $2,700 on entertainment, and $11,000 on numerous other things.

Each of us, over the course of a year, is spending tens of thousands of dollars or more on fast food, gas for the car, additions to our wardrobe, trips to other cities, medicines and beauty products, drinks at the bar, cleaning supplies for the house, gifts, and every other thing money buys us.

There’s a seemingly endless amount of stuff (to complement our endless pursuit of piling up more money). But what is stuff, exactly? What does it do for us?

Some stuff fills our wants. Some or most of the $630 billion for the holidays could surely be spent on a number of other more important or more meaningful things. It’s not stuff that we must have. I say that as someone who absolutely loves Christmas. I baked cookies and watched classic movies all week (Home Alone, anyone?), and there was more than one present under the tree for my wife. It’s a wonderful holiday of giving and receiving and sentiment. This isn’t about making you feel guilty for the money you spent on holiday gifts. But Christmas and the other Winter holidays don’t have to be so much about stuff. What might we be able to do together besides a drone or hoverboard for all with even $50-$100 billion of that $630 billion–one or two fewer gifts per person?

Of course, there are plenty of times when we should treat ourselves. Life would be utterly boring and incomplete if we were always calculating out and removing things that are merely pleasurable wants. Sometimes it just feels right to have some ice cream, buy a new pair of shoes, or head out for a cocktail. Go for it.

But, crucially, a lot of stuff fulfills a part of our human experience that is an actual need. It’s hard to endure without healthful food to eat, a place to live, a way to get around town, proper healthcare, and much more.

Stuff, whether it’s primarily for pleasure (want) or a fundamental necessity (need), fulfills many of the longings and requirements of being human. Stuff is important. And therefore money is important if we’re going to live comfortably. And to get an adequate amount of money we need a job of some sort.

Jobs, money, stuff, humanity. Our national conversations (in America) usually work in that order.

NEW YORK CITY - SEP 5: New York Stock Exchange closeup on Septem

Politics and political commentary is so often about the simple categories of job creation and unemployment. How many jobs were created last month? What’s the unemployment rate? If those things seem solid, apparently we’re all supposed to think the economy is good–and that each of us is in good shape then.

But if those basic metrics are out of sorts, then we start talking about money–loans, interest rates, inflation, wages, debt. Should we raise the minimum wage? The Federal Reserve has raised interest rates. Student debt is at an all time high. The dollar is weak.

If the money metrics are off, then the chatter moves to stuff. What’s the price of gas? What’s the cost of a gallon of milk? What’s the cost of tuition? Are the social programs in place working for the stuff people can’t afford themselves? Can people buy cars and houses and the rest of the American Dream?

The US leads the world with about 70% of our GDP coming from consumption–in other words, buying stuff. The way things are set up now, if people aren’t acquiring stuff, the economy is a sinking ship. Hence the strong emphasis on the jobs to have the money to get the stuff.

Rarely, if ever, do we talk about our human condition–the deepest, fragile, most profound part at the heart of the whole thing. All of the needs and wants–the ones we all share, and the ones that are unique to each of us individually–that define who we are. No human condition, no humans. No humans, no community.

When you think about the economy, do you think about this?

What if we started there and went in the other direction? Humanity, stuff, value, work. What if stuff, our system of value, and work were all concentric circles that always had to support and strengthen the humanity at the core? What if governments and public policy started not from securing and expanding a free market and gargantuan financial institutions, but basic human needs and desires?

Now that could be interesting.

Perhaps it would change everything about how we understand the economy and our lives together in society.

But that will have to wait for Part 2. We’re just getting started.