Jacuzzis with Sound Systems (Good of Affluence #3)

With this post, we finally come to the heart of the matter.  Schneider’s main point is not, it should be emphasized, to defend capitalism.  I’ve mentioned this, but it took me awhile, given my previous experience with Schneider, to appreciate that fact fully myself.  Schneider’s goal is in one sense a much narrower one–his purpose is to argue that enormous private wealth is a good thing–and that it is a good thing to enjoy it privately, without feeling compelled to restrain one’s consumption on ethical grounds, or to share with those who don’t have enough.  Stated so concisely, that sounds pretty indefensible, but as a defense mechanism against legalistic guilt-manipulation, Schneider’s argument is somewhat understandable.  

In any case, his is an argument about the ethical status of wealth–the end product–rather than of capitalism–the process whereby it comes about.  Capitalism is highly relevant to his argument, for at least three reasons: first, because since he believes affluence to be really great, and he believes capitalism to be the cause of this affluence, he believes capitalism to be really great; second, similarly, since he believes capitalism to be the main way in which people can become affluent, he is able to argue that yes, we should care about the poor, but the best way to help them is not by charity, but by fostering capitalism; third, as mentioned in the previous post, since he believes that capitalism represents a way of becoming rich without it making others poor in the process, then we don’t need to be worried about the morality of where our wealth came from–we can simply accept the end product as an unqualified good.  The first is not important to his argument here, though of course, if he were writing a defense of capitalism as such, it would merit more attention.  The second is rather important, hence the frustrations about his vagueness that I voiced in the previous post; but as this theme is only an undercurrent until the epilogue, I will wait till then to discuss it.  The third is a very important assumption, for it is what justifies Schneider’s decision to essentially narrow his attention to the morality of the end-product wealth.  If this assumption turns out to be too optimistic, then his whole argument could turn out to be a moot point–that is, one might retort, “Sure, in theory it might be fine for Americans to enjoy fantastic wealth, but since, as a matter of fact, they are guilty of long-term exploitation of other countries, they have an obligation to make restitution rather than simply revelling in their jacuzzis.”  But, having noted this weakness (repeatedly), I will focus from here on on Schneider’s narrower argument on its own terms.

 

Having mentioned jacuzzis twice, I should perhaps justify what might have seemed like mere rhetorical excess. For, in defending the enjoyment of wealth, Schneider has to explain how it is that he is not defending simple greed and materialism.  What about all the critics, Christian and otherwise, who observe how consumerism is destroying the soul of American society, trapping us in a mindless unsatisfying addiction in which we are, in William Cavanaugh’s phrase, “Being Consumed”?  In response, Schneider quotes Dinesh D’Souza:

“This condescension, however, fails to take into account the genuine fascination, charm and delight that new acquisitions and toys give us.  Wouldn’t you like to have a Jacuzzi with a built-in music system in your bathroom?  How about a St. John outfit that makes you the very definition of elegance?  Or a TV screen that drops out of your ceiling?  Or a computer system for your car that talks to you and gives you street directions?  These are fairly cool items.”  

Well, there you have it!  What more rebuttal could you ask for?  Materialism is really cool, so it couldn’t possibly be bad.  Schneider flatly denies that such toys do not bring happiness.  How is the pleasure that many of his friends gain from driving a Lexus or Mercedes at all inferior to that which other friends gain from reading the great books? he asks with a straight face.  How could anyone impugn “the looks I used to see every year on Christmas morning when my kids woke up to shiny new bicycles, or to some brand new computer game station.  Only a pure curmudgeon could look into their delighted faces and see the spiritual corruption of pleonexia.”  Eh, call me a curmudgeon.  Maybe not now, but I fear that if they get a new bicycle or computer game station every year, they will end up spiritually corrupted.   

There is a good and appropriate way to enjoy affluence and luxury, I think.  At any rate, I hope so, for I dearly enjoy good Scotch, and it would be hard to argue that this is anything other than a luxury.  But if this is not to become a vice, it must be tempered at the very least by moderation, not to mention a deep concern for the poor and a readiness to help them.  But I see no criterion for moderation in Schneider’s account.  As I said at the end of the previous post, Schneider is not out to defend merely relative prosperity–the sort that can indulge in a luxury from time to time.  He is out to defend the sort of wealth that is so extreme that it can satisfy not only all needs but all normally conceivable wants (early in ch. 2, praising the achievements of capitalism, he enthused about its capacity to create billionaires and people like Bill Gates), and so has to go on seeking out every more preposterous frivolities for continued titillation.  E.g., the jacuzzi with a built-in music system or the TV screen that drops out of your ceiling.  Up to a certain point, more material resources can provide more possibility of happiness, but the vast majority of what we spend on in the modern West goes well beyond this point.  How long, I would ask Schneider, did that delight on his children’s faces on Christmas morning last?  Probably not very far into January.  

 

Of course, Schneider may be right that the materialism that afflicts modern Americans is not straightforward greed.  In a recent interview with Fermentations, R.R. Reno argues that it is something more like restlessness.  But it is no less dangerous for all that.  And Schneider, although of course routinely throwing in concessions about the need to beware of the spiritual perils of wealth, does not really seem very concerned about them–they form only a footnote in his account, so to speak.  And that seems very odd to me–even if Schneider’s basic point were right, isn’t this a subject where you would want to err on the side of caution?  What is the worst that would happen if we didn’t listen to Schneider?  Christians might be guilt-tripped into selling their jacuzzis and computer game stations and giving some of the proceeds to a church in Haiti, and might therefore gain fractionally less enjoyment out of their God-given affluence?  Would that really be so terrible?  

Again, there is another side to it–a more positive way to spin the whole argument–which is Schneider’s concern to shift the discussion from guilt to joy.  However, I think that this point of his, which has some value, to be sure, can be made within a framework of greater moderation, as I will discuss further as the review progresses.  


7 thoughts on “Jacuzzis with Sound Systems (Good of Affluence #3)

  1. The materialism may also be the created desire due to advertising, and the joy the brief joy that comes from acquiring the useless junk that we indeed do not want, but for which a desire has been created. I think Lewis has an article about created desire, as, of course, does Marcuse, and Girard.

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  2. Bradley

    Good post. Does Schneider even recognize the possibility of a rich man spoiling himself (or his kids) with his wealth? Or does he just downplay the temptation?An additional thought: Perhaps "moderation" is a relative term to some extent. For a billionaire, purchasing a jacuzzi with a built-in sound system really wouldn't be that big a splurge. Maybe this hypothetical billionaire lives in a normal house (like Warren Buffett), but for some reason he just really wants a fancy jacuzzi. His neighbours might not even realize he's rich. Of course, if you lived in Haiti this would be difficult to do without being excessive, due to the surrounding poverty. Social context seems to partly define what moderation is, which I suppose has a lot to do with equality. I imagine that in some places daily hot showers are insanely luxurious, whereas in other places it's rude to your neighbours *not* to take a daily shower. What's a wasteful luxury and what isn't? Depends on how rich you are, and where you live (i.e., how rich the people around you are).

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  3. Brad Littlejohn

    Matt–Yes, very true. Unfortunately, Schneider gives no attention to the danger of created desire, any more than he gives any attention to the other perils of materialism. He repeatedly admits in passing that there are dangers, to be sure, and Christians should be on guard against them, but it doesn't look like he plans on telling us what they are, and how they differ from what he's endorsing.Brad–Again, in theory, he seems to recognize that there is such a thing as destructive "hedonism," but he repeatedly downplays the temptation, and never gives us any criterion for it. It's almost as if it's such a peripheral danger that it really isn't worth going into–for all practical purposes, we can embrace affluence without worry. I think you're right that moderation and luxury have to be relative to some extent. The question is, how do we acknowledge this relativity and still say that these are morally significant categories? Schneider argues that since it's impossible to lay down a one-size-fits-all rule, then any rule is arbitrary, and hence categories like "sufficiency" and "luxury" are morally meaningless and there's no point bothering with them. But that line of logic is of course fatal to any coherent account of ethics, which will, on a whole range of issues, have to find its ground somewhere between legalism and relativism. But I'm planning to deal with this thoroughly in my seventh post, which will be focusing on chapter 4. So stay tuned.

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  4. Brad Littlejohn

    Patience, patience. I'm just putting up the first post on the Old Testament…the New will come in due course. (Actually, I haven't read the chapter on the Beatitudes yet, so I couldn't answer even if I wanted to, though I think I have an idea where he's going to go with it.)

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  5. As you note, the argument rests on the highly dubious assumption of the innocuousness of the means through which the relative affluence was gained. And again, ecology alone is sufficient to burst that bubble (though there are plenty of other pins lining up to do the job with equally devastating effect). If everyone were to live at average (not millionaire) US levels of consumption, we'd need five planets.

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  6. A thought experiment. Let's work in roundish numbers with 2010 figures and let's ignore the fact that there are not enough fossil fuels to ever come close to achieving this.Bill Gates has been estimated to have a carbon footprint of about 200,000 tonnes of CO2 p.a. (a rough estimate), compared with the current world average of less than 5 tonnes p.a.. If all 6.85 billion of us were suddenly able to live like Bill Gates, then rather than emitting about 30.6 gigatonnes of CO2 annually, we'd be emitting more like 1,370,000 gigatonnes. Even if (a very dubious assumption, given the numbers involved) the oceans and soils continued to remove their current proportion of carbon, then you'd be looking at an annual rise of (very approximately) 171,250 ppm CO2 concentrates rather than 3 and a bit ppm. Each doubling of CO2 in the atmosphere is calculated to raise global temperatres by 2-4.5ºC. A single year of us all living like Bill Gates would raise CO2 concentrates by a factor of over 600 from pre-industrial times, meaning more than a ninefold doubling (2^9 = 512). And so (again, ignoring all the other changes that would render this calculation invalid), such a situation would lead to warming of 18-40.5ºC, quickly extinguishing all life on earth (with the exception perhaps of bacteria around deep ocean vents, but the massive changes in ocean pH may well see them off as well). In fact, since a sudden temperature rise of more than 6ºC would be likely to lead to human extinction reasonably quickly, then a threefold doubling (i.e. 2^3 = 8 times rise from pre-industrial) would be sufficient. This would occur in under five days. So a single working week would end human life on earth.Just sayin'.

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