05 August 2005

The Simplicity Movement

The simplicity movement is one of the important cultural forces in what you might call, for want of a better word, Blue State America, although I'm not precisely referring to the states that Kerry or Gore won in the most recent election, so much as the side of the culture divide in this country that those states exemplify. It is a movement that certainly influences my thinking, although I'd hardly consider myself a hard core member. (Indeed, just a few posts back I was criticizing an important figure in the Simplicity movement and author of the book "Affluenza" for taking the wrong approach to protecting the environment.)

Anyway, what is the simplicity movement about?

* Owning less "stuff", so that you own only what you need.
* Trading income for leisure when possible.
* Achieving financial independence by avoiding consumer debt and saving.
* Trying to be less wasteful in the way you use your time.
* Enjoying cultural and non-material riches beyond those expected for your income.

Jerome Segal's book Graceful Simplicity is one of the better manifestos of the movement, looking at its philosphical underpinings and correctly noting that political action, rather than just personal discipline, is necessary for the movement's goals to be achieved widely. The movement has even spawned a magazine, Real Simple, although it is a bit "decadent" for purists.

In the tradition of many of the big initiatives of modern liberalism it is in part an attempt to accomplish things that Western Europe has achieved, but the United States has not. Europeans have long vacations, work fewer hours a year, and have non-material goodies like health care and education handed to them by the government, while Americans have to work long hours to pay for the same things out of pocket. Europeans may have lower per capita GDPs than the U.S., but in part this is a conscious choice to trade income for leisure.

Segal correctly notes that it isn't easy to live a "simple" lifestyle in the United States. You can live in a less expensive house, for example, but often at the cost of either a long commute or a dangerous neighborhood with "bad" schools. Few employers are willing to offer more than the standard two to four weeks of vacation a year, no matter how much of a pay cut you are willing to accept. Most jobs simply are not structured that way. Creating your own job through self-employment requires you to provide health insurance for yourself at a cost that far exceeds what your employer would have to pay if you worked for a big business. Keeping your debts down and savings up isn't easy if you have a middle class income, because the cost of living a decent life -- with appropriate health care, a safe neighborhood with either "good" schools or additional expenditures for private education, healthy food, vehicles you need to go to work and meet your daily needs, and so on, while suceptible to reduction, cost far more than a poverty level income in most places. You can control your housing costs by living far out in the suburbs, but at the cost of wasting lots of your time commuting, and lots of your money on cars and their care.

What does my family do that flows from this philosophy?

We live in a small house (two bedrooms), but in a "good" neighborhood that has a "good" public school and allows us to do a great deal without driving. We have just one car, and it is a modest, fuel efficient sedan which we plan on keeping for ten years from when we bought it. I intentionally made a career choice that resulted in less work and less money -- by entering academia, for a while, at least, and my wife has chosen to stay at home rather than joining the work force, at least while our children are young. We give substantial loads of stuff to the Lupus Foundation, the Association of Retired Citizens (ARC), and Goodwill, once or twice a month (a smaller house helps encourage this tendency). We don't carry credit card balances, and do our best to pay down our other debts and save. We almost never spend time watching TV and don't have cable or satellite TV. We've put off the expense of a cell phone as long as we can, although we may soon sucumb to buying one. We are restrained in our consumer spending and rarely eat out. We look for free or low cost membership entertainment options for ourselves and our children. We often get books and videos from the library, instead of buying them. It isn't that we don't indulge a luxury or two. We aren't stripped to bare necessities. But, by and large, we try to live a less materialistic lifestyle than many Americans.

This doesn't mean we live a low income lifestyle either. Denver housing in a "good" neighborhood with "good" schools is not cheap (although housing in Boston, where my brother lives, and in Seattle, where my sister-in-law lives, is even more expensive). We could certainly have spent less up front on an older and smaller used car than the new car we bought a number of years ago. Among people we know, we are hardly the least cluttered household -- we could toss more stuff. We could be more extreme in our purchasing habits -- we have a family friend who is thrifty to a fault. But, simplicity isn't about living a low income lifestyle, or even being "The Millionaire Next Door". We don't want to spend less because we value poverty in some quasi-monastic way, or to save simply so that we can die with millions in the bank. We simply choose to favor financial security over spending we don't necessarily appreciate all that much anyway. One of Segal's great observations is that many people's happiest memories are of the days when they were just starting out and had few material possessions. We read our children a bedtime story about a musician who grew unhappy because he had too much stuff. Diminishing marginal utility isn't just an economic concept, it is a code to live by in your daily life. One couch is great. The third one doesn't add much value to your life.

I'll close with a footnote. I've put references to "good" and "bad" schools, and to "good" and "bad" neighborhoods in quotations, and I am wary of using the terms "safe" and "dangerous", although I have done so at least once. These words are often used as code words that cover up the ugly issue of race. And, it is true that there are heavily minority neighborhoods in a highly segregated city like Denver, which truly are dangerous and which truly do have schools that don't succeed in their objective of providing a good education to the children who attend them. It is also true that there are neighborhoods in a city like Denver which are overwhelmingly white which are both safe and have schools that do a good job of providing a good education to the children who attend them.

Talking about what does make schools good and bad, and what does make neighborhoods good and bad, or safe and dangerous, is beyond the scope of this entry. I think these terms do have meaning, and I don't think that they have to be code words for enforcing a regime of racial segregation that is a blight on urban America, although they can certainly be used in that way. But, doing that discussion justice will take another few posts.

1 comment:

Bobbe Anderson said...

I have recently come to realize that I don't own anything really. It all "owns" me. The other startling revelation was that since what I have amassed doesn't give me much pleasure after awhile, so that is when I gather up more of it, to begin the cycle of disappointment again. It's time for me to change.