this week’s BIG question

As I’ve noted before, an amazing little discussion is going on every week at Phillips Brooks House in which the undergraduate community is invited together to eat pizza and ponder a BIG question. This closely mirrors the kind of community that we try to facilitate here at Cambridge Common, so I’m excited to offer this space as an extension of their work. This week’s BIG question(s) is:


– How much is too much or too little to spend on a gift for someone else? For yourself? (e.g., an article of clothing.)

– Can we as individual consumers make a significant difference in the world through our purchasing patterns?

– Why has the giving of material things come to so define the holiday season rather than other acts such as volunteering, charitable donations, etc?

So what do you think? Grab hold of one of the questions and share some thoughts, questions and/or wisdom!


12 responses to “this week’s BIG question

  1. I was just curious what, if any, conclusions people came to on Friday on the first question? It seems like we have such a wide range of people at Harvard on this issue, from the people who hardly spend money on things besides books and laundry, to the people who were ‘celebrated’ in The Scene for their Ritz Carlton suites and the like. It seems almost like different groups of us are living in entirely separate universes. (I personally can’t imagine why that student isn’t utterly ashamed of himself for living at the Ritz, by the way!)

  2. Why should he be ashamed of himself for living in a more expensive place than harvard dorms (which really aren’t all that cheap, by the way)? Isn’t that a bit of a dangerous argument? If he should be ashamed of himself because the money he spends on room and board could be spent on something more worthy, like helping AIDS victims in Africa, then maybe we should all give up our extravagances. Maybe we shouldn’t have laptops or cellphones, or nice clothes. Maybe we should sell everything expensive we own and donate that money to a worthy cause.
    Yes, it is tacky to show off wealth in a magazine. No, living in the Ritz is not something to be ashamed of.

  3. What’s tacky is living an extravagent life when millions of people in the world go without. What’s tacky is forgetting the connection each of us as human beings have towards those with whom it seems we share no apparent similarities. Perhaps it’s not inherently wrong to be wealthy; it’s arguable. However, living in the Ritz or living similar lifestyle (with a gratuitous display of wealth) seems to show an inherent disregard for the struggles of others. We all want nice things, yes. No, we don’t need to starve ourselves or deny ourselves the necessities. But what we do need to do is have some balance. Living in the Ritz doesn’t seem very balanced.

  4. (note: I wasn’t at the BIG question, so many apologies if this was already covered)

    It is much easier for many of us who are middle class and upper middle class in American (which is uniformly upper upper class in the context of the world) make ourselves feel better about our relative wealth and privilege (and our inability or unwillingness to sacrifice either) by looking at those who are much wealthier than us (like the young man in Scene) and criticizing him rather than turning that same line of thought on ourselves.

    The second anonymous commenter essentially shows our unwillingness to do this by arguing that, if a slippery slope is applied, that criticism would need to be turned on our own extravagances. She/he seems to be arguing that obviously that’s a bad idea, and therefore it’s all a bad idea. Maybe the opposite is true: it’s a good idea to criticize those who lives in luxury while people suffer and we should apply that lesson to our own actions. People who live with relative privilege (myself included) have a tendency to expect sacrifice from others but not from ourselves, to expect others to pay taxes but we’ll do our best to pay as little as possible, that poor people’s children should get a world class public education but only if it doesn’t take money away from our own children’s suburban public schools, that our society should be more just but someone else should have to work to make it that way (and in the meantime I’m gonna get mine).

    This mentality scares me, not only because I think its a recipe for an increasingly less just society, but because I think it’s a recipe for an increasingly a- and immoral people.

  5. oh, how I so correctly predicted this argument to be taken over by limousine liberals…

    I don’t see consumerism as an all-out evil that we have to suppress. Without it, millions of people around the world wouldn’t have jobs. Do you know how many stores in the US take in the majority of their revenue in the 3 weeks prior to Christmas? Yes, I understand that some of that goes to “the man” or whatever, but a lot of it goes to regular hard-working people trying to keep their kids well-fed. The most feasible change I think needs to be made is to change what percentage of money goes to which people along the value chain.

    But honestly, having everyone stop buying things altogether will only make things worse for all parties in the long run.

  6. i don’t think anybody is saying we should stop buying things, sarika. but there is no excuse for over-the-top conspicuous consumption in a country (even as rich as the USA) where lots of our fellow citizens can barely feed themselves. we all need to examine and lend a critical eye to what we really “need,” what possessions would make us lose our identity not to have, etc. but we need also to challenge the culture in this country that worships material excess by openly attacking those who at the top who are the most egregious examples… right?

  7. People generally like shiny new objects. People with more money will buy more shiny new objects. I think those are two facts that will take a LONG time to change, and probably never will. Realistically speaking, “openly attacking those who are at the top” won’t make everyone wake up one day and realize their materialism is unnecessary and that it won’t take them to a higher level of humanity. An open attack will result in what’s been happening for years: rich people will give a small portion of their money to charity in highly publicized benefit dinners and auctions where they can be surrounded by more rich people and feel better about themselves. But the consumerism will remain.

    I reassert — what would be more effective and useful is to change the percentages allocated to different people along the value chain of a product, so we’re actually helping the “little guys” when we buy something. Starbucks, for example, has a new brand of water available called “Ethos,” which gives part of its proceeds to creating sustainable water supplies in certain developing countries. There’s some controversy with that (they’re giving a much lower percentage than they originally proposed and are spending WAY more on marketing) but it’s a small step in the right direction, I think.

    As nice as it would be to bring Americans back to valuing people more than objects, especially around the holiday season, it’s not gonna happen anytime soon. Sorry to burst anyone’s bubble. I’m all for making a difference, but just think it should be done in viable and sustainable ways.

  8. I don’t understand this kind of fatalism, not because I think that everyone’s going to suddenly give up all of their wealth, but because cultures change. In America in the 1890s, 1920s, 1980s and today we have lived in times of incredible wealth and ostentation, where Trump and Paris Hilton and Scene Magazine are viewed as (and view themselves as) the pinnacles of American success. But things change and, while I don’t think the US will (or should) become a communist nation of massive wealth redistribution any time soon, we CHANGE!

  9. fair enough, but it’s still annoying when harvard students get all self-righteous about their peers who are obviously wealthier (through cars, clothes, apartments, etc…) as if the wealth of the average harvard student (even the ones who are toughing it out in dorms) is not ludicriously ostentatious in comparison to the wealth of say, the average person living in a third world country. It’s easy to point fingers at someone in the ritz, it’s a lot harder to evaluate your own role in the global heirarchy of wealth and ask yourself what you’re doing about that and if you should be “ashamed.”

  10. A very fundamental problem that seems to be overlooked in this thread is the issue of sustainability. To improve the lot of the “little people,” Sarika, is not simply a matter of redistribution of money/resources so that they too can strive for our level of consumption. Biologists have pointed out that were we to somehow manage to extend a US lifestyle to everyone, we would need four more planets to sustain that level of consumption.

    Thus the responsibility we have to reduce our consumption significantly goes beyond avoiding economic downturn by buying a lot during the holidays. It goes beyond respecting the fact that others have less by avoiding Scene-like ostentation. It even goes beyond donating a fraction of the proceeds of some (rather extravagant, in my opinion) Starbucks-brand bottled water to charity. Our responsibility rests in the fact that we simply cannot live the lives we are living and also succeed in raising others up to a similar level of consumption without completely destroying the ecosystems that sustain all of us.

    Although I agree that consumer culture is derived from some pretty typical human behaviors, I don’t think that it is unavoidable, or even unstoppable. I don’t think it’s the “shiny things” so much as the accompanying social status that we crave. After all, what good is a room at the Ritz unless you can show it off to all of Harvard? The “shiny things” are a means to this end, a way of achieving and displaying social status. However, our capitalist democracy has made them the primary means to this end, giving us the “American dream” of bettering oneself through hard work and economic success, in this supposedly meritocratic society.

    I can definitely imagine societies where some other sort of currency serves this purpose, perhaps where people strive for social status by increasing their community presence/involvement, for example. Not that “shiny things” have no social value, but that they are not the primary means of increasing social status. America may not be capable of becoming that sort of society anytime soon (or ever). It certainly would be something to strive for though.

    I certainly don’t have a step-by-step plan for reducing American consumption. Supporting sustainable production methods is a pretty obvious one, I suppose, but can we get most of the country to willingly sign onto that goal? I do think that one of the more promising resources we have are religious leaders, who often are far more willing to side with the left on environmental/sustainability issues than one might expect. Perhaps if more and more of them redirect a bit of their enormous influence towards reducing unnecessary consumption, we’d be onto something.

  11. the Shameful Voice of Cynicism and Doubt

    Kate, you make a really excellent point; that argument, more than anything, really makes me think twice about all of these things….we may tell ourselves that we’re doing something good by purchasing the bottled water that helps children, but nothing mitigates the fact the plastic it comes in will be around *forever* and that my having used it may contribute to some South American villager experiencing significant climate changes and/or loss of resources thanks to my consumption thousands of miles away. Whoa.

    What I still struggle with, though, is how to really effectively effect change on such things. Andrew is definitely right, I think, in pointing out that the answer is not to blame the rich while the middle class plays dumb; on the other hand, so long as we have this false idol of wealth and consumption that is so captivating, so self-involved, and so utterly unconcerned with, say, South American villagers and their quality of life, it’s hard to really feel like my decision to re-use the same plastic bottle for a week or more, or even my donation to Oxfam, or my self-funded trip to help build homes in the South American village, is really going to get to the root of the problem, even if it does sort of put a band-aid on the issue (or at least relieve my conscience) for the time being.

    Obviously, the answer is not to conlcude that I shouldn’t even bother; on the other hand, I find it really frustrating that this seems to be the case (if it even is? I’m sort of secretly hoping that someone can sweep in here and [nicely] say, ‘here’s why that kind of thinking is wrong,’ apart from the idealistic ‘every [non-incredibly rich] person’s actions can make a difference, regardless of what other [incredibly rich] people do’….because that I have a hard time believing sometimes.)

    Basically, how can we convince the privileged to give two shakes about the impoverished if it seems they don’t already, and if we can’t, how much of a difference can we really make? I mean, I guess I’ll keep reusing water bottles, and try to do more to give aid to others when I can, but I really wish that I had some sense of faith that such actions could ever do *anything* to counteract the apathy of those who are (for now at least) infinitely more powerful than I.

    ….please, someone jump in here and say something inspiring — I’m embarassed to even have posted this, except that I’m interested to hear how other people find faith in such matters.

  12. well, on the bright side, just a couple of decades ago, very few people even thought about recycling at all. It took hard work and tremendous consciousness-raising campaigns to reach point where many of us now see recycling not as a radical hippie-environmentalist thing, but as a normal part of life.

    I think Kate is right in that the answer to this problem lies mainly in affecting widespread social attitudes toward excessive consumption. We need to somehow create stigma around consumerism and forge social capital out of sustainability-oriented efforts. This is already beginning to happen slowly, but unfortunately companies manage to turn ‘sustainability’ into a buzzword used to market more products, so consumerism is not undermined but perpetuated. It’s like how a lot of folks use ‘free trade’ and ‘organic’ labels as conscience salve rather than actually trying to reduce their overall consumption.

    So how do we go about shaping social stigma and forging social capital? I don’t know, but we have a few models to work from, even if none are on the scale of consumerism itself.

    And it’s okay that it starts small. For the last three years, for instance, my family and I have donated to our favorite aid organizations the money we would have spent buying Christmas gifts for each other. Of course that kind of thing has a negligable global impact, but it’s something.

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