During the past few years, I have taken several trips to Southern Florida to visit family members living in Fort Lauderdale. Only two years ago, I remember being amazed at how opulent the lifestyle was in places like Palm Beach, Boca Raton, and Ft. Lauderdale, even compared to the excesses of my native Long Island. Skyrocketing real estate prices had encouraged speculation in the housing market, and middle class entrepreneurs were buying up all the homes that they could get their hands on in order to capitalize on what seemed to be a golden ticket to easy riches. Expensive restaurants were filled to capacity, high-end stores in mammoth shopping malls were doing record business, and sales of luxury items like yachts and sporty convertibles (a must for men going through mid-life crises) were booming.
The situation changed dramatically when I returned for this year’s visit. For one thing, due to the inevitable housing crisis housing, prices have plummeted 15-20% and sales of existing homes have dropped 28%. Visiting a colleague in Boca Raton—one of the great meccas of conspicuous consumption in the United States—I was shocked to see foreclosure signs all over the city and million dollar homes sitting vacant with no one to buy them. The situation for middle class homeowners in Florida is even more precarious, since their consumption over the past three decades has been even more inextricably intertwined with the equity in their homes. In a Sun-Sentinel poll conducted on April 4th, one-third of respondents in Broward County, where the poll was conducted, reported being afraid of losing their jobs in the current economic downturn. In short, things are not looking good for the overall health of the economy of southern Florida.
Given all this, one would assume that people--like my dear extravagant sister living in Fort Lauderdale--would begin to dramatically decrease their levels of consumption and try to live a bit more frugally—at least until this current economic storm passes. If this is happening, I have not noticed it. The high priced malls in Boca and Fort Lauderdale seem to be as full of shoppers as ever, the waiting times to get into decent restaurants doesn’t seem to have diminished at all, and the lines for $5.00 frappuccinos at Starbucks hasn’t seemed to have gotten any shorter.
All this “data” is anecdotal, of course, but it is not at all dissimilar from what I have observed elsewhere. The economy is tanking, but Americans seem incapable of doing the logical and prudent thing, which would be to cut back—perhaps dramatically—on their bloated lifestyles. As mentioned earlier, the explanation for this paradox is quite simple: the identities of most Americans are so wrapped up with their ability to consume that any attempt to reduce consumption would create a massive sense of identity-loss (If we are not the stuff that we possess, then who or what are we?).
The corporate-owned media, of course, would like to maintain this link between human identity and consumption, so everything we see on television or in the movies, or read in our daily newspapers and magazines, reinforces the idea that happiness can only be attained by buying into the materialistic lifestyle that has come to dominate American culture. But we really shouldn’t cast all the blame on greedy corporations and their media stooges. The real fault lies primarily in us. We are the ones who refuse to recognize that happiness can’t come from owning a $300 pair of sunglasses or a $500 pocketbook. Until we start to accept this ridiculously simple fact, and to change our lives accordingly, we will continue to be consumed by the very items which we ourselves so lasciviously consume.