Simple Prosperity: Finding the Sweet Spot

by Millionaire Mommy Next Door on March 10, 2009

in About Me,Book Review,Inspiration,Interviews

David Wann author speaker filmmakerDavid Wann is a writer, filmmaker, and speaker on the topic of sustainable lifestyles. He’s coauthor of the book Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic, a best seller that’s now in nine languages. Simple Prosperity: Finding Real Wealth in a Sustainable Lifestyle is Wann’s vision of a lifestyle that’s immune to Affluenza, and his book in progress, Beyond Simple Choices, evaluates 100 high-yield decisions at both the personal and public scale.

Twice, I’ve had the great pleasure of hearing Dave speak.  His message resonates with me, deep down in my soul.  Generously, Dave offered to share his thoughts with my readers here, about how to find the sweet spot with REAL wealth. His message is timely: As both our physical and economic climates reach crisis levels, Dave offers us a chance to reflect, plenty of hope, and specific pathways for healthy, joyful change. Thank you, Dave!

1) Dave, how do you define “simple prosperity”?

I think of simple prosperity as a social movement, a non-violent revolution similar to the civil rights movement, to replace our excessive lifestyle with a more moderate, sensible, grounded way of life. It’s not about guilt, shame, judgment, or sacrifice, but a strategic, mutually agreeable reduction in our level of consumption and a corresponding increase in our level of contentment. My message in Simple Prosperity is two-fold: it’s not ecologically, geologically, or socially possible to pump so much stuff, so quickly, through the global economy; however, a mindful lifestyle rich in experience, information, efficiency, connection, culture, and human energy can significantly reduce much of our hyperactive production and consumption. We can have twice the satisfaction for half the resources – a bargain!

When we directly meet basic needs like security; connection with nature and with people we respect, self-expression and creativity; meaningful leisure activities, it becomes clear that money and possessions are really an indirect way of meeting needs. For example, how can a money-distracted culture create trust, authenticity, loyalty, inspiration, calmness, tradition, and passion? Frankly, the evidence indicates that the quest for “more” at both the personal and commercial scale often strips these essential qualities away, leaving us borrowing, buying and selling rather than being.

Simple prosperity re-values the ecstasy of time spent in a garden or having a stimulating conversation; the relief and renewal of ideas put to practical use, as when we work to improve our neighborhoods and communities. To “save the planet” as well as ourselves, we’ll need to change far more than light bulbs and grocery sacks; we’ll need to change our value system, creating policies and technologies based on long-term success rather than just short-term gratification. If the cultural direction – the everyday ethic – changes, individuals will follow, en masse.

2) How is simple prosperity different than a lifestyle of frugal deprivation?

Simple prosperity is not about what we give up, but what we get back when we let all the junk go: the distraction, dysfunction, depression, corruption, pollution, doubt, debt, shame, stress, guilt, cruelty, and all the rest. If we actively re-prioritize our personal lives and also participate in getting our culture back on track, we’ll re-locate what I call the “sweet spot” of enough. Enough is perfect, too much results in diminishing returns. For example, when we drink a cup or two of coffee, we have useful energy. But ten cups is way beyond “enough,” and we pay for it in craziness, just as we are paying dearly for “too much” in this year’s economic train wreck.

The lifestyle presented in Simple Prosperity could easily avoid the need to earn and spend half a million dollars over a lifetime, including reduced medical bills, utility bills, legal fees, interest payments, counseling, lawn care, day care, appliance maintenance, and other forms of hired “care” that we can provide ourselves if we make time, and liberate ourselves from a consumer script that’s driving us nuts.

3) What does simple prosperity look like on a day-to-day basis?

In our current way of life, the typical American will spend six months of his life sitting at red lights, eight months opening junk mail, one year searching for misplaced items, two years trying to return calls to people who aren’t there, four years cleaning house, and five years waiting in line – all activities that relate at least in part to our lives as consumers.

dave-wann-gardening

When we choose real wealth, we change the way we spend both time and money. We begin choosing things like healthy, great-tasting food; work that challenges and stimulates us; and spiritual connection with a universe that’s infinitely larger than our stock portfolio. Instead of more stuff in our already-stuffed lives, we can have fewer things but better things of higher quality; fewer visits to the doctor and more visits to museums and friends’ houses. More joyful intimacy, more restful sleep, and more brilliantly sunny mornings in campsites on the beach – bacon & eggs sizzling in the skillet and coffee brewing in the pot. Greater use of our hands and minds in creative activities like building a table, knitting a sweater, or harvesting the season’s first juicy, heirloom tomato. These are the things that matter, and we can choose them, if we spend less time, money, and energy being such obedient consumers.

A great example of the social and personal benefits of a new lifestyle already occurred in Michigan from 1930 to 1985, when the Kellogg Company operated with a six-hour day. With two hours more discretionary time, Kellogg employees transformed the lifestyle of Kalamazoo, where many of them lived. Families and neighborhoods benefited from the extra time; schools included curricula about the “arts of living” and parental involvement in schools – such as “room mothers” in the classrooms – increased. Parks, community centers, skating rinks, churches, libraries, and YMCAs became centers of activity. Kellogg workers recall that the balance of their lives shifted from working to living. What to do with their time became more important than what to buy with their money.

4) How can adopting a lifestyle of simple prosperity help us individually and collectively?

We are an extremely socially oriented species, which accounts for our stunning success. Our ever-expanding brains enabled speech and language, and the complex social relationships that made cooperation and group decisions possible. Because of our genetic make-up, it’s hard for individuals to change unless the whole group’s ethic changes. I propose that a joyfully moderate lifestyle become, by consensus, the new norm for “the good life,” as it already has in moderate countries like Holland, Denmark, Costa Rica, and New Zealand.

Historian Arnold Toynbee observed that among thirty or more empire- civilizations, those that survived and thrived followed a Law of Progressive Simplification. The Roman Empire became Italy, where the Renaissance was born. The British Empire is now the far more moderate and exemplary United Kingdom, a world leader in dealing with global warming. The American Empire, too, will mature, in effect, outgrowing the gospel of growth.

I like the analogy of a backpacker when I think about the emerging American lifestyle. The backpacker doesn’t want a lot of junk in her backpack. She wants only items that are ingeniously designed, like a Whisper Lite cookstove, a warm fleece sweater, a good pair of boots that can go the extra miles, and food that’s full of slow-release energy. The backpacker brings along skills she has learned, the stories she can tell, a well-designed tent, maybe a flute or a great book. On her journey, the world is a splash of light and shadow, with mountain peaks in the distance and bighorn sheep standing guard. If we’re smart, the awakening American lifestyle will deliver clarity, a sense of wonder, and great health, as if life itself was an energizing, mind-opening backpacking trip.

5) I’ve heard you encourage your audiences to become “historical super-heroes.” As I recall, you suggested that we curb our consumption so that our grandkids will read about our generation in their history books with reverence. Can you elaborate?

In recent experiments with MRI technology, altruism, generosity, and cooperation register as strongly in the brain’s “pleasure center” as gambling, drugs, shopping, chocolate, or attractive faces. It would feel great to act unselfishly, in the best interests of our grandkids, but our society is focused elsewhere, distracted by situation comedies and constantly morphing car styles.

If we score high in the history books and become super-heroes, it will be because we finally let go of all the junk images, junk food, and junk information, and went after the real wealth. It’s so important that we each do our part to nudge our lifestyle in a more meaningful direction. We need fulfillment rather than just “fun,” engagement with passions rather than just passing the time. We should each ask ourselves this question: If it’s true that our whole life flashes before us when we die, will it hold our interest?

6) Despite the pain this financial crisis has caused, I can’t help but think that it serves as the wake-up call many seemed to need. My hope is that we become a nation of savers and conservationists, not spenders and takers; that we learn to value relationships over material possessions. What are your thoughts about the effect this crisis might have on society?

A culture shift like the one I propose – from an emphasis on material wealth to an abundance of time, relationships, and experiences – has already occurred in cultures such as Japan in the 18th century. Land was in short supply, forest resources were being depleted, and minerals such as gold, silver, and copper were suddenly scarce as well. Japan went from being resource-rich to resource-poor, but its culture adapted by developing a national ethic that centered on moderation and efficiency. An attachment to the material things in life was seen as demeaning, while the advancement of crafts and human knowledge were seen as lofty goals.

In this “culture of contraction,” an emphasis on quality became ingrained in a culture that eventually produced world-class solar cells and Toyota Priuses. Japanese shoguns established strict policies for reforesting. Training and education in aesthetics and ritualistic arts fluorished, resulting in disciplines like fencing, martial arts, the tea ceremony, flower arranging, literature, art, and skillful use of the abacus. The three largest cities in Japan had 1500 bookstores among them, and most people had access to basic education, health care, and the necessities of life, further enriching a culture that required very few resources per unit of happiness.

One of the main purposes of culture is to moderate and restrain individual excess, but our collective identity in 2009 is itself excessive. We’re like a family whose parents do not set clear, healthy guidelines for their children. Anything goes – drugs, unprotected sex, weapons, junk food by the barrel. Our global family desperately needs to set sensible guidelines. For example, we need to retrieve traditional diets that prevent illness and generate wellness. When the basic food groups and recipes of a particular culture are lost in the shuffle, we can’t figure out what we should be eating, with disastrous and financially costly results.

7) How would you describe a sensible economy?

A sweeping culture shift is happening right now, right in our generation. We’re at the tail end of the Industrial Era, moving into an age of restoration, biospirituality, and preservation. The entire industrial civilization is ramping down, just in time to prevent ecological catastrophe. If we’re lucky, we’ll find authentic abundance we can count on, rather than manufactured, prefabricated wealth that literally counts on us.

It’s not the Joneses we strive to keep up with; it’s an all-encompassing system of production and consumption – a way of life that takes away our ability to feed ourselves, entertain ourselves, or even have original thoughts. We’re looking for value in the wrong places. Is it really large houses we crave, or large lives, rich in discretionary time and generosity that we can share with those we love? Is it really expensive, programmed vacations we want, or simply the respect and admiration of our peers, and a sense that life is exciting? When our daily lives are energized with creativity and playfulness, we discover that life is an adventure no matter where we are.

It’s time for a cultural revolution – for consumer disobedience that demands quality over quantity; localization rather than globalization; time affluence rather than the poverty of constant, stressful deadlines; less aggression, more empathy; more respect for public places, including the environment, and less obsession with individual accumulation.

A sensible economy does not take more than it gives. On our watch, the world’s solar income and renewable yield is being consumed at a faster pace every year. This year, ecologists calculate that we’ll consume nature’s “interest” (from fisheries, forests, and farmland, etc.) by the middle of September, then, we’ll continue to draw down nature’s principle, in the process undermining the ecosystems that support us.

8 ) If we continue to reduce our levels of consumption, what do you think will happen to our economy?

We will simply create a different kind of economy, as the Japanese did centuries ago, including a rebirth of craft, amateur art and self-expression, and basic skills of self-reliance. Let’s face it, right now, we are at the mercy of a lifestyle support system that commands our obedience because we don’t even know how to re-light the pilot on our furnaces or spend a solitary hour in the park without being entertained.

Our economy’s primary measurement of “progress” is the Gross Domestic Product, which is very much a toxic loaf of bread. All economic activities are folded into it, whether beneficial or destructive. Crime, family breakdown, loss of leisure time, oil spills, hurricane damage, car accidents, loss of wetlands, legal fees for corruption – all are included in the GDP, and even though the bread is toxic, the superficial fact that it rises is good enough for mainstream economists. We need a new economic yardstick that tells us how we’re really doing, such as the Genuine Progress Indicator developed by the non-profit Redefining Progress, which subtracts the “bads.”

The U.S. GDP might possibly be smaller in the future, but that’s okay, because it could contain greater real wealth overall if all the negatives decrease while positive values like social relationships, renewable energy, bike trails, small farms, preventive health care, and compact communities with town centers increase.

Here are a few more shifts in the way we meet needs that will make our lifestyle more affordable:

* If our collective demand for products falls, so will prices, as we’ve seen recently with gasoline. With cooperation and synergies among social and technical systems, we’ll make better use of finite resources.

* When we design communities to fit human needs rather than corporate or automobile needs, our lifestyle becomes more affordable. Public transit will be far less expensive per capita than America’s current fleet of 250 million cars.

* Getting rid of packaging, glossy green lawns, and food waste also takes a huge chunk out of the collective cost of our lifestyle. We currently spend $900 per capita on advertising, which of course is embedded in the cost of products and services. Less consumption means less advertising as well as less debt. And less debt of course means less interest on the debt.

* Reasonable reductions in meat consumption, air travel, and energy-intensive materials like cement, aluminum, paper, and synthetic chemicals make it seem like we’re all making more money. War must finally be seen as the epitome of waste. Green chemistry, which shortens the steps and softens the environmental cost of making chemicals, in turn lowers the cost of everything manufactured.

* Preventive health approaches and more empathetic, service-oriented doctors and nurses lower the cost of maintaining our health, and better industrial design generates much less costly pollution.

* Eliminating subsidies that result in the destruction of ecosystems would save the world about $700 billion annually, about a third of that in the U.S. Rather than drawing down aquifers, letting soil erode, clear-cutting forests, and over-fishing the world’s fish species, we would learn how to be efficient, and how to harvest only a sustainable yield.

* In the new economy, recycling becomes a religion so less costly extraction is required; In a world with different values and priorities, there is less need for crime control, lawsuits, and security systems, because with a higher ratio of social input as well as greater equality, we nurture a population that is less fearful and has less “status anxiety,” a direct stimulant of crime.

These savings arise not because we are “doing without,” but because we’re tuning up our value system, getting rid of waste, and creating a more sustainable way of being in the world. Rather than requiring a hundred thousand hours of work per lifetime, this lifestyle enables each citizen to work less, avoiding the need for half a million dollars of earnings per capita — yielding a better quality of life in which nature is on the rebound, and trust is, too.

The future is waiting. I believe it’s time for us to stop seeing the world as it is, and begin to see it as it should be.

simple-prosperity-bookDavid Wann is a writer, filmmaker, and speaker on the topic of sustainable lifestyles. He’s coauthor of the book Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic, a best seller that’s now in nine languages. Simple Prosperity: Finding Real Wealth in a Sustainable Lifestyle is Wann’s vision of a lifestyle that’s immune to Affluenza, and his book in progress, Beyond Simple Choices, evaluates 100 high-yield decisions at both the personal and public scale.

{ 44 comments… read them below or add one }

Stacey Derbinshire March 10, 2009 at 5:00 pm

I found your blog on google and read a few of your other posts. I just added you to my Google News Reader. Keep up the good work. Look forward to reading more from you in the future.

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Arp March 10, 2009 at 5:24 pm

Thank you for two inspirations in one!

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Christie March 10, 2009 at 9:06 pm

What a fantastic post – I have ordered the two books and look forward to learning more. Thank you.

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Trevor March 10, 2009 at 10:54 pm

wow… loved it! Thanks for all the info!

By the way, I just found you via Wisebread’s Top 100 PF Blogs. Congrats on making the list!

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Chad @ Sentient Money March 11, 2009 at 6:53 am

Though, I am for the majority of this, I can’t help but think it would cause massive disruptions in our economy while we find the sweet spot. I’m not saying this isn’t a good idea, just that it will displace a lot of people.

This would help prevent our society from collapsing, which is a real danger. A good source book for it is Collapse: How Societies Chose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond. It highlights societies that have collapsed and why. Many of the reasons are problems we currently face (lack of a renewable source of energy, ecological destruction, etc.).

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Arp March 11, 2009 at 8:09 am

I think the economy is having a massive disruption as it is, and I’m hoping that many, many people are seriously reevaluating their priorities. I think focussing on buying locally would be a great start and benefit to people’s immediate communities. I don’t think I ate a well or cheaply in the US when we were members of a local farm co-op – and we met a lot of interesting people through that as well.

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Bruce Elkin March 11, 2009 at 11:10 am

This is a great article, and Dave is a true visionary–and a practical one at that. And in case anyone thinks he’s too far out, check out this from neo-con economist Thomas Friedman in the NYTimes:
“What if the crisis of 2008 represents something much more fundamental than a deep recession? What if it´s telling us that the whole growth model we created over the last 50 years is simply unsustainable economically and ecologically and that 2008 was when we hit the wall – when Mother Nature and the market both said: “No more.”"

Friedman sees the problem; Dave sees the future and what we can do to bring it into being.

Great post!

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Moyra March 11, 2009 at 1:07 pm

i love that its not about what you give up but what you gain. i love love love that.

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Kathryn March 11, 2009 at 1:51 pm

Wow! Thanks for the interview and introducing us to Dave Wann. I have always loved the concept of “enough” … it’s powerful.

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Chad @ Sentient Money March 12, 2009 at 9:52 am

@ ARP
Yes, the economy is already experiencing a massive disruption, but one that could end over the next year or two. However, the disruption would last much longer if everyone followed Mr. Wann’s idea. Again, I’m not saying I don’t support these ideas, as I have no desire to go back to the ultra-consumer America we became. I am saying that when we choose a path we need to have both eyes open. We chose the ultra-consumer path with one eye shut. If we make that same mistake again, it will cost us, again, at some point.

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Arp March 12, 2009 at 10:23 am

Chad, I do see your point, but the implication is that to get back to ‘normal,’ we need to return to some form of rampant consumption. I don’t believe that should be the case and I think we’re in the process of redefining what ‘normal’ is. And if we’re not, we certainly should be. I’m certain that businesses suffering are re-evaluating what makes their products or services appealing to the consumer. Perhaps the explosion of growth in just about anything labeled green is a sign that a large number of people are interested in making choices with more extra-personal benefits than fulfilling a want or need.

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Chad @ Sentient Money March 12, 2009 at 12:24 pm

I’m not advocating we return to rampant consumerism or that we aren’t trying to find a new normal. All I’m saying, is if we go down the road of low consumption I don’t want everyone to wake up one day and wonder why GDP was stagnate or declined for 4 years straight. We all won’t be skiping through fields of clover, as this happens. We will have pain and the economy will have gone down because we cut back our consumption…period. Japan over the past decade is a good example.

Again, we should cut back our consumption, but we should go into it knowing there will be more pain because of it. Cutting back consumption will not be a panecea. We shouldn’t be as oblivious to what will happen with this life style, as we were with the ultra-consumer lifestyle.

Over the short-term this has nothing to do with green products. Even if every single product was green, we just couldn’t keep consuming at these levels, because we don’t have the wealth to do it.

By the way, I’m not trying to be an ass, so I hope this isn’t coming out that way.

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Arp March 12, 2009 at 2:12 pm

It is a bit hard to discern intentions on the web without knowing the person, so I’m not presuming a whole lot beyond the words.

I think if we pull back our consumption to more reasonable levels, but say buy locally or made in the US, that perhaps the recovery would be faster. I have nothing against globalization, but given a choice I would much rather spend my money to help my immediate community. Maybe what we’re experiencing now – a lot of which has to do with people spending money they don’t have – is the wake-up call we needed.

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Adela March 12, 2009 at 6:17 pm

I loved the article and all the comments. I do agree that we need to buy locally. I believe this will occur naturally as people insist on quality, not quantity. I don’t know about you, but I cannot stand buying my clothing, etc. from China. While it sustains the lifestyle there, what is it doing for our lifestyle? What about the unnecessary waste of gasoline to ship these products? I believe there is no way out folks. More importantly, I believe our society has become SO removed from community, family, and where our food comes from, we become dependent on the dictates of the huge corporations for everything. Schools – a government corporation, Safeway grocery stores- a corporation, Costco – a corporation, my husband’s job- a corporation. Healthcare – a corporation. The bigger the entity, the worse the quality. Hence, our inferior food products (bigger, not necessarily healthier, think pesticides), inferior health care, inferior everything. As individuals, we each have strengths to contribute to our communities, but we’ve become so removed from the products we use day-in and day-out, that we have become jaded and helpless. The answer? Simplification and one-person-at-a-time insistence on locally grown foods, clothing and yes, energy dependence. These are fascinating times, and there are so many answers out there. One day we will say, “ENOUGH!” And I believe the time is now.

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Katy March 12, 2009 at 9:02 pm

Jen,
I loved your interview with David Wann and have given my readers a heads up to this post on your site. Keep up the wonderful work empowering people the way you do! Your story is very inspiring.
:)
Katy
http://www.fengshuibyfishgirl.com

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Dave Wann March 14, 2009 at 8:43 am

Thanks for the good, productive comments. To me, so much of it comes down to wanting what we have, in other words, recognizing that life is already abundant, even before adding PopTarts and all the rest. We think that “wants” are somehow higher than needs, but my thought process in the last ten or fifteen years leads me to believe that when we say we “want” a certain thing, what we are actually, subconsciously saying is that we hope it will meet some of our essential needs, for example, recognition by others or a better feeling about ourselves. Even the chocolate ice cream cone is about meeting nutritional and psychological needs, if we look deeply enough.

The “pleasure center” in our brain is doing its best to meet needs – and the assembly lines and product designers take full advantage of that. When sixty percent of Americans say they want to trade one day’s pay for one less day of work a week, they are effectively saying that with more discretionary time, they could better meet their needs for leisure; time spent with friends and family; doing something meaningful (such as being active as a citizen) and taking care of their health.

In 1909, there were 144 miles of road in the U.S., and about 10,000 cars.
In 2009, there are 4 million miles of roads and highways, and 250 million cars. The world now is completely different, as it will be in 100 years. The key question is: will it be better? Will it meet our needs better, providing the greatest good for the greatest number of people? Right now is when we shape what the future will be, and I’m optimistic that we have the right stuff to substitute social and natural rewards for material rewards – in other words, to simply change what we mean by success.

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Anna May 3, 2009 at 7:14 am

It’s a truly inspirational article, and many ideas could be implemented – IF America and Western Europe were in the world alone, that is. However, the majority of the world population is far less prosperous than Americans are. Less prosperous means being more vulnerable to plain simple hunger and disease. Americans dread the return of the Great Depression, but 85% of the world population live like Americans lived in 1930 and much, much worse.
These nations work on increasing their GDP and living standards at any price. We can’t blame them – they’re trying to get enough food and clothes, not necessarily of good quality. And if they have to destroy an eco-system for it, they’ll do it.
So even if Americans magically abandon their orientation for consumption, the rest of the world will not. Richer countries will be forced to participate in solving common problems, among which “too much stuff” is the least serious one.

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Ann August 20, 2009 at 11:09 am

This is a long-dead thread, but my “sense of authenticity” compels me to comment.

Dave Wann’s thoughts on simplifying one’s lifestyle resonate strongly with me, and mesh with what I have been doing for a number of years, but they also kind of creep me out in their constant refrain about what “we” must do.

Humans are not ants. Our culture is a result of millions of individual decision-makers all acting in what they consider their own interests, based on their own tastes, likes, dislikes, etc. Sure, some of those are manipulated by advertising, but take that away and we’ll still like/want/need different things. Dave may hate sitting at a red light, but I enjoy the time listening to the golden oldies station. while sunny mornings on a beach campsite listening to the bacon and eggs sizzle reminds me mostly of a badly sunburned nose and sand in my food.

If enough people voluntarily change their own lives, our culture will gradually, slowly, change, but I get the impression Dave sees more of a collective re-write. To collectively and consciously change and redirect our culture into the utopian vision Dave sees will require enormous coercion because, again, humans are not ants.

Persuasion will not work. Religions that threaten everlasting flames and the wrath of God can’t get people to voluntarily abandon their self-interests and their vices; Dave’s vision won’t either. New and more controlling laws will be needed forcing people to do things they don’t want to do, or to refrain from doing things they do want to do. Choices will have to be restricted. Freedoms will have to be abolished. People have, after all, tried wholesale re-writes of their cultures – Mao, Pol Pot, Castro come to mind, and it’s not usually a self-actualizing experience for most of the participants.

Dave talks about how “we” are like a family with no clear guidelines set. In families, the guidelines are usually set by the parents and followed by the children. Who’s going to be our “parent” and are we prepared to be treated like children?

Utopians, even pacifist utopians, often forget that laws are society’s war against the individual. We need them, but every law is a gun held to someone’s head; otherwise it’s called a suggestion, not a law. I’m okay with holding a gun to people’s heads to force them not to rape, murder, drive drunk, pour toxic chemicals into a stream, but I’m not sure I’m ready to hold a gun to people’s heads to force them to go organic, rip out their lawns, or take the bus instead of driving their cars.

As personal lifestyle advice, I’m with Dave almost 100%; as a social vision, not so much.

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Chad @ Sentient Money August 20, 2009 at 11:34 am

Good points. I would envision certain “carrots” to get people to change, as opposed to laws. Like a tax break for a legit high MPG vehicle, solar panels (we will have to build new power sources some how anyway, so why not let people do it on their own land.), or new zoning to remake the suburbs into something useful.

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Ann August 20, 2009 at 4:26 pm

Wow, Chad, I’m surprised someone’s still following this thread!
Sure, some laws are softer than others, but a “tax break” is only a carrot to the person who receives it. It’s still a stick to the taxpayers who pick up the bill for that break. For example, having bought a non-luxury, good mileage car 12 years ago, kept it in good repair and driven it sparingly, I’m the sucker aka taxpayer who’s paying a $4,500 bonus to people who did the opposite. Feels like a stick to me, and for being virtuous no less!
And, hey, about those suburbs – the reason we have them is because a lot of people DO find them useful. By choice, I live in a small town, but if I had to choose between a high density city or a suburb, I’d probably go for the latter too.
I visited your site earlier today following one of your comments here, and found your articles extremely interesting.

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Chad @ Sentient Money August 20, 2009 at 5:44 pm

@Ann
I clicked notify me when a comment is made a while ago, so it is still notifying me.

I agree a tax break is still a little bit of a stick, but any change this significant will be painful in some respect. I couldn’t agree more that the current car tax break is foolish, as it is really designed to increase general short-term demand/consumption, as opposed to reducing long-term consumption. I am also in the same situation you are with an old vehicle I plan on driving until it’s dead.

The majority of people are fairly cattle like, so you have to herd them in the right direction. Pain or pleasure is the only way. Ideally, I would prefer a huge tax on gas, as opposed to a tax break. I don’t mind feeling some pain, as long as it moves us toward a better society. I do not advocate new laws for this, as that would be too authoritarian.

Thanks for the compliment about my site.

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Ann August 20, 2009 at 8:19 pm

“The majority of people are fairly cattle like, so you have to herd them in the right direction.”

Do you really think so? You must run with a different crowd.

I used to think that way, about 30 years ago right out of college – the time of life when we are inclined to believe ourselves uniquely brilliant, right? – but I’ve since come to the conclusion that the majority of people are surprisingly human-like, with adequate to good reasoning capabilities, who make the sensible decision to go along with the general trend of their culture because too much eccentricity gets in the way of living a reasonably good life within that culture. They may choose to pick their battles, but they are willing to fight them.
If people really were cattle-like, would-be Utopians would not find it necessary to kill or terrorize so many of them to keep them in line.
I’m curious why, given the dim view you have of humanity, you take much interest in moving us toward “a better society” at all. Is it purely self-interested, an academic exercise, or a sort of intellectual noblesse oblige?

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Arp August 20, 2009 at 10:18 pm

The majority of people indeed are cattle-like. There is no way the steady erosion of civil liberties would be tolerated if people were not perfectly happy watching tv and buying things. These are the same people who will read a newspaper and actually believe the pronouncements that the ‘end’ of the recession is near. Or that Iraq actually had something to do with 9/11. If they fight for anything, it is because they are told they must be angry about it – consider all the Medicare recipients railing against healthcare reform. Expressing an opinion is meaningless if it is aped, reflexive behavior.

And ‘adequate’ reasoning is not good enough – it’s useful for choosing a brand of toilet paper. but certainly not for living individual, fulfilling lives. Of the most influential or successful people throughout history, they have rarely gone along with the general trend of the culture. Choosing the safe route is exactly what cattle do.

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Chad @ Sentient Money August 20, 2009 at 11:19 pm

I do actually believe a majority of people are cattle like. I wish they were not, but it’s the way society has operated throughout history. Time and time again we commit unspeakable acts against others for the promise of nothing.

I agree with a lot of what Arp said. A lot of people are intellectually lazy.

Since were are on a finance blog, let’s examine the herd mentality evident in this arena (I will try and stay away from politics). The vast majority of mutual funds all own the same stocks in roughly the same percentages. This includes funds in vastly different categories. Why do they do this? Because, it allows them to say, “See everyone was doing it, so it must have been the ‘right’ thing to do.”

Also, the basic “principals” of finance for the masses call for diversified portfolios that are dollar cost averaged over 30-40 years in high fee mutual funds, within high fee 401ks. By providing the exact same advice 99% of the advisors can demonstrate they did the “right” thing. This frees them from doing the hard work of research and analysis and allows them to go look for more people to sign up. In turn, they make more money, and you have little argument to go to someone else.

Also, when study after study suggests all of our consumerism is making us less happy, it would appear we are being led around by the nose.

“If people really were cattle-like, would-be Utopians would not find it necessary to kill or terrorize so many of them to keep them in line.”

I would argue that people let themselves be killed or terrorized. Of course, I’m painting with a ridiculously broad brush, but I’m not going further as this could easily be a thesis topic.

“I’m curious why, given the dim view you have of humanity, you take much interest in moving us toward “a better society” at all. Is it purely self-interested, an academic exercise, or a sort of intellectual noblesse oblige?”

It is definitely self-interest, an academic exercise, and intellectual noblesse oblige. However, there is also hope. Though, I do think the majority of humans are cattle the majority of the time, every now and then (Renaissance, and the US and French Revolutions are examples) humanity seems to wake up. I’m by no means thinking society will in my lifetime, but I need to at least try and help it along.

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Ann August 21, 2009 at 9:47 am

Good morning! And thank you for such interesting responses.

Chad, both you and Arp seem to exempt yourselves from the cattle-like nature you ascribe to the great majority of people. You imply that you are not just superior to the majority of people in your discernment, but somehow do not share their basic human/cattle-like nature. What are the objective manifestations of this superiority?

And given the difference between you and ordinary humans, what makes you think that your version of a better society would be suitable for the majority of people who are so different from you?

You say that “Time and time again we commit unspeakable acts against others for the promise of nothing,” as evidence of humanity’s cattle-like nature. The promise, usually, is of Utopia, not nothing. And surely some of the most vivid instances of this in history have been directed by people who consider themselves superior to the masses and consider the masses merely cattle to be herded (or butchered). I’m not saying you and Arp are murderous totalitarians, but since one necessary pre-condition is contempt for most people, you are closer to accepting its premises than I would be comfortable with.

Chad, your point about the seemingly cattle-like instincts of fund managers proves not that they are cattle but that their goal in that position – to earn a good living without taking unnecessary risks – is different from what yours might be in their shoes. The “cattle-like” fund manager by day may be a master antique car restorer by night, or the best Boy Scout troop leader his community has ever seen. No one can chart his/her own path in EVERY area of our lives. Even you must travel close to the speed limit on the freeway or pull into a McDonald’s occasionally, without turning into cattle.

Arp, maybe the people who are so vocally against the health care reform now on the table consider the right to choose a high-deductible, inexpensive, stream-lined health insurance policy (like the one I’ve chosen and been happy with for over 30 years) one of their civil liberties. I know I do. Maybe they value the right to keep their personal health choices from being the topic of conversation at a government utilization review panel more highly than keeping private their telephone calls with overseas Al Qaeda wannabes.

Really, I’m not sure a couple of misanthropes like you (and I mean that in the nicest way) are best suited to reform society.

Cheers.

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Chad @ Sentient Money August 21, 2009 at 12:35 pm

Misanthropes? Definitely, I couldn’t agree more.

“Chad, your point about the seemingly cattle-like instincts of fund managers proves not that they are cattle but that their goal in that position – to earn a good living without taking unnecessary risks – is different from what yours might be in their shoes.”

Actually, it does prove they are cattle, as does your statement. I completely agree they are trying to earn a good living without taking unnecessary risks. However, the risk they are reducing isn’t the risk associated with the return on their fund. They are reducing their risk of being fired, while sacrificing potential returns (which can have low risk) for their clients. They are being purely selfish, while forfeiting returns their clients surely need. I would think essentially losing other people’s money to save your own ass, while working less, would be rather despicable. The cattle part is because the majority don’t realize they are doing it.

“The promise, usually, is of Utopia, not nothing.”

Yes, there are always promises, but promises are always made by both sides. Your assumption that no promises are being made by “true” free market proponents (I’m assuming this view based on your healthcare comments) is false. They promise utopia the other side promises utopia, everyone promises something. My issue is that most people fail to logically analyze a situation and fall back on emotion. Thus, their decision making process is not working properly, which makes them vulnerable to becoming cattle.

By the way, I’m by no means using the healthcare or free market argument as an example of my views. Just an example of common views expressed.

My superiority? I don’t consider myself superior to everyone. People that prove they can think for themselves and can make rational arguments based on logic, can and do cause me to change my mind. However, my default is to make people prove it first.

You also suggested I exempt myself from cattle like behavior. I don’t actually. However, I do know my conscious knowledge that I am susceptible to acting like cattle forces me continually reevaluate everything. Do I fail sometimes? Sure, but I see so few people reevaluating their decisions, beliefs, rules, etc., that I don’t have much faith in other people not being in the herd.

“The “cattle-like” fund manager by day may be a master antique car restorer by night, or the best Boy Scout troop leader his community has ever seen. No one can chart his/her own path in EVERY area of our lives. Even you must travel close to the speed limit on the freeway or pull into a McDonald’s occasionally, without turning into cattle.”

First, just because you are highly skilled at something, such as antique car restoration does not make you immune from being cattle. Skill and independent logical thought are totally separate.

Secondly, traveling close to the speed limit or going over it, or going to McDonald’s or not going to McDonald’s has nothing to do with being part of the herd. What would make you part of the herd is going to McDonald’s or speeding, or the opposites, without consciously making the decision to do so. This seems simple but its not.

The good thing, is that I don’t need your approval to try to influence society. At least not now. Of course, at some point the laws designed for monitoring phone calls of U.S. citizens without any oversight, will be abused (always always always happens), and you or I will be prevented from influencing society depending on who is abusing those laws.

Sorry about hijacking the thread MMND.

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Arp August 21, 2009 at 1:23 pm

Ann,

Cattle are certainly not suited to reform society, and neither is an apologist for the herd. It’s an absolutely sad state of affairs if someone is influenced into believing that a choice in healthcare is more important than the First, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, Eight, Ninth and Tenth amendments, which have all been egregiously violated in recent years. The anger & indignation was nowhere to be found as our most basic and revered civil rights were whittled away. (And don’t forget my actual point in mentioning healthcare – it’s the irony of people railing against a concept they use & hold as important. Only cattle could be convinced to do that.)

Apologies as well for injecting politics and hijacking the thread. I’ll drop the politics moving forward.

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Millionaire Mommy Next Door August 21, 2009 at 3:00 pm

Interesting conversation resuming. I appreciate steering clear of branding anyone a “cow” or squashing one another like “ants” under their heels. Please remember to distinguish the difference between describing behavior and branding people with derogatory names. I welcome this conversation on my blog as long as everyone involved continues to debate the issues in a polite and respectful manner.

Would any of you be interested in having me invite David Wann to rejoin the discussion?

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Chad @ Sentient Money August 21, 2009 at 4:50 pm

Sure…the more the merrier.

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Ann August 21, 2009 at 10:51 pm

Chad, I hope you didn’t infer from my remarks that I believe you need my approval to be a social reformer. Of course not. I only meant that a misanthropic social reformer is kind of a like a grade school teacher who hates kids or a nurse who hates sick people. Ill-suited to the task at hand, possibly inclined to become abusive, and unlkely to be appreciated.

I think I’m understanding a little better what you mean by “cattle-like” though. Blindly going to McDonald’s because it’s on your way home from work and your kids are clamoring for a Happy Meal because they have watched 300 McDonald’s ads and can recite all the jingles in their sleep would be cattle-like, while going to McDonald’s with full awareness of the company’s manipulation of the populace and a wry appreciation of your own momentary lapse from a more ethical and less materialistic living standard would not be. Am I close?

Doesn’t that premise beg the question, though: How do you know that all those other people in the drive-through line aren’t thinking the same thoughts you are about their actions? Including the thought that YOU are just one of the herd for being in that line, while THEY are the self-aware and conscious ones.

I think you may invest logical thought with a little more power than it really has. Logic is an amazingly good tool, but two perfectly logical people, if you could find them, could still reach wildly different conclusions on many issues.

For instance, the mutual fund manager who “follows the herd” in order to maximize his personal gain is acting logically; your problem with him is not that he is illogical, but that he is selfish. You are disagreeing with his values (his premises), not with his reasoning ability. Likewise, the mutual fund’s client who inherited beaucoup bucks and is extremely busy restoring classic cars and leading Boy Scout troops, is operating under a mistake of fact (that the mutual fund manager’s values emphasize maximizing his client’s, instead of his own, gains). He is being perfectly rational, given the limits of his factual knowledge. He is reasoning correctly, but from erroneous facts. If sound reasoning is non-cattle behavior, then neither is cattle. Q.E.D.

Do you really constantly re-examine your beliefs? When’s the last time you said to yourself – I’m just plain wrong (not stupid or blind, just wrong) about being a liberal, I should become a (Republican, libertarian, communist, whatever)? Or vice versa. Or – I made a mistake when I supported candidate X instead of her opponent? Or – my respect and appreciation for people is unwarranted – I should hold them in contempt – or vice versa?

Or as your views change, do you look back on your former views and wonder how you could ever have held them? I submit for your consideration that if that is your experience, you are not really reexamining your beliefs but instead engaging in a post hoc rationalization of emotionally satisfying changes in them. I mention that as a possibility from my own introspection.

I have a friend who argues that I am temperamentally a contrarian – when most around me were conservative, I was a liberal, and vice versa. This is a possible insight I’ve given much thought to, without reaching a conclusion. If true, however, this tendency means that, even without following the herd, I would still be subject to its vagaries – when the herd shifts right, I shift left, etc., but effectively, my movements am still controlled by the herd. How can you be sure you are not subject to the same inclination?

Your experience of yourself is that you are a rational, self-aware and conscious person, but your default view of others is that they are different from you, who must prove themselves rational. Generally, you find what you look for. I have consciously chosen an alternative default position, and, not surprisingly, generally find what I look for. Neither choice is inherently more rational than the other; they reflect our respective values.

Back to the issue of social reform, though: Wouldn’t it be entirely rational of the masses to be suspicious of social reforms proposed by people who hold them in contempt? It seems rational to conclue that someone who despises me is unlikely to act in my true best interests. Even if for altruistic reasons they were motivated to do so, their understanding of those best interests would be skewed by their dislike of me.

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Ann August 21, 2009 at 10:59 pm

” If sound reasoning is non-cattle behavior, then neither [person - mutual fund manager,or client] is cattle”

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Chad @ Sentient Money August 25, 2009 at 9:08 am

“Blindly going to McDonald’s because it’s on your way home from work and your kids are clamoring for a Happy Meal because they have watched 300 McDonald’s ads and can recite all the jingles in their sleep would be cattle-like, while going to McDonald’s with full awareness of the company’s manipulation of the populace and a wry appreciation of your own momentary lapse from a more ethical and less materialistic living standard would not be. Am I close?”

Very close. You might have put it better than I could.

“Doesn’t that premise beg the question, though: How do you know that all those other people in the drive-through line aren’t thinking the same thoughts you are about their actions?”

I don’t know for sure. I’m extrapolating from my direct experience with people and from indirect experiences (online posts, comments, candidates they support, issues they support or put higher than others, etc.). You are correct, it is possible they might be thinking the same thing about me. However, I am doubtful, as most people I get in deep discussions with usually don’t have good arguments backing up their positions. Even positions that I know have good facts on both sides.

“Logic is an amazingly good tool, but two perfectly logical people, if you could find them, could still reach wildly different conclusions on many issues.”

I agree completely. I’m not saying it solves everything, as somethings don’t have a clear cut answer. What I am saying is that there is no better tool.

Concerning the mutual fund manager example I think we are getting into semantics. Morals or logic? It depends on how you look at it. In my view it is logical to expect the fund manager, as the investor, to maximize his return in order to get more clients. This is theoretically how it should work in a true free market/capitalistic system. However, you are correct that he logically deduces that he and his contemporaries can collude that if he just stays with the herd he will still make good money and not risk much. Where I really disagree with you is the assumption that the client/customer is making a logical choice. There is plenty of information out there to suggest fund managers do not have their clients/customers interest at heart, but few pull their money out. Thus, they are illogical.

“Do you really constantly re-examine your beliefs? When’s the last time you said to yourself – I’m just plain wrong…”

All the time. I was a Republican in my early twenties when I thought they were true capitalists, against big government, etc. I have since realized that isn’t true and now consider myself to be an independent. I was a huge supporter of McCain, but decided I was in error when he selected Palin (I wouldn’t have voted for him either way, as I couldn’t let them have 4 more years after the mess they made, but I lost a ton of respect for him).

A non-poitical example is that I played and coached small college football and always thought watching film of up coming opponents was a waste of time for players. I was wrong and changed my views during my coaching career.

“I have a friend who argues that I am temperamentally a contrarian…”

I am too. Because of this I make sure I examine all my views to ensure they are supported by the best facts and logic I have available. Do I always do this? No, but I am comfortable saying I manage to do it 98% of the time.

“Back to the issue of social reform, though: Wouldn’t it be entirely rational of the masses to be suspicious of social reforms proposed by people who hold them in contempt? It seems rational to conclue that someone who despises me is unlikely to act in my true best interests. Even if for altruistic reasons they were motivated to do so, their understanding of those best interests would be skewed by their dislike of me.”

Yes, you would be following logic to be suspicious of anyone like this making reforms. However, the error in the logic, at least in my case, is the assumtion that my dim view (despise is too harsh) of other people is what drives me or even what matters to me. Either way everyone should be suspicious of anyone instituting any reform that affects their lives. My problem isn’t necessarily with the suspicious, but the suspicious who have no facts backing up their argument or the people who aren’t suspicious.

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Dave Wann August 30, 2009 at 10:33 am

Interesting discussion about why humans behave the way we do. My mission in ten books and a few dozen videos and TV programs has been to make change feel comfortable, since we have to do it.

But there’s one thing that won’t change: the fact that we are a social, cooperative species. I wanted to include a few excerpts from my book-in-progress (due in 93.5 days!!) to add to this thread. Thanks for your thoughts.

The Anthropology of Success

Who are we? We are a story telling, lesson-learning species whose stunning success is largely the result of highly evolved social skills. Our ever-expanding brains enabled the interpretation of complex facial expressions, speech and language, a strong sense of fairness and social organization, and the complex social relationships that made cooperation, group decisions, and advantageous mate selection possible.

The overall mission, hard-wired into our genes, is to survive long enough to have offspring, protect the territory they will live in, and perpetuate the social structure of the people who will take care of them. This strategy is starkly pragmatic: we need to take care of each other and act cooperatively or we won’t make it. Therefore, we’ve always valued trust, resourcefulness, authenticity, and the integrity of our leaders. Security, safety, and social connections are as valuable now as they were 60,000 years ago, when our genetic ancestors left Africa and began to explore and settle the rest of the planet. We still instinctively guard our territory, though the wisest humans understand that the territory to be guarded is now the planet itself.

One of the primary mechanisms for maintaining social cohesion is status – the relative standing of an individual within the group, and that individual’s ability to gain respect.. We learned to acknowledge that some humans were natural leaders, and that the ultimate function of competition and individual achievement was to make the group stronger. However, status as a social mechanism developed in small, relatively stable, face-to-face groups, in which people knew each other over the course of a lifetime – albeit a short one. Now our social world is shuffled, fragmented, in constant flux.

The evolution of our brains and instincts hasn’t kept pace with sweeping changes in our way of life over the last five hundred generations. Author Jim Rubens characterizes our current lifestyle as having “unceasingly fluid relationships, constant challenges to our status within new groups, the geographic dispersion of extended family, the message that only we are responsible for our life’s outcome, the barrage of status comparisons we see in mass media, and the incessant modeling of unattainable, stratospherically high goals.” All these conditions pit the individual against the group, resulting in an epidemic of depression because of what Rubens terms “social defeat.”

In other times, status has been awarded to hunters, fighters, ancient families, and priests. Sociologists have proven that status is critical to our health. Lower social status (as measured by income, education, or occupation) correlates with higher mortality rates, low birth weight, obesity, heart disease, lung disease, incidence of smoking, asthma, cancer, diabetes, number of sick days taken on the job, accident rates, suicide, exposure to physical violence, and compromised mental health.

It’s clear that in the U.S., possessions and consumption have become a shorthand way of communicating status, and it’s also clear that in our headlong pursuit of goods and services, we’re making a huge mess. Why not begin to change the way our civilization achieves and confers status? To meet our urgent need to reduce the volume of consumption, why not confer social rewards in place of material rewards?

Instead of honoring bank CEOs who fluff their own pillows with fairy-tale bonuses and take catastrophic risks with our money, why not respect and reward people of service, people who have gained our trust, people intent on making the world safer and saner? Why not agree, via cultural mechanisms like art and innovative policy-making, to think about value in a different way? Really, what needs to change are the symbols. It’s not really large houses we want, is it? It’s large lives that contain enough room in terms of discretionary time and generosity to share with those we love. In an era less obsessed with status via consumption, it’s not exotic vacations we’ll crave, but a contentedness that makes life an adventure no matter where we are. In the near future, there will be less energy-intensive travel and more focus on creating great communities that we want to spend time in. Instead of accumulating just monetary wealth, we will accumulate calmness and wellness as our way of life becomes less expensive.

The suit and accompanying tie has also been a status symbol for a century or more, yet in a changing era, many people feel more successful sitting at their home desks in T-shirts and sweatpants, earning a paycheck without having to fight traffic or slouch in staff meetings. While our core needs have remained much the same over the millennia (self-esteem, security, social support, status, clean water, nutritious food, etc.) the way we meet these needs has shifted back and forth. In a new era, more conscious of living things and less focused on products, our habits and practices will shift once again

To change individual behavior, we have to rediscover the highest values of the culture, and use them as behavioral guidelines. The classic economic postulate of rational, individual choice as a basis for a free market economy is wishful thinking. The model just doesn’t fit the species. Human behavior is grounded in a social alter ego – a cultural repository of ethics, standard practices, and evolutionary experience. To prevent mega-problems like global warming and the emerging shortfall of fresh water, we’ll need the clear thoughts of a culture that carries us in a different direction, toward innovative policies for building sustainable communities; better ways of farming, fishing, and logging; and changes in the balance between work and life, to give us more time to make better decisions.

Social groups of whatever scale – from neighborhood to nation – have an underlying identity that defines the group’s meaning, purpose, and direction. Individuals are hard-wired to be in synch with that identity so the group can be successful., which in a very basic sense means survival and genetic continuity. But in today’s global market, both cultures and individuals are passengers – or should we say prisoners – on a runaway train – an obsolete, anything-goes economy that refuses, in principle, to turn on the brakes.to be reined in. Mainstream economists argue vehemently that the market is logical, just leave it alone, but the problem is that humans are not logical. We respond to many cues and stimuli emotionally, not rationally. That includes emotions around fear and insecurity, which make us shrink from change. In many more instances than we realize, we follow the crowd and the incessant instructions of a media under contract. When faced with making a decision, we often default to habit, convenience, or income level.

The most pressing choice of all right now is to focus on social priorities and cultural direction rather than individual gratification. Individuals can’t make the huge changes that are necessary. Until we stitch our culture back together, individuals will be without direction. The fact that the economy has in large part become our culture is a very disturbing predicament, because the economy undervalues the most important resources of all, from social trust though climatic stability. The free market can’t find a way to sell entities like biodiversity or contiguous stretches of habitat that are so critical for all living things. In a money-centric economy, culture is only useful to broker profit, creating and promoting marketable styles, gadgets, and a way of life. But in a world less dominated by price and profit, culture offers much more: moral and ethical services as well as accessible, inexpensive avenues for celebration, leisure, craft, and tradition.

Writes author and change agent Paul Hawken, “What makes life worthy and allows civilizations to endure are all the things that have “bad” payback under commercial rules: infrastructure, universities, temples, poetry, choirs, literature, language, museums, terraced fields, long marriages, line dancing, and art.” The value of culture is overlooked in our world because it’s difficult to sell prevention, tradition, resilience and restoration. Furthermore, to the extent that we can market these qualities, they aren’t “good for the economy.” Their intrinsic value competes with the products that make shareholders and mortgage holders happy. As we find ways to change our priorities and value these timeless qualities, we’ll have a different kind of economy that will require less extraction of materials, and a less frantic pace.

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Ann September 3, 2009 at 4:20 pm

Dave,

Thank you for giving us a sneak preview of your book. I realize it is only a brief excerpt, but here’s why I consider it something of a muddle, and to use the term I applied in my first comment above, creepy.

First, and trivially, I think you seriously overstate the “headlong pursuit” of consumption. Another hardwired characteristic of humans is our attention mechanism, i.e., saliency. We notice the uptick in foreclosures, the constant ads for easy refis, the drumbeat of the news media over the housing crisis. Does anyone even have a clue how many homeowners owe no mortgage at all? (Answer: About a third, a group I’ll be joining later this month.) We also notice the new car and the new $100 pair of jeans, and think of consumption as primarily about “stuff,” but our economy has been shifting to services from “stuff” for a long time; consumption is just as much about a massage, a blog, a vegan restaurant meal or a book about affluenza.

Second, and more importantly, the assumption that “social values” like art exist somehow in opposition to consumption, self-gratification and a profit motive is a defective premise. Last week, I attended Seattle Opera’s Ring Cycle. For me, this was a truly life-altering experience of art and human achievement. It was also consumption – about $1,000 worth not counting parking and – Good Grief! – $10 for a glass of mediocre champagne. It was also an experience of individual gratification, even though the social experience of sharing discussions of it with others added to that gratification.

And, obviously, Wagner was central to the experience, but numerous voluntary orderings of social groups were necessary to pull it off successfully – singers, orchestra, stage hands, directors, fundraisers, writers, designers, the architects, acousticians and builders of the opera house, etc. While many of those people may have been motivated by pride in their work and love for Wagner’s art (in other words, self-gratification and/or status-seeking), others were motivated by the desire to earn a living – often a remarkably good living – which they may or may not have put to uses you or I would admire. I suspect only a very few, if any, were motivated solely by a desire to be of service to their fellow social beings.

A collectivist approach to art would attempt to suppress all these ugly individual motives and effects, in favor of – what exactly?

You want to “reward people of service” who are “intent on making the world safer and saner” rather than bank CEOs, but surely you see that there is a self-serving element in that. You consider yourself one of those intent on remaking the world, and are not a bank CEO. It is natural to regard what we offer to the world as superior to what others offer, but the bank CEO could produce an equally self-serving piece about the importance of what he does. When the rewards are parceled out by the buyers of your books and the shareholders of his bank, respectively, i.e., on a voluntary basis, then one or both of you may well feel undervalued, but I’m just fine with it. When the bank CEO lobbies Congress for more rewards for bank CEOs, or you lobby Congress for more rewards for utopian visionaries, then whoever comes out ahead, I lose.

You may consider Al Gore, for example, a person of service for his efforts on global warming. I consider him a hypocrite for his own over-the-top consumption and a scam-artist for his self-enrichment off of “green” technologies and his self-aggrandizement. As long as we each get to parcel out our own rewards to whomever we want, no problem, but when you talk about “thinking about value in a different way,” I suspect you mean a collectivist reward system, where my voice and thoughts will be disregarded while my money will be not.

Here is what I find particularly troubling in what you have written. Utopian abstractions often sound good, but translating them into reality seems to generate some very concrete and ugly realities. You talk about “stitching our cuture back together” and “rediscover[ing] the highest values of the culture,” as if there was some time in our cultural history when the collectivist values you espouse reigned supreme. When and where was that? An example is worth a million words. What culture do you suggest we model ourselves after?

You say, “The most pressing choice of all right now is to focus on social priorities and cultural direction rather than individual gratification. Individuals can’t make the huge changes that are necessary. Until we stitch our culture back together, individuals will be without direction. ” If individuals can’t make the huge changes necessary, then I imagine you are nominating government to do it. After all, they have the guns. And guns is ultimately what it takes to give individuals “direction” that is different from what they themselves find gratifying.

How is your dream different from the dreams of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, or Pol Pot’s “Year Zero” – a total re-make of your culture – and if not by force, how would you propose to do it? (Keeping in mind that laws are force, in that they compel or proscribe behavior under threat of violence for those who disobey.) What exactly do you mean when you talk about using “the highest [rediscovered] values of the culture” as “behavioral guidelines”? Is a “behavioral guideline” a suggestion, or is it a law?

Can you point to any society in human history that has undergone such a collectivist, anti-individualist re-write without either a) a strongly religious element and psychological coercion, such as the Mormons or Amish, or b) a great deal of physical coercion such as inflicted by such “change agents” as Mao, Pol Pot, Castro, or Stalin, or c) oppressive us-versus-them cohesion, such as in much of modern Islam or the American ante-bellum South, or d) failure and abandonment, such as the kibbutzim or the French Revolution?

Do you renounce coercive measures to attain this cultural transformation you advocate, or do you accept them as a necessary evil, or do you, as some have done in the past, embrace their cleansing fire? Regardless of whether I view your goals as benign or hopelessly confused, or a little of both, it is the lack of clarity on means that I find creepy.

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Dave Wann November 10, 2009 at 1:07 pm

Hi Ann,

I hadn’t read your comments until now, and while I appreciate the time you took to join the discussion, your comments are a bit hurtful. What’s wrong with trying to improve our way of life? Economies and ways of life co-evolve with prevalent conditions, and when those conditions change, so must the economy.

What I’m proposing in Simple Prosperity (and the upcoming book on the theme of “Exit Strategy: Game-changing Policies, Technologies and Social Epiphanies”) is not social constriction by evil government regimes but social engagement and cultural revolution by US, the people who live here and have noticed with great poignancy that we’ve torn things up and risk making the world unfit for human civilization, not to mention all the other species who are just trying to make a living, just trying to fit in with what we are designing together.

I could go on and on, but don’t have the time right now. My message might be summarized, “Be glad to be here, and help take care of our place with active, productive citizenship.” My own experiments with this include co-designing the neighborhood I live in – where in 13 years only 3 households out of 27 have moved; and becoming an increasingly skillful gardener (I’ve been at it 30 years) in our acre-sized community garden. I don’t do these things to prove any points, but because they feel right, and… help me feel glad to be here.

Be well.

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Ann November 12, 2009 at 1:58 pm

Hi, Dave,

I believe the expected response on being told one’s remarks have been “hurtful” is to “apologize if I gave offense.” However, this form of mild emotional blackmail is out of place, when the subject under discussion is a philosophy of life and community, and whether it should be based on respect for individual liberty and diversity or on a forcibly collectivist cultural revolution.

Anyway, I do not challenge the kindliness of your intentions, Dave. I don’t know enough about you to do that, and in my personal experience, most utopian visionaries are very nice people on a personal basis, so I assume you are too.

But even very nice people can be seduced into some pretty nasty behavior in the service of “improving our way of life.” If Mao, Pol Pot and Castro are too extreme as examples, I urge you to review the Milgram experiments and subsequent replications. While these are usually presented simply as studies in obedience to authority, one common feature is that the “authority” is always represented as acting in furtherance of a benign and socially useful goal, and as having superior expertise to assess the value of the goal and the consequences of obedience.

My position can be summarized as: “If your goal is to persuade to voluntary individual action, I share it. If it is to compel collective action by force of law, I am very distrustful of it and you,” For example, if you and your neighbors set up an organization with mutually agreed by-laws, bought a plot of land with voluntarily donated funds, and set up your community garden, I applaud you.

If you and some of your neighbors successfully lobbied your city council to seize someone else’s land, pay for it with tax dollars, and turn it over to you to garden, that’s a different story. In that case, you have been willing to use force or the threat of force against your neighbors to achieve a goal – a community garden – that in my book simply cannot justify that force. (i’m not against ALL community action; if you were seizing the land to build a levee to prevent the whole town from flooding, for instance, force may be justified.)

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Ann November 12, 2009 at 2:32 pm

One other thought. The world has always been “unfit for human civilization” to some extent, or at least occasionally pretty inhospitable to it. Think the Asian tsunami, Hurricane Katrina, the Little Ice Age, volcanic eruptions over the centuries, major earthquakes, not to mention malaria, AIDS, the bubonic plague, etc. The apocalyptic fear-mongering going on today should trigger thoughful people’s skepticism. Fear-mongering has always been such a convenient path to authoritarianism.

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Dave Wann November 12, 2009 at 5:21 pm

I think the point at which we won’t find agreement is the individual liberty piece. I’ve been thinking a lot about the meaning of government. My feeling is this: without a government as guardian, who will protect the environment? The private sector, constantly testing the boundaries, needs to know that we, the people, armed with mutually agreed-upon laws, will not tolerate obliviousness in the form of continent-sized islands of plastic debris in the North Pacific, dead zones in river deltas throughout the world, synthetic estrogens in 92% of Americans’ bodies… This isn’t fear mongering, but fact. If the house is on fire, we don’t debate about how it got started, we call the fire department.

Which brings me back to my initial discussion point. Are fire departments fear mongerers? Librarians? Forward-looking government officials (at DoD) who first nurtured the Internet? Are airport, dock, bridge, water treatment plant, elementary school personnel fear mongerers? I can only take this “government off our backs” argument so far. It’s depends on what the government’s doing ina particular case. It’s not black and white, but one thing is pretty clear: democracy is a pretty good social mechanism, and that’s where government comes from. I feel much more in control of elected government than I do with corporations that now control the world’s seeds, energy sources, real estate, airwaves, and yes, politicians – until we decouple campaign finance from vested interest.

Laws should be based on the greatest good for the greatest number of people over the longest period of time. Laws are in the public interest, not tailor-made for each individual. If coal-fired power plants are public enemy #1 because they release the largest volume of greenhouses gases, our laws need to protect us. Many countries have stopped giving subsidies to coal, and even plan to phase coal power plants out, because they are not in the public interest This isn’t a moral or individual rights argument – it has to do with physics and consensus that we – as stakeholders in our own futures – need to phase out this obsolete technology – just like we prevented individuals from making a mess of public places with chewing tobacco by removing the spittoons The free market won’t over-rule a dirty technology or a bad social habit until we take consensus action..

And I will conclude by saying that not all corporations are “evil,” just as not all government decisions are coercive. Decisions and judgments need to be made on a case-by-case basis.

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Dave Wann November 12, 2009 at 5:37 pm

On your other point, yes. there have always been challenges for all forms of life, however these were not as preventable as climate change. It’s a no brainer: we can create a more robust economy, prevent a crisis (that is now acknowledged by all but corporate scientists), and have a higher quality of life – by unleashing the private sector’s capital -as well as the public sector’s guidelines and incentives – to create completely new sources of energy, new ways of farming, foresting, fishing – based not on individual rights but biology, anthropology, and instinct. The right decision is the one that operates within nature’s budgets and guidelines. The wrong decision is the one for which profit is the only determinant, and which leads to a decline in natural and cultural vitality.

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Chad @ Sentient Money November 12, 2009 at 5:52 pm

@ Ann

“If Mao, Pol Pot and Castro…”

Please, this is a knee jerk argument from every supposed “conservative” in the country when they try to put down socialism. None of those guys were socialists. Of course, I’m not for socialism. I’m just pointing out argument flaws.

“I attended Seattle Opera’s Ring Cycle. For me, this was a truly life-altering experience of art and human achievement. It was also consumption – about $1,000 worth not counting parking and – Good Grief! – $10 for a glass of mediocre champagne.”

Hmmmm, but it’s ok to take public money for your opera house? I guess socialism is good?

Public dollars raised: $44 million

http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/news/entertainment/mccaw/story_finances22.html

It should also be noted the evil laws you hate “forced” upon you already exist. These laws just enforce different behaviors than what Dave is proposing here (note that he actually doesn’t mention any significant changes to law in the post). Corporations couldn’t exist without laws forcing people to acknowledge an imaginary entities rights. The majority of the investment banks wouldn’t exist unless they had changed from investment banks to regular banks in the last year…etc.

“i’m not against ALL community action; if you were seizing the land to build a levee to prevent the whole town from flooding, for instance, force may be justified.”

So, it’s ok to seize land to build a levee for a town that was dumb enough to build on a flood plain?

It’s all the same. Choices must be made by society all the time. Laws are instituted no matter what your philosophy is unless the person’s philosophy is anarchy. You can argue against the laws because you don’t believe in them, but you can’t argue that no laws currently exist to force our society to exist in it’s current form.

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Ann November 12, 2009 at 9:03 pm

Chad,

I never even mentioned the word socialism in my comment, nor was my intent to “put down socialism” nor, for that matter, do I consider myself a conservative or an anarchist. (If you must have a label for me, you can call me a classical liberal.)

I’m sure one can be a socialist without being a transformational utopian a la Mao, Pol Pot and Castro – all vicious tyrants. And one can be a transformational utopian without being a vicious tyrant. It depends entirely on the means one is willing to use to accomplish the desired change.

I was trying to elicit from Dave a clear statement of what means he was willing to see used in the service of his transformational goals. He declined to answer that question or even acknowledge it. I could draw any of several different inferences from that evasion, but what’s the point? It’s not like I have to vote for or against him in an election.

On the Opera:
No, I was not at all happy that public funds were used by Seattle Opera that way. I love opera, but do not feel justified in coercing others to pay for my musical tastes. However, I do not vote in either Seattle or King County, so could do little about it.

Between the roughly $75 million in private donations it received (including my $1,500), the private donations it would have received absent the availability of public funding (I know I would have kicked in more if there had been no public money coming), a modest self-retiring bond measure, and private-sector style economies in the project, the project could and should have been built without coerced contributions from taxpayers..

By private sector economies, consider that the REMODEL of the 4-story 295,000 sq. ft. Opera House cost $127 million (the basic structure was retained), while the total CONSTRUCTION of the 76-story 1.56 million sq. ft. Columbia Tower building a few blocks away cost less than $340 million after adjusting for inflation. And the latter is considerably more luxurious on the inside and vastly more complicated in its engineering. Aside from my preference for voluntary cooperation, my frugal instincts are continually appalled at the extravagance in government operations.

Look, both you and Dave have me confused with your stereotype of a conservative to the point that you aren’t really thinking about what I’m saying. Or perhaps I’m being very unclear.

Both individual autonomy and social cooperation are necessary to the happiness and survival of human beings, but either of them carried to excess destroys the other. Voluntary social cooperation is much less destructive of individual autonomy than coerced cooperation, i.e., laws, and so I favor the former, where possible, and careful restraint on the latter.

Almost everybody can agree that it is OK to use force to prevent, say, a rape or an armed robbery. But is it OK to use force to compel support of Wagnerian opera? Is that really such an open-and-shut case that anyone who says no is espousing anarchy?

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Ann November 12, 2009 at 11:02 pm

Dave,

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? You acknowledge that elected politicians today are often corrupted or ensnared by special interests, but you seem to believe that if we just pass the right campaign finance laws, that will change. I doubt it.

Tragically, all politicians and government officials are drawn from the exact same gene pool as corporate CEOs, lobbyists, etc. They are equally subject to financial corruption, and also the corruptions of power-hunger, flattery, sexual favors, and all the other things that can thwart a pure devotion to the public good. Like corporate CEOs, they come in smart and stupid, honorable and venal, reflective and self-deluding, wise and foolish, experienced and naive, etc., and often a mixture of all the above.

The only sure thing about government officials is that they have the exclusive legal authority to use guns in pursuit of their political goals.

You and I come from that same gene pool, too. You earn your living off of selling your theories to the public, and could suffer the loss of your audience and livelihood (not to mention vitriolic attacks on your character) if you changed your mind about your current ideas. Many psychological studies show that people are very resistant to and skeptical of ideas that conflict with their existing views. Add to that the risk of loss of income and approval, and the effect could be just corrupting as any campaign contribution. (And, of course, I could be in the employ of some evil corporation, or just inordinately fond of personal freedom. I don’t claim to be bias-free.)

No, firefighters and librarians are not typically fear-mongerers, but claiming our “house is on fire”? Yes, that qualifies.

Fear-mongering is referring to “continent-sized islands of plastic debris” when what you’re really talking about is roughly 11 pounds of plastic particles per square kilometer of ocean area, or less than 2/10,000 (two ten-thousandths) of an ounce of plastic per square meter. Some island.

Fear-mongering is talking about “synthetic estrogens in 92% of Americans’ bodies” when it is actually in their urine that it has been found, meaning it was being expelled from those bodies, and there is no evidence that a) it is being built up in our bodies, or b) would do anything harmful even if it were.

What you call facts are what I call factoids. To someone who is science-challenged, doesn’t know how to research, is suggestible, has little resistance to the paranoid style and little historical understanding of the general course of human progress, these factoids can sound scary, while remaining essentially meaningless.

What the fear-mongers claim today is that our house is such a mess we should tear it down ASAP, and rebuild it according to plans developed by architects who have never successfully built anything before, using methods that have never been tested before or if tested, have resulted in buildings that collapsed, killing their occupants.

You promise that “we can create a more robust economy, prevent a crisis, and have a better quality of life” if we do what you want. That’s the kind of promise that has been made by every utopian who ever took charge of a country, and a lot of them even believed it. You’re so sure of your promise you call it a “no-brainer” but history tells us our brains should very definitely engage when someone makes promises about unprovable future benefits in exchange for enormous current sacrifices.

By the way, phasing out coal plants at the expense of people freezing and starving to death isn’t “protecting the public interest” unless you believe that a democracy means the majority gets to vote for the minority to die, because that would be useful to the majority. If enough people decided it was in the public interest for you to stop publishing books, would you still say that was not a “moral or individual rights” issue?

A corporation is incapable of good or evil, any more than a knife, a book, or a computer is. Like any other tool or device, it’s all about how it is used by people.

I disagree with you that “not all government decisions are coercive,” if by decisions you mean laws. A law (at least one that includes enforcement powers and penalties, as most do) is always coercive. In fact, that’s pretty much the definition of a law.

Just out of curiousity, Dave, in your brave new world, what do you propose “we” do with people like me?

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dolores April 26, 2010 at 10:31 pm

Thank you for your good and welcome input if the people would listen to some and change a few things ,I am sure it would help.I would love to go back to simple lifestyle and enjoying my life more with my friends and family.I am a single mom on a fixed income and somehow my family has way to much stuff crowding us out of our house .It is hard to relax in traffic car crowd the roads everwhere I go.Thank You again and I send some love along with it.Bless you

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Bankruptcy Ben June 25, 2010 at 1:51 am

I agree with well all of this. Appart from the GDP bashing:) I’ve read adam smith and milton keynes and they get a bad wrap but no one ever actually reads them. No were in their books to they advocate environmental destruction or destruction of humanity (ie exploytation of the worker). Both works are about how to maximise quaility of life for the greatest number of people.

The main problem is that at the moment a fair price, based on the finite quatity of materials arn’t charged for resorces and the true cost of disposing of wast isn’t charge either. Correct these 2 and we’ll be on to a winner. (sorry for the rant)

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