Saturday, April 18, 2009


So urged Henry David Thoreau in the mid-1800’s. There has not been much evidence of people following his urging in the years that have passed since he wrote Walden. Our lives have become more and more complicated, as have our institutions. Back in the 1800’s, banks were in the business of deposits and loans. Today they are messing around with derivative swaps and mortgage backed securities. Our lives are incredibly complex to the point that many people have no idea how thing work around them. It was amazing the number of people who sign loan papers and don’t even look at them. We go through the day on faith that the complex systems around us will keep working and when they don't, people are lost.

That may be changing a bit. Little by little, signs are popping up that Americans are rejecting the consumer-driven, consumption based lifestyle and are seeking something a little simpler. As evidence, USA Today ran a story on families who are seeking to simplify their lives: Economic survivalists take root.

When the economy started to squeeze the Wojtowicz family, they gave up vacation cruises, restaurant meals, new clothes and high-tech toys to become 21st-century homesteaders.

Now Patrick Wojtowicz, 36, his wife Melissa, 37, and daughter Gabrielle, 15, raise pigs and chickens for food on 40 acres near Alma, Mich. They're planning a garden and installing a wood furnace. They disconnected the satellite TV and radio, ditched their dishwasher and a big truck and started buying clothes at resale shops.

"As long as we can keep decreasing our bills, we can keep making less money," Patrick says. "We're not saying this is right for everybody, but it's right for us."

Hard times are creating economic survivalists such as the Wojtowicz family who are paring expenses by becoming more self-sufficient.

It is HARD to get away from this lifestyle of trivial amusements, of empty distractions. We don’t get cable or satellite TV and we cut our Netflix subscription down to 1 at a time from 3 at a time. Several years ago I dumped my XM Satellite radio. But with the high speed internet, it is still pretty easy to find entertainment at will. With our Netflix subscription we can watch thousands of movies on demand, we can also watch TV shows if we want from the broadcast companies the day after they air on TV. We don’t have to try very hard to find ways to distract and entertain ourselves. It is also pretty hard to get away from the prepackaged, disposable, convenience oriented lifestyle. Making stuff from scratch for ten people takes a lot of time. Heating up some frozen pizzas or chicken nuggets is easy.

It is not just in simpler living and vegetable gardens that we see this. The Wall Street Journal ran an article this week that has been on their most read article ranks all week about the rise in gun sales, Fear and Greed Have Sales of Guns and Ammo Shooting Up.

Nearly four million background checks -- a key measure of sales because they are required at the purchase of a gun from a federally licensed seller -- were performed in the first three months of 2009. That is a 27% increase over the same period a year earlier, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

There are no clear-cut reasons for this. Some people are worried about a renewed Clinton-era gun ban. Others are actually investing for profit in guns, expecting prices to rise. Many people are worried, with some justification, about civil unrest. The institutions we have placed far too much faith in over the years have proven to be untrustworthy. Most people have blithely stumbled through life assuming that the government really cares about the people, that the schools are interested in educating our kids, that banks are benevolent non-profits here to help us out, that home prices and 401(k) balances will go up inevitably year after year. The reality has hit people really hard. People are nervous that the foundations of our society are being shaken up and the things that they counted on may not be around. We are in the midst of a cultural quake the likes of which we haven’t seen since the 60’s.

I was directed to the USA Today article by an editorial by Peggy Noonan. Peggy Noonan has been a pretty keen observer of all of this, which is remarkable given that she lives in New York City and has worked with the major power brokers for so long. Unlike many of her peers in the East Coast major media establishment, she still recognizes and cherishes the values and lifestyle of Middle America, and that perspective often serves her well.

One thing that Peggy Noonan wrote that I don’t agree with is in her last paragraph:

A friend, noting what has and will continue to happen with car sales, said America will look like Havana—old cars and faded grandeur. It won't. It will look like 1970, only without the bell-bottoms and excessive hirsuteness. More families will have to live together. More people will drink more regularly. Secret smoking will make a comeback as part of a return to simple pleasures. People will slow down. Mainstream religion will come back. Walker Percy again: Bland affluence breeds fundamentalism. Bland affluence is over.

I certainly hope that people will not start drinking and smoking more! But I also don’t think that her notion that “mainstream” religion will come back is borne out by the trends. Given that Ms. Noonan is a devout Roman Catholic (she wrote a book on the prior pope) living in the Northeast, what she considers to be “mainstream” religions are likely the staid, genteel Protestant churches and old, traditional Roman churches, where the focus is on bake sales and potluck dinners. The reality is somewhat different.

I think that in the days ahead, as we see a massive reordering of life, we will see less of what the media describes as “mainstream” religion. Civic religion once fulfilled a purpose of communal identity. That is rapidly becoming no longer the case. Being a churchgoer is not nearly as important as it once was. The hallmarks of civic religion in America included being a Christian as the birthright of every American and membership in a local church the responsibility of every American. No more. Civic religion in this country is in its death throes. As religious involvement, or lack thereof, becomes less important in the daily life of Americans, the incentives for being involved in some sort of religious activity to be part of the culture will wane.

America is going to look like a different place, a far different place, in the upcoming years. Economically, socially, religiously, culturally. The nation we knew, for better or for worse, is gone and something new is going to replace it.

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