“quod satis est” <what is enough> – Horace
I was torn between calling this indulgence versus overindulgence, indulging or decadence or “quod satis est” <what is enough> … in the end … it doesn’t really matter because it is simply a discussion on what is pure decadence – or greed – and what do we actually deserve as people.
I imagine it is also a discussion on what Horace discussed as ‘what is enough’ or ‘the hollowness of unparalleled prosperity where we need to recognize the unacceptable limits <on prosperity> and finding some sanity in enough.’
Or in his exact words … ‘… supplicate and implore the gods that prosperity may return to the wretched, and abandon the haughty.’
Materialism is a tricky topic.
And people who dumb it down to simplistic thinking are being silly.
We all want things.
Not just for sociological reasons … but for practical ones. Things can make our lives easier and better. While status can certainly play a role <this is where indulgence or decadence can rear its ugly head> materialism at its most basic level is a fairly practical concept.
And comparing those who ‘have something’ to those who ‘have a lot’ is difficult.
Where do you draw the line?
Where is the line on ‘having something’?
What exactly is ‘the hollowness of unparalleled prosperity’?
Where do we define a ‘recognition of unacceptable limits?
Horace was a pretty smart guy.
And even all he could do was ask the question … not offer any true answer.
“ … sensibility of the age, materialism itself, which seemed so solid, is revealed as a false god. Growing affluence appears to breed only an insatiable hunger for more, a desolate sense of something always lacking. Horace asked himself, just as we are asking ourselves, these questions: What exactly is this new dominion, empire, or global new order? Can it offer unlimited peace and prosperity, stretching forward into infinite horizons of time, or does it consist of little more than a soulless efficiency, an instrumentalism that makes everything a means to an end, with the end itself lost along the way? In which case, might not the greatest loss and poverty be of time itself, the lived and living moment, the day, which is the gods’ gift to us, but which is always being sacrificed to a more glorious tomorrow?
Horace’s response to living in his time of global power threatened by its inner vacuum of values, not so unlike our time of global capitalism, in which no value other than the monetary is recognized, was to be contrary.”- Harry Eyres <Horace and Me>
Sometimes I believe we confuse the issues when I hear people bitching about greed and capitalism and ideals and social responsibility.
Capitalism is simply a process or system or possibly even an economic ideology … but that is it.
Simply a framework in which people work within.
And values are associated with people and not a framework. If no value is recognized other than money that is not the fault of capitalism … it is the fault of people.
The system does not breed greed or overindulgence.
It is a system in which people institute attitudes & behavior. It is people who abuse or use the system. You can be as good, or bad, as you choose to be within capitalism.
All that said.
Before I show the following quote let me say that I am certainly a capitalism guy … but … Schumpeter <who I thought was a really really smart guy> suggested the following:
“Moral poverty lurks within capitalism.” – Joseph Schumpeter
I like this thought.
It isn’t that capitalism IS moral poverty but that within capitalism LURKS the possibility of moral poverty.
What that suggests is that there is a constant battle between prosperity <or having shit> and morals.
We constantly battle what psychologists called ‘hedonistic adaptation’ <once you have something you want more>.
And I agree with Schumpeter.
I believe that is the battle we face day in and day out.
So with that said I state unequivocally that ‘greed’ does not rule <despite the fact I see a shit load of people suggesting that greed is leading to all the issues we face>.
Greed, among the few, will always be in constant battle with the majority in which is constantly fighting against moral poverty.
That is life.
That is economy.
That is societal salvation.
But I do believe we are facing some interesting societal challenges as we think about whether we have embraced ‘indulgence’ as the norm rather than an exception. Maybe better said … have we embraced an odd perspective on ‘something we deserve’ versus ‘something we earn.’
An evolving economy is all about ‘moving up the ladder.’
Maybe not socially but certainly accumulating <accumulation not necessarily being material but rather anything that you find valuable to accumulate … honor, integrity and kindness included>.
<note: ponder that thought for a second>
But at some point we seem to have begun to believe we deserve some things.
And, no, this isn’t about entitlement programs and crap like that … this is about ‘I deserve a certain salary’ or ‘I deserve a certain size house’ … or even ‘I deserve that opportunity.’
Maybe it is semantics but attitudinally there is a massive difference between feeling like you deserve something rather than feeling like you have to earn it first.
Which leads me to some thoughts:
- Perversion of capitalism
Capitalism is a living breathing organism.
One in which microbes fight with other corrupted microbes intent on perverting the organism. The organism also has other microbes which are healthy and can sometimes even attack and destroy the other microbes. Corruption should not, probably cannot, kill capitalism because capitalism itself can kill corruption.
This is kind of my version of Schumpeter’s though on creative destruction.
This is a simple thought … and I am going to leave it quickly to move on to the larger attitudinal issue.
Perversion aside … if our perception is that the system is rigged by the perverted … we become cynical. Lose optimism. Question hope. Maybe even get angry at the perverts <sorry … couldn’t resists>.
I’m not suggesting the American ideal is not a good <or great> one or that all Americans are wasteful and clueless or that every shred of what makes America great has evaporated.
Today’s United States has a solid core of the good and possibility and hope. And I say that despite the fact people have become quite cynical. And it is a deep cynicism. What I mean by that is that we have become cynical with regard to what it is to be America <which includes, but is not solely, capitalism>.
I mention cynicism because it is relevant.
It is relevant because it corrodes the ideal.
It is relevant because it affects <either directly or indirectly> how we behave in tandem with our virtues <moral compass … ethics>.
Adam Smith noted that free markets, in order to function well, depend upon the virtue of their participants. It is a fact that cynicism and distrust engendered by ‘the perverted’ only creates inefficient transactions and costs <including oversight expenses trying to reel the perverted in> to levels that can paralyze a marketplace. Additionally this perversion inevitably focuses on the phenomenon of “putting profits before people.”
This can be manifested in a variety of ways:
- taking imprudent and excessive risks with other people’s money
- selling products and services that harm people, families, and society
- engaging in outright fraud
Today it seems like we are suffering from all of the above.
So this perversion of capitalism is really all about morality.
As noted earlier, Adam Smith, understood the link between markets and morality. He did not believe that a successful economy could arise from the raw, unbridled pursuit of self-interest. He maintained that self-interest could fuel a successful economy only if it were narrowed by the constraints of traditional morality.
<Please note … we have seen this moral challenge before. A moral disintegration preceded the great depression. The stock market crash of 1929, and the ensuing Depression, was precipitated by the roaring ’20s which was a prosperous decade was marked by materialism and moral laxity – in society and in business.>
While I could wax poetically about moral laxity I will instead focus on ‘hedonistic adaptation’ and the title of this article … indulgence or overindulgence.
Despite the fact we Americans see ourselves as a generally optimistic and happy group of people … whenever research is done … despite our relatively prosperous lives … we are pretty unhappy people compared to other countries.
That means despite what I would consider a relatively bloated sometimes greedy perspective of life we are unhappy.
That is something to ponder.
No big government or little government or anything to do with government … this simply suggests that America may be a mess but we the people put us into this mess.
We either contributed or sat complicit, sipping Starbucks coffee <which I am doing at the moment>, buying too much stuff, wasting energy, time and resources … complaining but doing nothing about it and claiming we were powerless to do anything about it.
We shape the world.
We have big brains <bigger than a pea> and opposable thumbs.
We tend to make fancy stuff.
We like to make stuff, touch stuff and smell stuff.
It is perfectly natural to like the stuff we make.
We like to indulge in our stuff.
Interestingly, to provide perspective … different cultures think, and act, differently.
I read somewhere that nomads like stuff but have no sense that they should accumulate.
In Genghis Khan’s culture, it was much more important to give things away than keep them.
The Norse had a similar tradition.
I think those values have to do not only with generosity, but as a sign that the giver is not ruled by the objects he/she owns.
America is the opposite.
We are a society of indulgers and accumulators.
<please note that I am not suggesting we should become a country of nomads>
Actually I believe author Tiffany Madison says it well:
“I believe the world is divided in three groups: givers, takers and the few that can balance both impulses. If you are a giver, it is wise to define your boundaries because takers will take what you allow them to; all givers must learn to protect that about themselves or eventually, there is nothing left to give.” - Tiffany Madison
We have an overall driving mindset of takers these days.
Take or be taken attitude.
And while we are now rich beyond belief <in terms of what is available to all of us 24 hours a day> we are seduced by the urge to acquire … and acquire more … and indulge <when the opportunity arises>.
Sociologically we are driven by the ‘hedonistic adaptation’ impulse.
I don’t have anything against wanting more than what you have.
And I certainly understand the psychology of ‘once you have something not only do you not want to not have it anymore … but you want more <or the next step up>’.
I understand Hedonistic Adaptation sociologically.
But while I understand it … I don’t have to like it.
We just can’t seem to stop wanting more and there never seems to be enough stuff … we just don’t seem to find the boundaries <or the balance>.
I am not suggesting this is not difficult.
Money leads to lifestyle upgrades.
Once you achieve the income you desired … well … you go back to desiring more.
- the next level of ‘more’
Oddly <and somewhat disturbingly> … this desire for ‘more’ has created an entire economy around ‘how we look to others around us.’
Whether we like to admit to or not … how we look, or appear to look, to others important to appear to drives our behavior <to a large extent … certainly not 100% in most people>.
This has created an incredibly odd <and slightly disturbing> currency of ‘doing good behavior.’
‘Doing good’ is becoming a personal wealth currency.
What do I mean”?
I am donating “x”.
I am volunteering here.
Therefore I have earned ‘value.’
Maybe the most troubling example of this is how businesses recognize this and are jumping on board by developing environmental programs, family things, positive team work seminars or anything that generates some currency that they can mentally <if not tangibly> put on a balance sheet as proof of relative wealth.
<note: I hate this trend>
Whew. Indulgence. Overindulgence. Accumulation.
Why do we do it?
Here’s what I think.
Actually three reasons:
Two is the evolving relationship between preference and value.
Third is we are putting a higher importance on rational & pragmatic characteristics <in school, in life, in business>.
Let me go into detail.
- family in a prosperous country
The underlying dynamics of behavior reside in the conflict between a culture of individualism <I can do anything> and the economy. In that context relative value and revealed preferences actually determine the behavior of individual parents and family.
What I suggest is that family is more affected by these two things than policies, such as welfare or divorce income distribution or even the increased employment of women.
Individualism creates a climate in which responsibility to others and the context of duty to others are diminished. This individualism grows out of the young peoples’ interface with the market economy and their ability to produce and to consume for themselves. I believe that these changes are due to the increasing legitimacy of self-interest as a criterion for decisions as opposed to the interests of a larger context.
This need not be interpreted in the narrowest sense of selfishness but rather in the context of competing values, such as personal freedom, development, and empowerment values that we hold as important as our family roles.
The needs of our market economy define individual as producers. As a result occupational roles take priority over family roles. We see the consequences of this priority. The parent who works extra hours at the office, rather than the one who knocks off at four to take the child to softball practice, is the one who will get the pay raise the next time around. And maybe more importantly this attitude <and behavior> is brought into the family context as ‘the price you pay to be successful.’
Like it or not … there is a strong relationship between the market economy’s need for us to behave as if we were not tied in obligatory ways to others and our cultural emphasis on individualism.
Simplistically … success is being defined by individual criteria rather than group context … even at the expense of family. This drives overall context for attitudes and behavior.
- relative value and revealed preferences
The perspectives of relative value and revealed preferences may be the biggest cultural issue future generations will face <because the current older generation has a very skewed perspective>.
Revealed preference is a term from the economists for which there are fancy equations which basically mean “actions speak louder than words.”
If we were interested in whether Americans preferred to invest in home remodeling over taking vacations, holding prices constant, we would quite simple look at whether over time they invested more of their available resources in home remodeling than in vacations.
The notion of relative value offers insight from revealed preferences.
We can value something very much.
We can even value it more than we used to and still value it less relative to some other competing good, if our value on that competing good increased more rapidly.
We can still prefer something … and we may even prefer it more so than in the past … but its relative value has decreased versus competing preferences.
- note: <… in the business world this is often reflected in what is called a conjoint analysis … which if you have ever had to present the findings from one of these studies I can guarantee your head will have exploded – mine did>
This is where the emphasis on the consumption need comes in.
For example … young people seem unable to ‘afford’ marriage these days.
Does that mean that their life styles would be worse than say if they were in the 50′s or 60′s if they married? Nope.
It simply means that they think that they need more now than then they did then in order to marry.
In addition … the values of independence and the realization of individual goals and self-definition are also factors in evaluating preference versus value.
The bad news is that a consequence of these competing values noted in studies is a corresponding decreased willingness to make long-term commitments. This unwillingness to make long-term commitments impacts economically and socially. The values of personal freedom, development, and empowerment reduce the relative attractiveness of the obligatory nature of any decision is impacted. And by ‘any decision’ I will remind everyone of the blurred lines between home and business … because lack of long term commitment bleeds into business decision making and vision and … well … you get the point.
- rational and pragmatic
Simplistically … I think we are becoming too rational and pragmatic.
We are creating a society dictated by reason and proof <not knowledge> and therefore discount activities that cultivate and nurture the human character and inevitably values <and how much value we put on values>.
It seems day in and day out what isn’t ‘real’ or provable is discarded. This means that all the things that struggle to show proof or is just an intangible ‘real’ bites the dust.
To be real it must have this proof … which in these examples means it must have consensus or collaboration … or what I call ‘group proof.’
Why do I care?
This means we have a tendency to ignore dreams, visions, and crazy ideas that come out of the nowhere. Creativity has, and has always had, an irrational aspect.
Human imagination and creativity is incredible, powerful and healthy.
To toss it out with everything else that is unproven or irrational impoverishes our moral compass <and value structure>. Within this vacuum we seek to fill the emptiness with the tangible … the stuff … the provable to those around us.
Sadly we inevitably flatten humanity by becoming so rational and pragmatic.
This pragmatism leads to …
- We want to be a little less crazy <take chances> with ourselves and each other.
- We want to understand and control any irrational or un-understandable behavior.
- We desire predictable behavior <mostly under the guise of “we don’t have time to waste”>.
I get it. I get what we were striving for … happiness through efficiency <or lack of wasted energy and hope>. But we have thrown out parts of what makes our lives rich by being so overly rational <and materialistic>.
In the end.
Indulging, overindulging, what we deserve … decadence?
All important words to think about … but in the end it comes down to optimism versus despair.
It was Leszek Kolakowski that said “civilizations cannot live in despair.”
Despite the fact we are accumulating stuff and being pragmatic and rational … we still feel some despair with what is happening around us.
And in that situation … we seek to find an optimistic interpretation in the despair itself.
We seek to see that something good comes from the bad.
We seek learning from the failures of the system.
Or even … why should we despair just because we have stopped stalking what is just a fantasy <the intangible hopes & dreams>?
That is the battle in today’s mind.
And, frankly, it is a hopeful battle … hopeful in that we still remain at our core ‘good’ and desire to seek that which is good.
This is a battle of what exactly is ‘right.’
Right or maybe ‘what we deserve’ is becoming fuzzy in our heads.
As someone wrote:
We are simply identifying the inefficient or that which we identify as unlikely to help us meet our end objectives and prune them like dead branches assuming the remainder is healthy and productive and will assist us in getting to where we want to go.
If we continue to do that … culture, like a tree, will die.
More importantly … culturally I believe we have lost the definition of indulgence, decadence and overindulgence.
We have lost the boundaries surrounding accumulation.
Hedonistic adaptation or not … we simply think of accumulation.
Therein lies our issue to be discussed.
Accumulation. Solve how we think about that <attitudinally and behaviorwise> and then we can discuss what is overindulgence or decadence.
I imagine we all need to simply get a grip on “quod satis est” <what is enough>.