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Will We Still Reject Materialism After the Downturn?

Man at storefront during Depression; National Archives

Question: I enjoyed your recent interview with Robert McElvaine. (Editor’s note: Watch the interview below.) His thesis that the downturn will lead us away from consumption as a way of life to what really matters is interesting.

Am I correct in my impression there’s a growing number of reports lately about such positive benefits of our economic woes? But even if true, I wonder how long such newfound wisdom will last, once credit starts flowing again.

Unlike the Great Depression, we have generations raised from babyhood on the importance of material possessions and the ease of acquiring them. Is that habit truly changing now, or just dormant until the worst blows over? I’d put my vote on dormant for those who may have to hunker down, but aren’t losing their homes and struggling to feed their children. What’s your take?

Paul Solman: I don’t know if there’s a growing number of benefits-of-downshifting reports, Marion, only that we ourselves have now done two of them – our interview with McElvaine and a piece called The Upside of the Downturn. Or maybe even three, if you count Dallas Salisbury’s advice to start saving once again.

How long do I think the “newfound wisdom” will last? Remember, I’m the guy who can’t go a month on this page without repeating that there are two kinds of economists…those who don’t know the future, and those who don’t know they don’t know.

In short, I haven’t a clue. But if I had to bet, it would be on another period of increasing optimism, with all (or many of) the attendant excesses. We human beings are obviously on the “more-is-better” treadmill. Presumably, we’re wired that way, because those wired for covetousness, or just for staying ahead of the Joneses, DID get more in the EEA (“environment of evolutionary adaptedness”), when we were still evolving back in the Pleistocene. We had more to feed and shelter their kids, so more of our kids survived than those of, say, the hakuna matata types on the savannah. And so the “more” genes (or proteins or whatever) prospered, relatively speaking. End of the story: We can never get enough, because the whole point is “more than the other guy.”

Now clearly, some folks get off the treadmill, or never get on. Near as I can tell, this is what Buddhism seems to be about. But I have to confess, I’ve known more than one Buddhist shopaholic in my time. Transcendence takes a lot of practice and even then, it’s no slam dunk.