It depends. Are you a politician, a reformer, or a mortgage company?
What brought this strange question to mind was watching the ad for one of those on-line mortgage lenders. Which company I do not recall, but the gist of the ad was if you get or refinance a mortgage through them, you can buy more things for you and the new house, and thus you are helping the economy.
On the other hand, according to a few too many experts, reformers, and others I’ve heard and read over the past few years, we Americans and Westerners in general need to stop getting so much stuff and to stop desiring and creating more and better stuff. The world is too small for our desires, and we need to think of the underprivileged and impoverished. A smaller lifestyle is better for the world.
So which is it? If you look at my bookshelves and closet, it is far too much. Books spill out of every possible corner, and a few less possible ones, and you open my sweater drawer at your own peril. (Part of that is seasonal – sweaters take up space. Tee-shirts not so much.) I admit that I have too many books and too many clothes and I do not intend to radically change that in the next few weeks. Some of my dresses and suits are older than my students and have made the cycle from in-style to old to painfully out of date to vintage brushing the edge of cool. The books range from sentimental attachment to necessary reference to “It followed me home from the sale bin.”
But if you get rid of the books and clothes (all of which get worn), you won’t find a lot of stuff. I don’t collect anything anymore, aside from dust, consumer electronics are not my thing, and I don’t have sports equipment aside from a set of gym clothes. Compared to that mythical creature, the average American consumer, I don’t spend much money on clothes, eating out, entertainment (books and some music aside), jewelry, accessories (all vintage, as in purchased in the late 1980s), or car stuff and other hobbies.
I’m not doing my part for the US economy. I should be buying stuff, should get a mortgage on a house (or at least renting a nice apartment and buying or renting the necessary furniture), be making payments on the pick-up, eating out more, going to more movies, and consuming things so other people will be able to work at making more goods which will help everyone. And if I go into debt to do so, well, it’s for the good of the country because that money is in circulation instead of under my mattress. Instead of paying off my truck as fast as was possible, I should have financed, then I “could use that money for other things.”
Or am I? The “small-is-beautiful-or-else” crowd would say I’m a wasteful pig who is depriving a Third World family of sustenance by living in a ranch-style house and setting the thermostat above 65 in winter and below 85 in summer. I eat too much (yes. I’m working on that), drive too much, travel too much, and am using up more than my fair share of the planet’s resources. I should live in a very small one bedroom apartment (or an efficiency loft would be even better) with a minimal wardrobe and no car, or a small hybrid. The national economy should shrink, the standard of living should decrease, and the world will be better off because if I live on less, there will be more for other people.
I admit, I’m inculcated with enough of certain religious beliefs and the environmental movement that I do believe you can have too much house. In my opinion, it is wasteful for two people to live in a 27,000 square foot mansion (not counting the garages and staff residences). But that’s their business, and if they have the money to live that lifestyle without hurting other people, hey, they will answer to the Final Authority just like I will. I’ve got my own problems and flaws to answer for. And I don’t resent that they can afford that much house, I just think it’s silly, and I sure as heck don’t want to have to clean and pay taxes on that much building. Ditto a four thousand dollar handbag or a twenty-five-thousand dollar dress. It may be worth that much because of the hand labor in the beading, embroidery and trim, but I don’t really see the point. It is signalling and yay for folks who can afford it. Double yay for people who actually look good in some of those items.
I have no patience for the hypocrisy of people who say that the First World has too much stuff and needs to stop being First World, while standing on the steps of their private or chartered jet and wearing $500 shoes and a $2500 suit. Or who fly to environmental conferences to lecture about traveling too much and the need for a CO2 emissions tax. Or who say we need to buy more stuff just to go into debt to have stuff to encourage people to make stuff for others to buy. Poverty in itself is not a virtue any more than consumption is a virtue. Being a good steward is a virtue. Letting deeds speak rather than pontificating to a captive audience is a virtue.
Historically speaking, the planet is a lot better off now than it has been since Adam decided that fruit salad might be OK and that the snake was worth listening to (so to speak). More people have more food and more access to clean water and vaccinations and antibiotics than ever before. In the First World, the poor people are fat and live to die of excesses or old age. People in the Third World are more likely to be impoverished by bad governments and by cultural inhibitions on economic improvement than by acts of environment. We could have more clean water and a lot of cheap energy around the world, if people would quit panicking at the word “nuclear.”
I believe in moderation in my own life (books being my weakness. Books and skirts. And chocolate. We’ll stop there). I believe that it is better not to waste resources, and that we are rewarded for being good managers of what we’ve been given, which includes our physical and cultural environments. I also believe that making others poorer for the sake of “the Earth” is a kind of sin even if you do not believe in a final accounting with a deity.
How much stuff is too much? When it takes over your life and becomes the focal point of your life, in my opinion. When you can’t see over the stack-o-books is probably another sign. I’m not there . . . yet.