Live no longer to the expectation
of these deceived and deceiving people. . .
I started to question myself at the junction of idea and action but continued down the sidewalk anyway. I had twelve $100 bills in my jeans and every few steps I either stuck my hand inside, or brushed the outside, of my pocket to make sure the wad was still there. I had convinced myself it was rational to believe a lump of bills would work its way out of my pocket, fall to the ground, and disintegrate or blow away forever. Either that or I’d be pickpocketed.
I looked around the comfortable street in the funky liberal side of Boise, Idaho. To my right was a collage of colorful old houses, to my left a grassy embankment with shrubs and trees. There wasn’t a person in sight and the only sound was the chirping of birds and the wind rustling through tree branches. Yeah, pickpockets.
The scratch paper in my other hand was crumpled and the edges were ragged from holding it. I checked it against the number on each front porch I passed as if I hadn’t already memorized it, and after a few more blocks found the house I wanted. It was an older craftsman style with a broad front porch, weathering yellow and maroon paint, and Tibetan prayer flags rippling on the back wall. I stopped and checked my watch, right on time, and stood on the sidewalk with my hands in my pockets tapping my toe on the concrete. I watched the prayer flags flutter in the breeze and tried to reassure myself that this was a good idea. Then, after a moment of inaction, I took a deep breath and proceeded towards the porch. The wooden steps creaked under my weight and I was soon ringing the doorbell.
The term “keeping up with the Joneses” originated with Rebecca and Mary Jones (old money of 19th century New York’s high society and aunts of novelist Edith Wharton). In 1868 they ordered the construction of a mansion on 57th street, which at the time was inconceivably uptown, and Mary was said to be the first New Yorker to own a plumbed bathtub. From conception, “keeping up with the Joneses” has been tied to competitive materialism, and in 150 years the term has shifted from referencing The Joneses of 1800’s Manhattan, to our personal Joneses we spend to keep up with. Despite this transition, however, the main factor that motivates keeping up with any Joneses remains the same, status anxiety. “Status anxiety” denotes our concern over people’s perception of our success. This unease exists in every social class and is the main cause of competitive spending as we buy things to establish an image consistent with our “reference groups.” Our reference groups are our Joneses –the people we judge ourselves against– and research proves they’re a major factor in how we spend, and perceive, our money.
In a study conducted by Harvard and the University of Miami, researchers asked subjects if they’d rather have $100,000 in an environment where other people had $200,000, or $50,000 in an environment where other people had $25,000. Over half the participants chose the $50,000 scenario, proving we don’t objectively care what we have, only that we measure up to our Joneses we compare ourselves to. These reference groups (Joneses) have traditionally been people of similar means –neighbors, peers, coworkers– and competitive spending was congruent with each spender’s lifestyle. But in the past sixty years our reference groups have expanded upwards. Technology has allowed us to see deeper into the lifestyles of celebrities; mass marketing has subjected us to ads intended for wealthier customers, and TV shows provide unrealistic depictions of material living that we compare our lives to. This inflation has made us expect more, want more, and buy more, and the National Roper Pole indicates keeping up with today’s Joneses is more expensive than ever. When the Roper pole asked people to identify “the good life” in 1975, 38 percent chose “a lot of money” as a characteristic. When the study was repeated in 1996 the 38 percent rose to 63 percent. “Having a vacation home” rose from 19 percent to 43 percent, and “really nice clothes” rose from 36 percent to 48 percent. “The good life” of our reference groups is stretching further from our grasp, yet we continue to shop for it. Much of this shopping is done with money we don’t have, which creates a whole new set of problems. Ten years after the 96’ Roper Pole, in a National Opinion Research Center survey seventy-eight percent of respondents claimed debts were “making their home life unhappy.” Five years later dailyfinance.com reported the average American was $47000 in debt, money issues were reported as a factor in 70 percent of divorces, and in a study conducted by Juliet Shore, author of The Overspent American, 68 percent of respondents reported debt was “keeping them from reducing work hours” or “living a simpler life.”
In pursuit of the Joneses’ good life, Americans are spending more money, accruing more debt, and working longer hours with diminishing returns in happiness. Despite our constant efforts, keeping up with the Joneses is ruining us.
We shook hands one last time, finishing the prescriptive motions of a Craigslist transaction, and I squeezed the keys. The door creaked as I hopped in and dog hair puffed from the driver’s seat. The same air had been baked in sun and cooled in frost for months and was accented by mud and moldy undertones. Three of four dash vents had broken louvers; the metal frame was showing through the passenger seat’s fabric, and I couldn’t tell what color the carpet started out as. Gray? The steering wheel had a tacky feel that made me wipe my hands on my pant leg, and when I put the key in the ignition the dry rumble indicated exhaust was pushing out long before the splayed open muffler. The grey haired tie-dye and beret-wearing seller walked back to his house, and I slapped the dash issuing a Howard Dean shout of excitement before grinding it into gear. Its mangled bumper scoffed at chrome; the paint with only remnants of clear coat defied polish, and its very essence challenged the apocalypse to dawn. We accelerated onto the road, and I knew its name before the first stop sign. This was War Machine, my 1988 Toyota 4runner, my first large scale move of defiance against the Joneses.
A “positional good” is a product or service that connotes social status. Positional goods are rare, extravagant, and/or expensive, and are supposed to assuage our status anxiety. Fur coats, yachts, and memberships to the most la-dee-dah country clubs are good archetypes, but positional goods are as visible as branded sunglasses, organic food, or private school attendance. Cars are one of our most visible positional goods; and accordingly, we stretch our fiscal limits for them.
In 2011 Lendingtree.com reported 70 percent of American auto purchases involve a loan, and half of these loans are for six years. The industry rule of thumb suggests 10- 15 percent depreciation per year, so by the time most people get done paying for their car it’ll be worth less than half the price they paid. We accept these numbers because positional goods are supposed to show the world we’ve got money to burn and are enviable, but with millions of us drowning in consumer debt, positional goods don’t always tell the truth.
Like all great finds, War Machine had to be shared. I thought about who I could show, then turned on the AM only radio and settled into a show discussing combat characteristics of ants, because that’s what’s on AM radio. The musical intro cracked through two palm size speakers and I turned it all the way up to beat the cry of exhaust and whine of just bigger than normal tires. On the highway I opened the sunroof and hit the rear window button, anxious to see if it worked, and soon cool air pulled past my ears through the cab. I refrained from opening either front window because they were powered by wires that sprung from the cigarette lighter and it was a forty degree January afternoon; I’d rather have windows stuck closed than stuck open, and continued down the highway listening to the rhythmic cacophony that was War Machine’s essence. At the exit ramp I decided to stop at Matt’s house.
Matt and I are the same age. We went to school together. We have the same occupation, and we live a few minutes apart. We share the same work schedule, so I knew he was the only person likely to be home at one o’clock on a Tuesday, and I pulled onto his street in about fifteen minutes. Matt lives in a brand new row house subdivision. The houses are roughly twelve feet apart, neutral in color, share a long strip of perfect lawn, and the front porches are decorated with Home Owner Association approved accessories. I pulled behind his house via the road that separated one row from the next and was flanked by beige garage door, after beige garage door, after beige garage door. War Machine’s dry rumble tore through the alleyway and I felt like a cartoon villain trampling an otherwise tranquil scene. Once you’re the villain you might as well go all in, so I honked the horn; Matt stuck his head out, popped back inside, and re-emerged working his feet into slippers. He was wide eyed, kind of smiling, and shaking his head.Matt’s about a foot shorter than I am, has synthetic puffy gymrat muscles, and sports a tattoo sleeve with a fluer de lis and Affliction style typeface. He was wearing what appeared to be brand new workout clothes and had a dinner plate size Nike symbol on his chest and a smaller one near his kneecap. His face was still red from the gym and he looked at War Machine the way a prized dog breeder looks at a mutt being given away in a Wal-Mart parking lot. He was smiling, but his nose was scrunched and his upper lip was curled back. I hopped out and the sharp breeze bit my nose as it tore through the alleyway. Matt was the first to speak. “What the fuck.”
It was more of an accusation than a question, but I smiled and held up the keys. “Bought and paid for. Three thousand pounds of chaos,” I kicked the wheel-well, “Plus the dirt.” He raised an eyebrow. “You actually bought this?” I nodded. “You paid money for this car?” I nodded again, “Yup.” Matt shook his head and laughed before speaking again. “What are you gonna’ do with it?” He looked up at me with deep furrowed brows and what appeared to be legitimate concern, even though it was a pretty stupid question. “Drive it,” I said, slapping the hood. He looked down at the mangled bumper and paused, “Hmh.” Matt walked down the driver’s side analyzing every inch. I watched his fingertipsslide across rust lines. He tapped, then shook, the rearview mirror that was split in half and barely hanging on. He pushed the rusty tailpipe with his foot, careful not to get any rust on his slippers, then eyeballed the bashed rear fender. He proceeded to the front where he opened the driver’s door, took a step back, then closed it. He stopped at the hood and picked at peeling paint that revealed bare metal. Finally, he kicked the front tire. “Hmh,” he squinted back at me, “Why didn’t you buy a new one?”
American consumers often purchase items based on their connotations.
Marketers know this, and spend millions marketing products as symbols. When we form an affinity for an item, seen in an advertisement or in possession of someone in our reference group, we’re usually yearning for the status, experience, or feeling tied to the product. In The Overspent American, Juliet Shore explains, “If there’s something you really want, but don’t actually need, there’s a good chance a reoccurring symbolic fantasy is attached to it. A faster computer? The dream of getting more work done. A remodeled kitchen? The hope of eating proper family dinners. A luxury car? Making VP.” Even without the Joneses our materialistic desires aren’t about material, but as French Philosopher Denis Diderot taught us, once we fall into the cycle of introduction, desire, purchase, for one item, it’s often just the beginning. In 1769 Diderot wrote an essay titled “Regrets for My Old Dressing Gown.” In the essay Diderot is given a magnificent silk gown to replace his plain yet functional one, and is quite smitten. But the gown causes problems. The gown is out of place in his study. His simple furnishings pale in comparison, so naturally, he replaces them. He replaces his modest desk with one more baroque. He replaces his tapestries with fine silk to match the desk. And even the shelves are replaced to keep up with the study’s blossoming grandeur. In the end he finds himself uncomfortable in a foreign, yet ornate, study, and regrets the gown. “Diderot Effect” is common among shoppers. When you purchase the Kitchenaid mixer, you need matching bakeware, a rubber spatula, and that thing that funnels flour.
A new suit or dress demands parallel shoes. A living room looks dreadful if the new couch clashes with an older coffee table, and who buys a new comforter without matching drapes? “Diderot Effect” proves spending begets spending, and the hedonic treadmill theory follows, proving this cycle will never provide satisfaction. Northwestern University psychologist Philip Brickman formed the hedonic treadmill theory in 1978 after a study of desire and satisfaction. He found people set their sights on X, some variable –often a consumer product– to make them happy, and work towards X as their goal. People move along, live life, and one day they finally achieve X. This should satisfy them, but because humans are good adjusters their brains soon adapt to having X and they become dissatisfied again. They then set their sights on Y and the sequence restarts. The hedonic treadmill proved no matter what we buy, or who we catch up with, accumulating fancy external rewards will never make us happy.
The first thing I did when I got it home: cleaned. I pulled into my single car garage, popped Johnny Cash in the stereo, and hummed along as “Get Rhythm” twanged from the speakers. I then put on kitchen gloves and a filter mask, filled a mop bucket with industrial cleaner, grabbed the vacuum and went to town.
In the process of getting ready I removed the Red Bull hat that makes me a walking billboard, walked past the shelf of books I bought and read once, and rifled through a general mess of possessions to get the cleaning supplies. Needless to say, I’m as guilty as anyone of Jones chasing consumerism. Choosing a beat up 1988 4runner was just one decision made in defiance of the Joneses. Based on where I lived, worked, and recreated, I needed a car, and choosing War Machine rather than financing something that attempted to project status was my small way of being practical, spiting my Joneses, and laughing in the pretentious face of status anxiety.
The first 4runner, ‘4 wheel drive’ plus ‘off road runner,’ was released in 1984 as Toyota’s attempt to combine 4×4 truck abilities with the “luxury” of their passenger vehicles. You know, luxury, like a Tercel. No 4runners illustrate their linear attempt better than the “first-gens” (generations) built between 1984 and 1989. A first-gen 4runner looks like a pickup with a windowed canopy. The canopy is bolted on and there’s no cab wall, so with rear seats first-gens can carry five passengers. These rear seats fold flat to create a carpeted area big enough for skis, camping gear, and potentially a mini horse. The defining characteristic of a first gen is the ability to remove its canopy, which exposes the rear seat to the sunshine; but aesthetics aside, first-gens are mechanical workhorses. It’s common to find first-gens on the road with 300k-400k miles on the odometer, and although War Machine looks rough and won’t do much for me in the status department, at 159,000 miles it has plenty of life left. It’s also cheap to maintain, as far as cars go, and if the engine fell out tomorrow it could be replaced for $1100 –$100 less than I paid for the whole car. When I tried to assess War Machine using Kelley Blue Book, I found it doesn’t appraise cars that old. So depending how you look at it, War Machine is either worthless, or priceless.
You know how when you clean your car there’s always that one stray french-fry or Ritz that hid itself under the seat? Imagine twenty-four years of those. No nook was too small and you’d be amazed the gunk that can accumulate in a quarter century. In a few hours I had scrubbed away the interior surface residue, filled half a vacuum bag with dog hair, rubbed generic Armorall across cracked vinyl, and replaced the smell of dog with bleach and three “midnight rush” air fresheners: delightful.
If you’re picturing a grand transformation, that’s good, but not necessarily accurate. War Machine’s interior was clean as a whistle, but it was clean like a whistle that’s been stepped on, kicked down a gravel road, left in a puddle to rust for twenty-four years, then picked up and wiped off. It was perfect. No payment meant dodging the auto-debt bullet, lower insurance meant a few dollars might make it into savings every month, and the ruggedness meant I would never have to worry about rogue shopping carts, overhead seagulls, or buying the latest auto accessories. The only downside was pulling up next to a Benz at a stoplight and feeling uncool. Fortunately for me, that didn’t matter. When you run the numbers, the person in the Benz is probably in debt up to their Guccis, killing themselves to keep up appearances, and on top of that, War Machine eats Benz’s for breakfast.
Pragmatically, after considering Diderot and the Hedonic Treadmill, the consumer cycle seems flawed. We buy in search of happiness; our purchases lead us to buy more; we don’t achieve the happiness we wanted, and end up in debt –unhappier. Keeping up with the Joneses doesn’t make our lives better, so why do we do it? Psychologist Tim Kasser answers this question in his book, The High Price of Materialism, analyzing the emotions and thought processes of obsessive consumption, and in the process he exposes the personal risks of competitive consumer behavior.
Kasser discovered status anxiety is generated by deeper insecurities, which we try to sooth by drawing external approval with positional goods. This consumer mindset trains us to evaluate ourselves on external factors, and we feel more insecure as we become increasingly aware of the endless list of things we don’t have. In this process we neglect our internal self and the things that will make us happy and healthy. In a study, Kasser found that, “individuals with relatively central materialistic values have fewer chances to fulfill the needs for psychological growth and happiness,” and, “report lower psychological well-being than those who are less concerned with such aims.” The biggest cause of these problems is consumerism’s impact on autonomy. Autonomy is doing things because you like doing them, more or less, and it’s a major factor in psychological health. When we’re concerned with what we have, should have, and how people perceive what we have, we stop doing things we like and start doing things we think will bring external rewards. The more wrapped up in external rewards we get, the more calculative we become as we see things we want, what they will do for us, and scheme about how we can get them. This mental pattern transfers to our interpersonal relationships, and we begin to objectify others, discerning what they can do for us, rather than working to build strong relationships. Accordingly, Kasser found, “when people highly value wealth, possessions, status, and image, the emphasis they place on interpersonal relationships and contributions to their community declines.”
In short, competitive materialism makes us selfish and stunts our relationship potential. Unfortunately, those of us in modernized nations are most susceptible to these issues. Industrialized nations consistently register the highest levels of materialism, and Kasser noted, “Having materialistic ideals is almost overdetermined by circumstances of contemporary life.” Americans are subjected to advertisements from birth and grow up in a nation thick with competitive consumerist ideals –immersion that makes it difficult to see our own materialist tendencies. In Juliet Schor’s study, 70 percent of polled Americans claimed “the average American” was “very materialistic,” but only 8 percent claimed they were materialistic. In a larger poll 75-80 percent of Americans claimed their country was too materialistic, but 60 percent reported advertisements and prestige items motivated them to “earn more money so that I can afford the things (the ads) show.” Seeing materialism and competitive spending as harmful doesn’t to seem to be the problem. The challenge is seeing our own materialistic tendencies, and taking that first step that may change our perspective.
When I finished cleaning it was early evening and I was tired and filthy. Cooking sounded dreadful so I hopped in war machine to find dinner. On the way home I took an unexpected turn and ended up on rural route 44 on a forty-five minute loop through national forest area.
I kept the sunroof and rear window cracked open and breathed in the organic frozen air. The Payette River stayed close to my left and in the dim light I watched whitewater push past rocks with mounds of snow on top and hillsides covered in frost brushed pine trees. I listened to AM radio for a while but clicked it off in favor of the whine of tires, the steady shush of air through the sunroof, and the engines rev and idle as I shifted. About midway I rolled down the window to better smell the frozen pines, but it was colder than I expected so I hit the button to roll the window back up: no response. In my romantic blissful cruise I forgot about previous front window apprehensions that were now justified.
With a few choice words I pulled to the side of the road and fumbled around with the wires protruding from the cigarette lighter. I pulled them out, plugged them in, jiggled the window switch, and pulled, jerked, and pulled again on the window to no avail. When I traced the wires I found the single red fuse that was blown to hell then tossed it back down. Eh, screw it. A new fuse would only be a few bucks, and judging by the setup a bigger one would solve the problem. Accepting a blown fuse as a pothole in the road leading away from the Joneses, I put my sweatshirt on in the dark, hit the blinker, and accelerated back onto the highway. I rubbed my hands together as the cold air flooded in and leaned forward in my seat. Oh well, at least the heater works. I scanned the dash and looked down at the bent bare metal knob, I hope. Photo by Angie Muldowney