Sunday, April 13, 2008

American Dream, American Myth

Most of us have grown up with the belief that success in life is to be measured almost entirely in economic terms. Whether we have “made it” or not in life all depends upon factors like how large our home is, what sort of elaborate stuff we possess, and how many exotic vacations we can take in a given year. We have also been taught, directly or indirectly, that the greater our buying power, the more worth we have as human beings. Those who cannot—or will not—strive to become masters of capital are perceived as somehow morally deficient and missing out on what has come to be optimistically known as the “American Dream.” In fact, this dream is nothing more than a myth perpetuated by corporate-owned media to encourage the sort of excessive consumption that has driven the American economy to the point of inevitable collapse.

During the past few years, I have taken several trips to Southern Florida to visit family members living in Fort Lauderdale. Only two years ago, I remember being amazed at how opulent the lifestyle was in places like Palm Beach, Boca Raton, and Ft. Lauderdale, even compared to the excesses of my native Long Island. Skyrocketing real estate prices had encouraged speculation in the housing market, and middle class entrepreneurs were buying up all the homes that they could get their hands on in order to capitalize on what seemed to be a golden ticket to easy riches. Expensive restaurants were filled to capacity, high-end stores in mammoth shopping malls were doing record business, and sales of luxury items like yachts and sporty convertibles (a must for men going through mid-life crises) were booming.

The situation changed dramatically when I returned for this year’s visit. For one thing, due to the inevitable housing crisis housing, prices have plummeted 15-20% and sales of existing homes have dropped 28%. Visiting a colleague in Boca Raton—one of the great meccas of conspicuous consumption in the United States—I was shocked to see foreclosure signs all over the city and million dollar homes sitting vacant with no one to buy them. The situation for middle class homeowners in Florida is even more precarious, since their consumption over the past three decades has been even more inextricably intertwined with the equity in their homes. In a Sun-Sentinel poll conducted on April 4th, one-third of respondents in Broward County, where the poll was conducted, reported being afraid of losing their jobs in the current economic downturn. In short, things are not looking good for the overall health of the economy of southern Florida.

Given all this, one would assume that people--like my dear extravagant sister living in Fort Lauderdale--would begin to dramatically decrease their levels of consumption and try to live a bit more frugally—at least until this current economic storm passes. If this is happening, I have not noticed it. The high priced malls in Boca and Fort Lauderdale seem to be as full of shoppers as ever, the waiting times to get into decent restaurants doesn’t seem to have diminished at all, and the lines for $5.00 frappuccinos at Starbucks hasn’t seemed to have gotten any shorter.

All this “data” is anecdotal, of course, but it is not at all dissimilar from what I have observed elsewhere. The economy is tanking, but Americans seem incapable of doing the logical and prudent thing, which would be to cut back—perhaps dramatically—on their bloated lifestyles. As mentioned earlier, the explanation for this paradox is quite simple: the identities of most Americans are so wrapped up with their ability to consume that any attempt to reduce consumption would create a massive sense of identity-loss (If we are not the stuff that we possess, then who or what are we?).

The corporate-owned media, of course, would like to maintain this link between human identity and consumption, so everything we see on television or in the movies, or read in our daily newspapers and magazines, reinforces the idea that happiness can only be attained by buying into the materialistic lifestyle that has come to dominate American culture. But we really shouldn’t cast all the blame on greedy corporations and their media stooges. The real fault lies primarily in us. We are the ones who refuse to recognize that happiness can’t come from owning a $300 pair of sunglasses or a $500 pocketbook. Until we start to accept this ridiculously simple fact, and to change our lives accordingly, we will continue to be consumed by the very items which we ourselves so lasciviously consume.


  1. Stop your liberal attacks on the good people of south Florida! If they want to spend more money than they have on crap they don't need, that's their decision. I just spent $300 on new Ipod speakers and consider myself patriotic for helping to keep the American economy afloat in troubled times.

    People of Florida: spend more; save less...You're gonna be dead soon anyway!

  2. This is Lisa Russo, Dr. Michael Russo's sister. I agree with Narcissus. I just bought a $350.00 pair of sunglasses and have not worn the same outfit twice in more than 6 months. I have had 15 cars in 20 year and am driving a BMW right now. Since December I have traveled to Las Vegas, went on a 7-day cruise, went to Atlantis (Paradise Island), and have just returned from Aruba. In May I am going on another cruise for Mother's Day with my parents. I get massages and facials every month and get my nails and have pedicures weekly. I just bought 4 dresses this weekend. This might seem excessive to some but I believe that you only live once (this life is not a rehearsal). So keep spending and having fun. Life is short.

  3. I too agree with Narcissus, and wish Dr. Michael Russo would stop this shameless preoccupation with paganism. Only Buddhists and Taoists would encourage the kind of self-sacrifice that he is constantly harping on, haranguing Christian America about its materialist consumerism.

    Jesus meant us to be wealthy, that is why His Father sent us to this New World. It is God's will that we be wasteful, for the Holy Spirit and Capitalism both move in mysterious ways, their wonders to perform. Ask not what you may do for your country, ask what God has done for you lately. A blessing is certainly overdue.

    The answer to a listless economy that has burst after two decades of spending money we don't have is CLEARLY to spend yet more money we don't have, and to spend it on behalf of heirs we have not yet conceived. If we can be patriotic enough to save the economy by putting them into debt, the least they can do is to be patriotic enough to bear the burden.

    I am going out tomorrow to spend $350.00 on sunglasses. Nay -- I would look a craven fool for not outspending a woman. I will search all day to find a pair of sunglasses for $500.00!!! I will wear each outfit once only, and will not sell it or even give it to Goodwill. I will burn it. I will keep sweatshop workers in China, in Indonesia, in the Northern Marianas, and in other places across the developing world secure in the $2.00 per hour, 18 hour per day jobs.

    I will buy a new car -- only one that gets 15 miles per gallon or less -- and trade it in when it needs its first oil change. For certainly, keeping the Saudi Royal Family in a position of absolute power over the medieval Saudi peasantry is the ultimate act of American patriotism.

    And, of course, I will avoid like the seven plagues visited upon Egypt the slightest hint of logic or of critical thinking. It is my duty as an American, as a capitalist, and as a Republican.

  4. Russo's sister is right. Life is too short not to enjoy yourself as much as possible. All this talk about voluntary simplicity is just life-denying nonsense. And, Fallon, your platitudes about Buddha and Jesus are the height of hypocrisy. Do you live in a house? Drive a car? Take vacations? Then you are as guilty as the good people of Florida of excessive consumption.

    The problems of the world are not going to be solved by having people live like monks. Remember, it's the decadent wealthy who will ultimately create the technology we need to get us out of the ecological mess we are in. To that end, the excessive consumption of the American people will ultimately help save the planet!

  5. As much as i am a fan of living decadently and spending money on things i dont need, and believe me i do my fair share of wasting; but to say that the excessive consumption of america's wealthy will ultimately save us is just ludicrous. You cant rely on the spending of the wealthy to take care of our problems. If that were the case then the economic collapse wouldnt matter at all and would have never happened. In times of economic strife the rich dont miss a beat, the yacht charters keep going, the ferraris are still sold, and estates worth millions are still built. in times like these it has got to be up to the individual to decide where he needs to draw the line. If someone wants to wear $500 dollar sunglasses or likes to get new cars all the time. who cares, it isnt your unconcieved heir that will inherit the debt of someone elses spending. If everyone just learns to live within their own means (myself included)we would all be in better shape. and to the original post mike, It may not be so much that we were fashioned to believe that the size of our house is what we base success on, couldnt it just be that we were fashioned to believe that when we are happy we've "made it"? In this fashion maybe having a beamer or a house large enough for three families is what makes them happy. so to each his own if you want to be frugal and look out for your own pocket so that you can stay out of trouble in the long run, so be it. If you dont and you want to live the lavish life of someone in fort lauderdale, again, so be it.

  6. Narcissus (the aptness of your screen name becomes more appraent by the minute) --

    Life is too short not to enjoy yourself as much as possible. All this talk about voluntary simplicity is just life-denying nonsense.

    This statement is narcissism, pure and simple. Self-gratification is the sine qua non of existence. Self-denial for the sake of others is "nonsense." And I am sure you would even extend this proposition to cover those moments when our self-gratification directly causes the suffering of others. I wish you would be more intellectually honest and just come out and say "I got mine; f*ck you." I would at least be able to appreciate, then, your respect for truth.

    And, Fallon, your platitudes about Buddha and Jesus are the height of hypocrisy.

    That's Dr. Fallon to you, son. Do not presume, on the basis of my consent to engage in discourse with you, that we are on anything like an equal or even an equivalent level. That's very arrogant and reflects poorly on your upbringing. I'm sure the people who raised you did a better job than that.

    Do you live in a house? Drive a car? Take vacations? Then you are as guilty as the good people of Florida of excessive consumption.

    Narcissus, as well as being self-absorbed and entirely amoral, you suffer from the innocence (lack of experience) of youth. If you are one of Dr. Russo's students, to boot, you would do well to go to him for some remedial lessons in logic.

    You seem to need to see the world in the binary, dichotomous way typical of most right-wingers: everything is either/or. Good/evil. Right/wrong. Entirely true or totally false. There is no gray. So since we can never have perfection, we must go with corruption. Since we can never have true social equality, lets embrace social Darwinism -- it's every man for himself! Again, "I got mine, f*ck you!"

    Why must I accept (because you say so?) your silly dichotomy that I must be either a Capitalist or a Communist? I must either live the ascetic life of a monk or wallow in narcissistic material consumption? Who told you you get to define reality for the rest of humankind? YOU have certainly accepted this binary view for yourself, that much is clear. Be happy with yourself. Screw everyone else. They do not matter to you. But do not presume to preach that this is somehow a morally conscionable attitude. This is narcissism desperately trying to assume a respectable pose.

    The fact of the matter is that we don't have to live ascetic, cloistered lives, and we don't have to be wasteful. It's not an either/or proposition. You can have a house, and a car, and even eat food that you did not grow or raise yourself, and not be wasteful and narcissistic. Waste and narcissism are a choice; they are not inherent in capitalism. Not all consumption is excessive consumption.

    Remember, it's the decadent wealthy who will ultimately create the technology we need to get us out of the ecological mess we are in.

    Oh, you call yourself a "libertarian," but you are so cut from the neo-conservative mold. This is such patent nonsense that it is almost a waste of time to go through this. Research, development, and invention in human history has almost never come from privileged classes; it has come from a healthy and well-educated middle class -- a group of people that Milton Friedman's disastrous theories callously take for granted.

    Johannes Gutenberg was a metalsmith. Samuel Morse was an artist. Thomas Edison was an itinerant telegrapher. Orville and Wilbur Wright were bicycle mechanics. Albert Einstein was a patent clerk. Even Bill Gates' childhood was middle class.

    This myth, that "wealth creates wealth," is, well, a myth. And I think you are invoking this myth right now not as any legitimate argument for Friedmanian economics, but as an excuse for your own narcissistic self-gratification.

    To that end, the excessive consumption of the American people will ultimately help save the planet!

    Yes, of course. Selfishness as patriotism. What a nice (and simple!) way to define yourself as a patriot. And all the patriots of the past who achieved greatness -- not for themselves, but for America -- by just the type of self-sacrifice you abhor and ridicule...what of them? "Life-denying nonsense?"

    You need to leave your cocoon, Narcissus. It is much too sheltered and safe there.

  7. This is some debate. Like Dr. Fallon, I find the attitudes of Lisa, Narcissus, and, to a lesser extent, Chris to be absolutely mind-boggling. We are entering a serious recession and the blame for this lies primarily in the hands of greedy Americans - especially real estate speculators and the mortgage companies that enabled them. To think that the same selfish bastards who got us into this mess can now get us out of it is completely delusionary. Dr. Fallon is completely correct: the whole emphasis on wealth in this country goes counter to the teachings of all the great religions.

  8. Typical liberal mad at Florida for making the right choice in 2000. This hysteria about the economy is corporate and media generated too. The corporate world is just clearing out the losers who don't have the stomach for speculation. Besides what good is it to cut back if you are invested in all those companies through your 4-owhatever funds and need growth for retirement. If the economy is indeed tanking then we are better off buying stuff now so we have it on hand when the revolution comes.

  9. Well bklyn, Im sort of perplexed by what on earth any of that means. First off why would any corporations be weeding out the very people they need to do the work. Most people actually taking part in all of this speculation arent even found working for their "4-owhatevers" anyhow. They arent even working for large corporations period. The people out there doing speculation generally work either on commission or tehy are self employed. And if they were found working for their 401k's of course it makes sense to cut back. with the money being pulled from your check to be put into your retirement account you have less money coming to you and have no choice but to cut back. And a question, what does growth in a company for retirement have to do with cutting back? You could be the lowest of the low and still not know how to budget yourself and the same goes if you are the CEO. Also The idea that buying all of the stuff you may want in the future now seems like a good sound plan. That way you'll have lots of crap lying around the house when they come and put you on the curb. Look youve got to come to the real world and realize that recession doesnt mean revolution. This country made it through the great depression and i didnt see it sparking another civil war. Wake up and realize that you may be able to buy what ever youd like now but think about your future and ask yourself how youll afford to move out of your mothers basement, conspiracy man.

  10. Growing up I never really understood the concept of money. You know, I honestly thought it grew out of my stepfather’s wallet. Whenever we would go on our exciting family vacations, or buy new fancy things for our home money was not an object. Christmas has always been and still is completely ridiculous at my house. Gifts literally blanket the entire living room floor! Now I am not complaining about any of this because I understand this makes me very fortunate. However, I cannot help but be slightly embarrassed by the materialistic nature of my family, and myself. I can sit here and tell you I could live without my Ipod, car, and my $6,000 trip to Italy this summer but I would be telling a huge lie… The problem with this is that the spending that we all do needs to be cut back, dramatically…Unfortunately, many of us—including myself—are too weak to stop ourselves from saying: “CHARGE IT!”


  11. Glad you could join us bklyndem1, it's nice to have another conservative perspective in this blog (besides Narcissus and Publius that is). In defense of my colleague, however, I must point out that his comments were essentially of a conservative nature. There is nothing that he said that the Pope or Barry Goldwater wouldn't agree with.

    My problem with Dr. Russo's position is that he places too much blame on the poor homeowners of Florida and not enough on the unscrupulous banks and mortgage lenders that convinced these people to take out loans that they couldn't afford. Sure there were greedy people in Florida who wanted to make a fast buck out of rising home prices, but they will be paying a heavy price now that the housing bubble has burst. These people should probably be pitied for their naiveté rather than being scolded like naughty school children.

  12. Dear Ecoblog:

    Although I understand that you think the people of Florida need to be pitied now that the housing market has collapsed. But, the fact of the matter is and was at the time one of the few way to actually make any money in South Florida. The prices that I saw when I was there for cloths, food, housing etc. were higher than NY prices. The family I have there were not making money at the jobs they had and they invested the money they had in Real Estate. I know quite a few people who did this just trying to make things a little easier and now they have lost or will lose everything due to the lenders (Banks) who agreed to give them mortgages that they really did not understand. I guess we all learned a valuable lesson here. People must be truly informed and knowledgeable before making decisions that could harm them in the end.

  13. Hello my name is Alyssa I am Dr. Michael Russo's 11 year old niece. I would like to say I am thankful for what I have. Not all people have as much as I have. Me and my mother donate a lot to the homeless shelter, every Christmas, Thanksgiving and when ever we clean out our house of things we no longer want. So I think that whatever we can afford to have we should be happy about it. I know I am......


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