Judith Warner wrote the most interesting thing in the New York Times last week:
This is a story of selfishness and greed, of self-centeredness, envy and the ignorant folly of a person too short-sighted to realize she should count herself lucky because her college education didn’t have to be paid for with the milk of a goat.
The tale could be called: I Can No Longer Afford to Drive My Car.
Photo: smenzel, Creative Commons, Flickr
After you’ve read her piece, what’s even more interesting is what she leaves unsaid: In the face of the inexorable demands of status and consumer desire, good journalism doesn’t even work on journalists.
After all, her story of woe about buying an 11-mpg Land Rover begins in 2004: 16 years after James Hansen spoke to Congress on climate, and well into the war in Iraq; a war succinctly analyzed by Alan Greenspan as a war for oil.
Among the writers she must know whose work has argued against the gas guzzler she regrets, there are several at the Times, like Nicholas Kristof, Thomas Friedman, and Keith Bradsher. She could have followed oil and climate with Jeffrey Ball at the Wall Street Journal, or Sharon Begley, at Newsweek. She might have read this panic-stricken letter from James Speth, a dean at Yale.
Charles Krauthammer knows why she's upset. Which leads him to this sensible conclusion:
Don't appeal to the better angels of our nature. Do one thing: Hike the cost of gas until you find the price point
...he means, find the price point that wakes up Judith Warner.
(A bit grim, that prescription, considering Obama’s latest campaign gambit is to hector Republicans about the price of gas. It’s unlikely any American politician can do what Krauthammer calls for, but it would be brave to try.)
In our culture, Warner was surrounded by many articulate arguments against her purchase, some dating back decades. One can skip all the way back to Marshal McLuhan’s mentor Harold Innis, who had her number seventy years ago. To paraphrase the Wiki article on Innis:
Western civilization suffers from an ‘obsession with present-mindedness’ which eliminates concerns about past or future.
My own feeble education divided things up into subjects and failed to get to the point. The real point of the history we live in is Judith Warner and her car. She is as good an example as any of the motives of global discretionary consumption, also known as ‘lifestyle’ (as in, China and India have new middle classes aspiring to the American lifestyle).
Aside from islands in Denmark, can people do anything right? If Judith Warner can't, how can we?
Over a two-part essay, I’d like to imagine conditions in her story that would lead to a different outcome.
In a telling line in her piece Warner admits that she and her husband bought the Land Rover because their neighbors had one. As a thought experiment: What if their neighbors had bought a Camry instead, and the Camry had a sticker in the window from a charity that educates girls in Pakistan? My guess is that combination would not have excited the material envy of the Rover, and she might not have felt pushed to keep up. Though she might have struck up interesting conversations with the neighbors and with her own daughters.
The puzzle is that I think Judith Warner would be much happier now, had she bought a Camry in 2004, and donated $ 10,000 to the Pakistani charity (and pocketed at least another $ 15,000 in change). As a bonus, the charity might have had an incremental effect in improving her real security, while the Land Rover diminished her (and our) security by funneling more petrodollars to Saudi madrassas.
The Camry/charity idea might not work, but I do think I can imagine a scenario that would have killed any appetite for a Land Rover for Warner and her husband: a military draft. In fact, my guess is that, by unspoken agreement, her neighbors wouldn’t have had an 11-mpg vehicle either if we had a draft, so she would have had nothing to emulate.
Warner’s gas-guzzler situation is both conventional (as looking out the window indicates, where I still see a herd of Range Rovers over a typical Manhattan afternoon), and unique -- in that she is a thoughtful and insightful chronicler of her own desires and influences. She is a curious person with a lively mind.
At the same time she fits a template described by Keith Bradsher, by consumer psychologist Clotaire Rapaille, and by Shellenberger and Nordhaus in their book Break Through:
Insecure affluence seems to drive ostentatious status competitions and displays of wealth. (Break Through, ch. 6)
Warner concurs, as she’s written an entire book about anxiety:
...our notion of what’s necessary and what’s desirable have become conflated. It means our notion of what’s desirable has been ratcheted up and up – so that we aspire to the lifestyle and the things that be-fore were considered the spoils of real wealth. It means we often feel that we are failing, because we simply can’t have all those things, and in our collective psyche that failure to have things translates into a general sense of unworthiness.
Here is a lovely essay she wrote about revisiting experiences in high school English, which also maybe carries a grain of explanation.
“Faulkner’s favorite subject,” Mrs. Sagor said, was “ ‘the human heart in conflict with itself.’ ”
Missing this moment -- by talking endlessly about war, oil or climate and not observing what motivates Judith Warner -- is like watching Jaws and missing the shark. For every Judith Warner in the U.S., China will soon have four and India will have three. But then, what about Denmark?
To be continued.