Vive La Revolution!

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This is my second night away from home attending Lisa Yao and Aaron Kabb’s wonderful wedding in Santa Barbara. (Mazel tov!). So please forgive me another indulgent and non-data-driven post. If you want to learn something useful tonight, best to navigate away from this page right about now.

Tonight I would like to wax on about culture. Specifically our culture here in America.

One of my least favorite narratives that is often spewed from the political realm goes something like this:

“My parents came here from (insert country) with nothing but the shirts on their backs. Through hard work and the American dream they were able to build a successful future for themselves and me. No one gave them a thing. So why should we coddle the unfortunate amongst us with social programs and benefits? It only makes them more lazy and dependent on society.”

There are many counterarguments to this rotten chestnut. But I would like to look at it from a slightly different angle. The perspective of an early retirement enthusiast.

I would like to present another hypothesis as to why the first and second generations of immigrants are often so successful in climbing the social ladder, whereas those that come from generations of poverty here in America seemingly have such a difficult time escaping poverty.

Our economy is driven by consumer demand. We’re bombarded by messages that consumption is rewarding. Popular culture is fueled by advertising. By the message that if only we consume this one thing, our lives will be improved.

This message is pervasive. I would argue that we are all infected by the notion that consumption, in someway, leads to happiness. If only we had the right house. If only our kids went to the right school. If only our clothes were little bit nicer. People would respect us more. Our lives would have more meaning.

But what about first-generation immigrants? I would argue that those who are new to our country live a little bit of an isolated existence. They probably don’t watch our TV programs. They likely tend to associate with others from the same cultural background. They live among us, but they are not touched the same cultural tide that affects the rest of us.

My hypothesis is that this isolation allows them to live by foreign cultural norms even though they are in our midst. If they are from a Third World country, they allow themselves a lifestyle little more extravagant than a Third World lifestyle. So what to do with their excess money? Either they send it home to their old country, or they save it and invest it. Either way their cost-of-living is less, and their chance building wealth is greater.

Put another way, it is easier to save if you are not infected by the idea that spending is the only way to achieve happiness.

Contrast this to the impoverished native-born Americans amongst us. They are damned both with the lack of capital, as well as with our common mentality that consumption is a worthwhile pursuit. So what money they make is spent unwisely. Saving is not valued. They’re stuck in a perpetual underclass where their minimum wage paycheck cannot support their first world lifestyle.

If it is easy for an upper-middle-class doctor to live a life in debt, imagine how difficult it is for a low wage American to escape poverty.

So what’s my solution? Unfortunately I don’t really have one. Changing a culture is a tough nut to crack.

But one of my goals is to spread the philosophy far and wide, that consumption is not necessarily correlated with happiness. I feel in my bones that this message is valuable to people living cushy bourgeois lifestyles like myself. But it is my deep suspicion that the message would be even more valuable to those living on the margins.

Spending less is revolutionary. Better yet, it is a nonviolent revolution that starts within and does not inflict pain on others.
Long live the silent revolution…. cough, cough.

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2 Responses to “Vive La Revolution!”

  1. Jennifer P October 28, 2013 at 8:53 pm #

    “…consumption is not necessarily correlated with happiness.”

    Amen to that. Hubby came to that conclusion over the summer. A short time later, we sold the house and move to an apartment closer to my work. We don’t have as much “stuff” and we’re a lot happier.

    • Miles Dividend M.D. October 29, 2013 at 11:45 am #

      That’s great to hear. It takes a lot of stuff to make up for the misery of long commutes. And happiness is the best goal!

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