Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Cheapest Pleasures

That man is richest whose pleasures are the cheapest.
Henry David Thoreau

By way of metaphorical usage, cheap has acquired connotations of seedy, disreputable, worthless, but Thoreau meant it literally to refer to the minor cost of spiritual riches attained from a frugal life.  One example is the cheap pleasure of imagining owning a house with some property as opposed to actually owning it:
An afternoon sufficed to lay out the land into orchard, woodlot, and a pasture, and to decide what fine oaks or pines should be left to stand before the door, and whence each blasted tree could be seen to the best advantage; and then I let it lie, fallow perchance, for a man is rich in proportion to the number of things when he can afford to let alone. 
Tolstoy also has a short fable, “How much Land does a Man Need?” about a man with just enough land to supply his basic needs who seeks more.   Every acquisition of new property increases his hunger for more until, eventually, he sacrifices everything and literally runs himself to death seeking more land. 

In spite of proclaimed values in agreement with Thoreau and Tolstoy about simplicity and frugality, I find myself in old age often distressed about how to manage bookkeeping and maintenance of property and possessions.   I have way too much stuff.  Shelves and shelves and shelves house close to a thousand books.   They take up living space, perpetually need dusting, and the only reason I don’t own more is that I give so many away to make room for more.   Surrounding my work desk and leaving only narrow aisles to get to books, filing cabinets bulge with over forty years of accumulated drafts of writing projects and paperwork from managing real estate, personal accounts, and investments.  To simplify my life, I sold a big old house I owned and invested the money, which earns some interest, which I must manage, capital—ugh.  And then I bought another house bigger than I need.  So I now have, again, gardening and snow-removal machines and paraphernalia, an over supplied kitchen, and stuffed closets.  All of this always needs organizing which, like dusting, never gets completed.  Vanity, all vanity.  Just the sheer number of possessions and money complicates my life and interferes with the pursuit of the cheapest pleasures I believe to be the best.  Pleasures like observation, contemplation, and creative social activity.

With all of this, by today’s standards, the entire value of my possessions does not qualify me as above lower middle-class in the prevailing view of American-dream aspirations.  Except for the aspirations of our Maine Governor who asserts that his proposed budget puts anyone with an annual income above 19,000 + a few dollars in the rich income-tax bracket and thus the beneficiary of a tax cut amounting to about 6-10 dollars.   Still, relative to the poverty in the world, I am too rich.  

My country is too rich, too greedy, spends too much money on trivial luxuries.  Multi-car garages house air- polluting vehicles at private homes.  Multi-billion dollar industries finance sports teams, junk movies, junk TV shows, junk news as entertainment, and junk internet products for addicted spectators who require ever increasing and costly fixes of escape from the cheap pleasures of stimulating and socially valuable work, conversation, and activity.  Huge shopping malls, both mini and maxi, provide an endless stream of useless consumer paraphernalia.  Garish advertising litters the landscape and the mind and extinguishes cheap pleasures of natural and artistic beauty.  Multi-billion-dollar profits of corporations feed a lust for ever-more power that money buys.  Adding insult to injury, our government practices spending priorities that encourages all of this—when facing a national crisis, President Bush said, “Go to Disneyland.”  Spend money.  Have a good time.   The energy it takes to fuel all these trivial pursuits pollutes and degrades the earth that could with the right values and priorities supply all of our most basic needs and all of our cheapest, most satisfying pleasures.  

The more we spend in pursuit of mind- and spirit-deadening pleasures of escape, greed, and power, the more we resort to war to protect and keep our American way of life, nearly perpetual war since the founding of our nation.  In my lifetime, WW II, the Cold War that took in the hot sites of Korea and Viet Nam, Wars in the Near East—Iraq, Afghanistan, now Libya, and our interminable military support for Israel and all over the rest of the world.  War, with all the expense of its production and repair of collateral damage, is the costliest luxury.  And there is no appetite by either of the major political parties to even reduce war, let alone eliminate it, as a way to resolve international conflicts.   The spending-cut deal for 2011 negotiated by Boehner, Reid, and Obama does not touch military spending, over half the total budget.  Seeing how often the right thing to do gets compromised, I’m deferring judgment about Obama’s promises to cut military spending in the future. 

There are known solutions to these problems if we can collectively find the will to apply them.  Likely the best place to start is to reduce the obscene gap between rich and poor that grows and grows.  In “Equality is Better—for Everyone,”  Richard Wilkinson & Kate Pickett use comparison studies between the more income-equal nations like Japan and the Nordic countries and the less equal ones like the U.S., Britain, and Portugal to show that “inequality is socially corrosive” for everyone, not just the poor.  In countries where the gap between the rich and the poor is smaller,
the statistics show that community life is stronger and levels of trust are higher.  There is also less violence, including lower homicide rates; physical and mental health tends to be better and life expectancy is higher . . . . prison populations are smaller, teenage birth rates are lower, educational scores tend to be higher, there is less obesity and more social mobility.
. . . . . . . . . .
Even the well-off do better in more equal countries . . . . live longer and enjoy better health . . . . Everyone enjoys the benefits of living in a more trusting, less violent society. . . . More equal countries give more in foreign aid and score better on the Global Peace Index.  They recycle a higher proportion of their waste and think it more important to abide by international environmental agreements. 
In contrast,
mental illness is three times more common in more unequal countries [U. S. is the most unequal in the world] than in the most equal, obesity rates are twice as high, rates of imprisonment eight times higher, and teenage births increase tenfold.  (People First Economics)

Individually, we would be healthier by getting out of the car more often and enjoying the cheap pleasures of walking, running, or biking (and the earth would thrive better, too).  We would be happier as well as healthier if we channeled our hunger for power into gaining control over expensive entertainment appetites that are never satisfied.  Collectively, we would improve the mental health of ourselves and our culture by taxing obscene riches of the entertainment industries and applying the revenue to full funding of PBS and to high quality education and health care for all.  We could provide for the earth’s health and welfare by requiring all polluting enterprises to pay for cleaning up the messes they produce and then to stop polluting.  We could substantially reduce the national debt by requiring corporations with huge profits and financial institutions that are too big to fail to pay their fair share.  See Bernie Sanders’ list of the top ten freeloading corporations who not only don’t pay taxes but get subsidies, refunds and bailouts from the rest of us who do: We could further reduce the debt and would all be physically, mentally, and spiritually healthier with individual and collective commitments to put costly violence and war behind us as outmoded solutions, and to leave the world a cheaper, more peaceful place than we find it. 

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