As I listen to cultural analysts bemoaning the current state of American consumerism, and comparing it (to a disadvantage) to unnamed halcyon days of yore, I am struck by an inability to see the largest and most obvious feature of the whole set-up.
The issue is not that Americans uniquely consume like nobody’s business, but rather that they have the wherewithal to consume. They behave like people with discretionary wealth have always behaved — only now there are way more of us. Every pathology that we now see is a pathology with a long track record . . . among those who have had the wealth to behave that way.
In short, the problem we have that is unique is that everybody is now rich. The old scriptural warnings to the wealthy to not set their hope on riches, but rather on God, were warnings which, when delivered, applied to a tiny sliver of the church. Now, in countless churches, the warnings apply to virtually everyone in the sanctuary.
Not only are we having to adjust to the reality of many of us having discretionary income (as opposed to just two of us having it), the fact that there is a bell curve on top of all these rich people means that the people in the lower 75% of that curve don’t think the warnings apply to them because they “aren’t rich.” In the old days, everybody knew who the rich guys were. Now, not so much.
Many of the temptations of the old aristocracy now afflict us, and we don’t know what to do. There are exceptions, of course, such that we are not experiencing the whole range of the old aristocratic temptations. Mass wealth does not create a sense of aloofness, detachment, etc. But it can and does create a sense of entitlement, greed, decadence, and a desire to watch dancing girls on YouTube.
In short, we are not in the midst of a new temptation. We are in the middle of a lot more of the old temptations.