The Superficial Luxurious Degeneration of America

December 8, 2007 · Print This Article

I’m in Las Vegas for the second time about to get on the plane home. I was here for a web marketing conference called PubCon. I’ve enjoyed my time here. I saw the Blue Man Group and the Wayne Brady Show. I also did the all-American thing and lost $100 at the blackjack tables after a poorly executed Martingale strategy on the $5 tables at the Sahara. I leave, however, feeling the same way I felt last time–a bit dirty, a bit uncomfortable.

I’m disappointed with the excess and waste of the Westernized luxury culture. Wealthy men with fake-as-can-be paid escorts on each arm at the $5000 per hand blackjack tables, faux-venetian canal boats, Rolex, Prada, Burberry, and Louis Vuitton stores galore, Ferrari and Maybach dealerships, swinger clubs with $65 entrance fees, men on the streets passing out cards with naked women available for between $35 and $150.

I wonder to myself–Does this city in many ways represent a key part of what is wrong with our culture or a key part of the freedom that causes it to thrive? I am as pro-competitive market economy as the next guy, but I have to wonder what role do super-luxury goods play in a just society. I’m not talking about the $200 purses or $40,000 cars–the splurges that perhaps are bad within the realm of defensible-reason in moderation for quality or happiness-inducing reasons. I’m talking about the $10,000 purses and $500,000 cars.

I was taught in my economics education that societies should work to maximize utility. But whose utility does it maximize to spend $75,000 on a diamond necklace in which the original diamond miners in the DRC were paid $10 to mine the raw materials for? The purchasers? What benefit could the male purchaser of a diamond necklace of this cost gain other than the ephemeral loyalty of an ever-expecting superficial person? It is not my place to judge or question their morality, but I must wonder.

Are there not so so so many better things to invest money into other than temporarily attractive fake parasitic members of the opposite gender? And trust me, I’m not talking about women in general, just a very specific type of women that happen to be all over Las Vegas and Beverly Hills. And some wealthy women are just as guilty as the wealthy men. If the advertising and celebrity indoctrinated culture of spend-and-trash materialism didn’t create false desires to ‘be better’ and ‘have more’ could we perhaps focus our investments on something that actually matters to our society?

Could we focus our efforts and funds instead on education, healthcare, and nourishment for the 26 million children who die every day on our highly-optimized six-sigma logistically perfected world from preventable disease and starvation? I’m not talking about giving questionable ideology-inspired bilateral or multilateral aid to dictatorial governments that don’t represent their populace. I’m talking about giving directly to proven projects in our community, country, and world run by local entrepreneurs through groups like GlobalGiving, Kiva, UNICEF, UNESCO, Doctors Without Borders, Heffer International, and Save the Children. Could awareness of the dire situation of so many of our fellow sisters and brothers reduce the demand to waste money on super-expensive non-necessary junk?

But then I came back to questioning myself. What right do I have to question the utility-maximizing choices of ultra-rich people? If they want to spend 1% of their income on a $500,000 car, shouldn’t they be able to? Isn’t the freedom to do just that an ingrained part of our American culture? Is it fascist to even suggest that we should create a society in which it would not be legal to buy a $500,000 car?

I have to agree–we should not make it illegal to buy a $500,000 car or a $10,000 purse. That wouldn’t jibe with the values of our liberty-based democratic republic and market economy regardless of how wrong or wasteful it may be. Our country was also built on the value of equality of opportunity, however. And equality of opportunity surely does not exist quite yet in America.

So perhaps instead of regulating the supply side of the equation we should work on reducing the demand side of the equation. If we can create a consciousness of the realities in our world today–and create a shared awareness of what is actually important (family, friends, health, laughter, memories, the ability to create, a sense of shared humanity, an end to genocide and warfare, environmental sustainability, an end to extreme poverty and hunger, and the prevention of preventable diseases), we may be able to create a world in which the super-luxury wastefulness of the Westernized Vegases, Macaus, and Dubais can legally exist, but end up being destinations that focus on entertainment rather than superficial luxurious waste. Is possible to have entertainment without super-luxurious waste? I think so. Is it unrealistic to attempt to reduce the demand side if we agree we should not regulate the supply side? Can a committed society actually build national human consciousness over a period of decades? I am not sure.

I sometimes wonder, is celebrity culture actually more interesting than the natural drama of the future of the world? I see lots of Entertainment Tonight shows but very few United Nations Tonight shows. Maybe the issue is how the news is presented. Perhaps we need to popularize and dramatize the storylines of the world’s future. Perhaps we need a new form of realtainment that combines The National Enquirer with The Economist. ‘Pakistani Inflation Worry’ turns into ‘Smack-Down Out East: Will Musharref Bodyslam His Central Banker?’ The Current Channel on cable has done a good job at this–but it just doesn’t reach enough people.

With all due respect to Nickelback, at the end of the day who really wants to be drugged up rockstars living in hilltop houses and driving fifteen cars with girls coming easy and the drugs coming cheap? I don’t want a brand new house on an episode of Cribs nor a bathroom I can play baseball in with a king size tub big enough for ten plus me. I think, and I may be wrong here, that the large majority of people want to be happy with friends and family around them and the knowledge that they’ve made a difference in our world.

The government, businesses, and the media tells us to ‘be American’ and buy, buy, buy. The goods end up quickly in landfills. Until the full cost of producing products is internalized instead of externalized in the Generally Accepted Accounting Principles we will be incented by misaligned priorities. Hurricane Katrina was a terrible disaster that had an immense human and environmental effect–and yet it increased our GDP due to the cost of rebuilding. That wasn’t economic growth–that was economic recovery.  We’re adding revenue to our asset column without first subtracting the associated expenses from the liabilities. We’re off-balance sheet financing our future.

As a final thought, perhaps we shouldn’t focus on Gross Domestic Product (GDP) but rather Net Domestic Product (NDP), the GDP minus the costs to replace the non-renewable environmental resources that are used up in producing the input goods and final goods. If we invested in companies on the NASDAQ and NYSE based on their EAARC (earnings after all real costs) instead of their EBITDA we would be a lot closer to having a market that valued companies appropriately based on their contribution to their customers and society.

I’ll end this essay with a quote from the comedian George Carlin. While I enjoy living in the fast paced globalized technology-driven business world as much as anyone—I agree with his core message…

The paradox of our time in history is that we have taller buildings but shorter tempers, wider freeways but narrower viewpoints. We spend more, but have less, we buy more, but enjoy less. We have bigger houses and smaller families, more conveniences, but less time. We have more degrees but less sense, more knowledge, but less judgment, more experts, yet more problems, more medicine, but less wellness. We drink too much, smoke too much, spend too recklessly, laugh too little, drive too fast, get too angry, stay up too late, get up too tired, read too little, watch TV too much, and pray too seldom. We have multiplied our possessions, but reduced our values.

We talk too much, love too seldom, and hate too often. We’ve learned how to make a living, but not a life. We’ve added years to life not life to years. We’ve been all the way to the moon and back, but have trouble crossing the street to meet a new neighbor. We conquered outer space but not inner space. We’ve done larger things, but not better things. We’ve cleaned up the air, but polluted the soul. We’ve conquered the atom, but not our prejudice. We write more, but learn less. We plan more, but accomplish less. We’ve learned to rush, but not to wait. We build more computers to hold more information, to produce more copies than ever, but we communicate less and less.

These are the times of fast foods and slow digestion, big men and small character, steep profits and shallow relationships. These are the days of two incomes but more divorce, fancier houses, but broken homes. These are days of quick trips, disposable diapers, throwaway morality, one night stands, overweight bodies, and pills that do everything from cheer, to quiet, to kill. It is a time when there is much in the showroom window and nothing in the stockroom. Give time to love, give time to speak! And give time to share the precious thoughts in your mind.


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