Why do we want… part 2

So, I’ve been thinking about this… why the “American Dream” is owning the biggest house you can’t really afford…

Philosophers, Kant in particular, argue that human beings are the only inherently worthy things.  He says this because we assign value to other things, so a new Mercedes is generally worth more than my 5 year old Corolla (although, I may prefer the Corolla — I suspect that wouldn’t last long…).

So, I think it’s important to think about where those values come from… how do we get the idea that a big house in the ‘burbs with granite counter tops, hardwood floors and a whirlpool tub is a life goal?

Like many things, it seems to me that this particular value set is socially constructed.  By contrast, other values have a natural basis — for example, valuing a healthy body is prompted by the fact that being sick feels bad.  Valuing chocolate and sex are prompted because they feel good, etc..

One indication of a socially constructed value is that other cultures make opposite choices.  So, in Scandinavia it’s not a socially acceptable choice to build a McMansion (notice the term... hmmm...).  Instead, modest homes and living within your means are valued and conspicuous consumption is frowned upon.

Another indication of a socially constructed value is that it changes over time.  So, before WW II, most families lived in modest homes in or near the city center.  A combination of the GI bill, returning war vets and the interstate highway system — plus increased car ownership, prompted the creation of the suburbs.  So, folks went from living in modest homes to living in homes with yards, dens and a bedroom for every person.

Recently, it seems to me that the media and banking interests have pushed average Americans to want more home than they can afford.  It’s in the interests of the real estate and mortgage industries to entice people to take out mortgages they may not be able to afford, because then they can charge higher interest rates.  Then, banks bundled these less than desirable mortgages together, sold them several times and lead to a recession / depression.

The increased demand for housing (which was created by the real estate folks and others…) lead to a sharp increase in housing prices.  Of course, the real estate folks were paid by commission, so the higher the home price, the bigger the paycheck.  Also, the banks had more money to charge interest on.. so they weren’t complaining.

Finally, the concept of the “flip” created artificial demand and artificial values in homes — because the flipper needed to make money on the deal, so they did minimal improvements and then demanded higher prices.  Because mortgages were fairly easy to get (see above), the housing market was tight and folks who wanted to achieve the “American Dream” bought more than they could afford.

Sadly, the “American Dream” has turned into a nightmare for many people, as lost jobs and significantly decreased home values have turned what seemed to be a sound financial decision into the cause of their bankruptcy.

All of this was due to a powerful combination of a blurred distinction between need and want — and institutional shaping of wants for their own enrichment.

It seems to me that a recognition of the source of the desires is the first step in changing those desires.  Being manipulated into wanting something like a McMansion is less likely when it’s clear that the desire isn’t inherent to the person, but rather external.  As humans, we tend to resist manipulation when we recognize it — and this is one way we can begin to change things in ourselves.

Of course, I’m not the first to say we need to think about what we need — and I support Andy’s desire to live simply, in the woods…. although, I think some plumbing needs to be in the plans :).


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