Friday, February 08, 2008

The price of everything and the value of nothing.

Or... jules' way to save the planet.

I made two trips to the USA last year and noticed two things: one was the incredible luxury most people live in; the second was how much people groan and complain about how much everything costs even though almost everything is incredibly cheap. It put a bit of a damper on things really. You'd be sitting with your feet up in someone's mind-blowingly gorgeous abode, unable to focus on the walls because they were so far away, and the folks would be whinging about the price of tomatoes or that basically free "gas" they pour into their cars. I suppose it wasn't everyone everywhere, but enough to start me thinking that only the simplest sort of economic model would be required to model the US. On an optimistic note I also wondered whether this dollar-centric existence means that the way to get Americans to consume less is simply to charge them more. Anyway, you'd think they'd all be a little more appreciative of what they have, especially since the third thing that struck me about the US was the plethora of impoverished people begging on the streets.

The Japanese are in some ways the opposite of this. I know people who will choose cheaper alternatives when available but I have never yet heard anyone whine about the price of anything. People also tend to look after their possessions and those of others very carefully. When you give a Japanese person a gift it is first admired from the outside and then unwrapped slowly and carefully. Often it is set aside to be opened sometime later. Even household rubbish is treated with respect, carefully separated and packaged in the ordained manner. My Japanese friends get around by foot, bicycle, bus and train and most live in teeny tiny abodes, where James (he of the long wing-span) couldn't swing a rat, yet alone a cat. While the famed penchant for the new can't be helping save the planet I guess it is probably the only thing that keeps the economy alive since no-one has any room for more stuff. And of course the lack of space combined with high electricity and fuel prices naturally drives progress towards smaller and more efficient everything.

To go down another level there is the Japanese minimalist aesthetic, which is easy to think about in terms of the photographers capturing single blooms at cherry blossom viewing time. To see Japanese beauty you have to turn your brain into a camera-like view, eradicate the hanging wires, the ugly buildings, the noisy traffic, the concrete and focus on the single perfect flower on a single perfectly shaped tree. Wouldn't it help save the planet if we were all happy with a single bloom on a single tree? Sounds good in theory but where it goes wrong in Japan is that the tendency to focus on the small elements results in loss of the big picture and allows the tyrants like the construction companies to pour concrete over almost the entire country.

At the core of the minimalism is of course... nothing. And the appreciation of nothing. This is the influence of Zen Buddhism - hinted at by Kooiti in a post on this blog a couple of years ago when he brilliantly suggested that for humanitarian reasons we should replace the emperor by an empty chair.

But then there is the paradox. In Japan there is no nothing. Take a bicycle into town and try to park it and you soon realise that there is really no space available. It is a bit scary. There is no nothing in the countryside either. Everything that isn't built on cannot be built on - the mountains are huge and almost vertical. They are young and dynamic. If they aren't actually erupting they are still suffering regular dramatic land-slides. People are never really very far away, even in the mountains. So, where to go for some nothing? I guess in Zen Buddhism you find it inside yourself. But can't it be found outside too? To my mind, desert doesn't do it because it is something. It is desert. But this stuff (see mystery photo at left)... this infertile scrubby wilderness. Miles and miles and miles of it. You'd think they people who lived in that country would have no trouble appreciating the value of nothing.


John Fleck said...

Jules -

I have no precise idea of where that photo was taken, but I've lived there off and on my whole life. The desert is not exactly "nothing," but it is usefully close. It is few enough things that it is feasible to start to understand how they might all fit together. That, for me, is the essence of the desert aesthetic.

MJC Rocks said...

Thank you for the observations. At the cost of sounding unpatriotic, and probably aiding the terrorists, my general notion is that many of my fellow citizens are arrogant and ignorant, and have been taught by our media to desire many, many material things. My house is considered small by local standards, but would surely be a mansion by Japanese standards. And please don't forget our bloated sense of entitlement: we complain about $3/gallon gasoline, but gladly pay maybe twice that much for a plastic bottle of water, which is immediately discarded.

I am certainly part of the problem; my house is full of "stuff", although I am proud to say that most of the clutter is books, but I am occasionally reminded that just a few decades back in my life, we were perfectly happy with a single car, a black and white television, and we tended to cook things from scratch.

And, I am only one generation removed from those who weathered the Great Depression. My grandparents picked cotton in California's Central Valley for pennies a day, and often went hungry. I wonder how our present-day society would cope?

I have always appreciated the open spaces of the desert of our southwest. I always smiled a bit when a busload of Japanese tourists would emerge from their tourbus, cameras snapping, and looking amazed. I am a little more cognizant of where they are coming from now. Thanks for the post!

Tilo Reber said...

Seems kind of pointless to judge Americans when others having less is not a result of their choice. What do you think about what Al Gore has James? I suppose if you actually achieved the Buddhist or Tao realization you simply wouldn't care about having things. But my guess is that only one in 100,000 have that realization (that's about as accurate as climate sensitivity). For the rest of us, the pretention of spurning materialism is just another way to feed our egos.

EliRabett said...

Come visit, you can reach the walls but not the ceiling. We live in a small old townhouse and only really use about half the space.

OTOH, my grandmother used to carefully and neatly package the garbage until a nephew took the nice box home to mom (grandma's sister) thinking it was a present.

As to Zen, or not Zen, it is really a question about what beans you count. Having a big house to many people is a sign they have done better than their parents, etc. Other times, other values.

Tom C said...

OK, fair enough observations. I'm curious what you think when you hear US politicians (most often from the leftward party, if you catch my drift) say something like "folks in the the middle class are struggling to make ends meet". Do you think that is true in any meaningful sense, or is it an attempt to arouse self-pity and win votes?

guthrie said...

Tom C- I am not american, but I have friends over there. What I know is that healthcare costs keep going up, housing is expensive etc. Also, the income etc indicators show that the middle classes have been badly squeezed in the past decade or two. So yes, it is correct.

Tom C said...

guthrie -

Read the first two sentences of her post. These comments and your comments cannot both be true.

guthrie said...

Yes they can.
The point is that many americans find it hard to make ends meet when the society they are in demands certain things of them, or rather, they require them to function well, eg a house, car, healthcare, etc.

If you want to make up an absolute scale of luxury and "making ends meet", then be my guest. But what counts is the society we live in, and what peoples expectations are.
This is why peopls happiness has not realy increased, despite the "incredible luxury" that they have.

Tom C said...

guthrie -

If "making ends meet" means struggling to acquire a luxurious lifestyle, that is a distortion of meaning. The point is that Americans can be goaded into thinking that they are poor, when, in fact, they are wealthy compared to just about any other people in the world. To prove this you only have to look at international economic data on purchasing power parity, which is the pertinent economic measure.

Whether this wealth makes people happy is a completely different issue.

guthrie said...

You asked what looked like a straightforwards question, I answered it in a straightforwards manner.

REad the post- the American lifestyle of Jules friends or whomever is luxurious by comparison with the Japanese lifestyle she is more used to. But I cannot tell which level of society she is talking about, and I guarantee that many, many Americans live in small apartments without fresh tomatoes etc etc.

You correctly note that Americans can think of themselves as poor, despite their wealth, however these poor americans are not comparing themselves to starving Africans. The relation to happiness is that that is one of the ways Americans are goaded into consumption etc, by the idea of increased happiness. And Jules comparison of what people have and have not got, is related to happiness insofar as it seems people can be happy with stuff, and without stuff.

Michael Tobis said...

Thanks for a lovely reflection, Jules.

Let me add some of my own idiosyncratic observations about America.

Yes, everything is incredibly cheap here and yes many people who have access to lots of stuff complain constantly about the prices of things that are essentially so cheap it's a wonder anybody bothers with the transaction costs. These are fair observations.

Yet there are a lot of people in financial trouble. This is usually about lost income, debt and/or medicine, not about the stuff that clutters up our lives. The lack of public healthcare and the tying of school quality to property values places a great deal of pressure on the individual and the family to maintain at the highest level of consumption they can manage. These pressures don't exist to the same degree elsewhere.

I don't recommend this country to people with a choice who have children lack an MD or a vast inherited fortune.

Irene and I have no children so we live very well on not very much money, but I would never be happy sending a child to a school in my district.

This immense pressure to consume enough to be allowed into the next level of physical safety, health security and education makes for a very productive, very consumptive society. (On the whole it's not a very happy one either.)

To some extent, Americans get the blame for all of this but we are also the world's sacrificial lamb. Under the economic model which dominates the world, somebody has to consume all the stuff everybody is producing. America is not just the world's cop (which is increasingly unwelcome) but the world's customer (which is still welcome).

It's amazing how little inflation we have seen in practice with the plummeting dollar. I read this as the rest of the world's addiction to our mad pace of consumption. It's peculiar; our dollar is in decline and everybody else suffers. The world is as addicted to America's peculiarly unhappy "affluence" as we are ourselves.

It seems unlikely that Europeans are yet sufficiently alienated to take up the slack if perpetual "growth" in America falters. So even in our decline the world revolves around us.

We still have plenty of nothin here in Texas though. Hope you can visit soon.