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Culture

Occupy Materialism

Barron Harper | Apr 23, 2014

PART 1 IN SERIES Occupy Materialism

The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the official views of the Baha'i Faith.

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Barron Harper | Apr 23, 2014

PART 1 IN SERIES Occupy Materialism

The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the official views of the Baha'i Faith.

Yacht Lady Moura AntibesThis is Part 1 of Occupy Materialism :

Phil Everly died this January. Together with his brother Don, the Everly Brothers duo helped shape Rock and Roll music in the late 1950’s, their perfect harmonies and upbeat songs just right for that optimistic age. As I made my way through secondary school, the Everly Brothers set the tone for poetic liaison, youthful endeavor and my high hopes for the positive economic possibilities ahead.

The Everyly Brothers

The Everyly Brothers

A highly affordable American economy reinforced those possibilities. The costs of goods and services, including a college education, were cheap. In 1963 the family breadwinner might earn a $7,500 annual salary out of which was spent $60 a month to rent a house, 21 cents a gallon for gasoline, and $25 a week for groceries. Tuition costs at a state university were less than $500 a year — and student loans never entered into that equation. Setting out to claim my share of the American dream, I eagerly embraced the idea that consumption would allow me to take a shortcut to status, happiness and security.

But within a few years of graduating from high school, my enthusiasm ebbed. Rising costs of living had begun to outpace the earnings of many middle-income families. A three-bedroom home that cost $18,000 in 1963 soared 330% within 15 years. By the late 1970s, women entered the workplace in increasing numbers, seeking careers and the income they needed to shore up the typical working family’s declining standard of living. Bearing witness to this disconcerting trend, I wondered what formula could be applied that might assure these families their share of the dream?

One formula called “trickle-down economics,” named by the humorist Will Rogers and popularly touted by politicians and financiers, claimed that the benefits accruing from economic expansion must inevitably ‘trickle-down’ to middle and low income families from the increasingly prosperous wealthier classes. But things didn’t quite work that way. As upper income earners steadily accumulated more wealth, investments in industry and commerce which created good jobs were increasingly siphoned off into financial portfolios — the earnings of which, by natural consequence, could not ‘trickle down’.

The economic realities affecting the majority of humans on the planet had, by the dawn of the new millennium, discredited trickle down economics. That theory didn’t work, and not only Americans learned that lesson. Instead, fully 50% of the world’s population struggled to subsist on less than $2.50 a day. More than 27,000 children were dying each day from conditions of poverty. A billion people remained illiterate or undernourished. The prosperous, middle-class-building economies of the last century had transferred the majority of their wealth to a small group of the very rich.

As my baby-boomer generation morphed from the 1960’s predilection for protest into yuppies out for their share of the economic pie, some of them would join that top 20% of wealthy Americans who by 2013 would control 84% of the nation’s wealth. Increasingly invested in financial portfolios at home and abroad, the American nation would begin counting as casualties blue and white collar workers finding themselves downsized, victims of disappearing pension benefits, bankrupted by escalating health care costs, distracted by subtle consumer and financial fees, mired in debt, excluded from education, and denied the disposable income so essential to a strong economy.

Madoff Appears in Federal Court

Madoff Appears in Federal Court

Viewing these sad conditions when I returned to America after living abroad for twenty years, I wondered whether 80% of the population had somehow fallen victim in a strange sort of way to a Ponzi scheme, in which titans of finance and politics had colluded to draw off and sequester the wealth of my previously prosperous country. When the Occupy protests began, highlighting the great gap between the one percent of our society that owns so much of our resources and the 99% on the other side of the equation, I couldn’t help thinking of the Baha’i teachings on economic injustice:

A financier with colossal wealth should not exist whilst near him is a poor man in dire necessity. When we see poverty allowed to reach a condition of starvation it is a sure sign that somewhere we shall find tyranny. – Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, p. 153.

But what troubled me more was what the Guardian of the Baha’i Faith had written in the 1950’s about our culture’s crass materialism:

…which lays excessive and ever-increasing emphasis on material well-being, forgetful of those things of the spirit on which alone a sure and stable foundation can be laid for human society. – Shoghi Effendi, Citadel of Faith, p. 124.

We have inherited that same cancerous materialism, denounced by Baha’u’llah, the Founder of the Baha’i Faith, as “a devouring flame,” and “the chief factor in precipitating the dire ordeals and world-shaking crises that must necessarily involve the burning of cities and the spread of terror and consternation in the hearts of men.” – ibid, p. 124.

How can we find the balance between economic justice and the overwhelming materialism in our cultures? What can we do about the extremes of wealth and poverty? How can the enormous wealth of our world be equitably shared? Please follow along as we explore these powerful topics, take a serious look at our material and spiritual resources, and try to understand the balance.

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Comments

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  • John Barnabas Leith
    May 6, 2014
    -
    I look forward to reading the next article in the series. Just a thought about the use of the term "materialism". In philosophical terms 'materialism' refers to the belief that nothing exists other than matter. The term has slid over to refer to what Shoghi Effendi refers to as "excessive and ever-increasing emphasis on material well-being". I am sure you will unpack the term, its denotations and connotations, during the course of the series.
  • sahbapasta
    May 5, 2014
    -
    Great article, Barron. Thanks.
  • Andy Adams
    Apr 24, 2014
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    Yes, the article is excellent in so many respects. Will re-read the article and try to add a few pensive comments. Thank you for this very good writing.
  • Craig Shere
    Apr 24, 2014
    -
    In reference to the selfish-ism point, agree that materialism is not the
    problem. But disagree that self-interest is a problem. Until the word of God so
    permeates the planet that a new race of men develop (hopefully in the next
    couple hundred years), self-interest is the only engine by which society can
    progress. We've experimented as a world civilization with a great many kinds of
    collectivism, from two hundred person Kibbutzim to billion+ person communist
    nations. What we've found is that human beings lacking the vivifying power of
    God's word, only look after things/create things/improve things when they have
    "skin ...in the game." But this "resurrection" of human spirit
    to come is not simply a revelation for wealthy people - it is for ALL people.
    If a simple re-distribution of resources were all that was needed, over time we
    should see a significant improvement in progress, invention, and lifestyles for
    lottery winners and societies that have gone all the way in socialist/communist
    re-distribution of wealth. But many poor lottery winners most often find their
    winnings are a curse and socialist societies tend to just stagnate (look at
    Ghana vs. South Korea, both starting with similar GDP/capital in the 1950s). The
    greatest threat to human development and perpetuation of poverty is the concept
    of "scarcity." Simply put, God would not put his creation in a
    limited resources, winner takes all environment where more and more mouths must
    fight for fewer and fewer goods. If one believes that is the hellish world in
    which he lives, then one makes VASTLY different decisions (both productive and
    moral) than if one believe (accurately so) that they exist in a world of
    absolute abundance. Imagine for a moment, you are one of 10 people stranded on
    a desert island with no way of communicating with the outside world. Quickly
    assessing life sustaining needs, everyone agrees to have two members with more
    carpentry skills to construct and maintain housing and the remaining 8 members
    go off each day with long sharpened sticks (spears) to catch fish. Suppose this
    lasts a year until one of the eight fishermen and one of the builders decide to
    work together to morph woven building rope into a fish net capable of catching
    the same fish in a morning as eight men with spears can do all day. The moment
    this is unveiled, you've got 7 unemployed men on the island (a 70% unemployment
    rate). Is that a problem? If you think it is a problem, you might respond by
    killing or beating up the inventors in an effort to steal the net on behalf of
    the collective (of course, without the knowledge of how to make new ones, over
    time the net will fray and now 7 men will be trying to spear fish every day).
    If, however, you live in a world of abundance, you might say "Hey John -
    what a great idea. You've done something that can really improve the quality of
    life on the island. If we now let you focus exclusively on fishing, what
    services (art, boat building, back rubs, kite manufacturing, etc.) would you
    value in exchange for your expanded services? Or you might say, "Golly
    John, this really frees up a lot of manpower. Would you be willing to supply
    all the fish for 6 months while the other 7 of us try to design a way to get us
    all off the island?
    Read more...
  • Alethinos95
    Apr 24, 2014
    -
    Excellent article sir! In my teaching work at various universities (i'm one of a million 'itinerant professors' these days) my students and I speak of this subject often. I was a key figure in Occupy Portland. It was amazing to see the eagerness with which the Baha'i concepts were so quickly taken up by so many. Thank you for your post.
  • AJ-Atheist
    Apr 24, 2014
    -
    Materialism isn't itself bad. The problem is selfish-ism. People only care about themselves and work for their own interest.
    • Andy Adams
      Apr 24, 2014
      -
      Bingo! You hit the nail right on the head. We were extremely poor growing up and I have always disliked being poor. I pursued financial stability for many years. But eventually a balance (a happy balance) has been achieved between my needs and my wants. Our wants are many and our needs are few. Consumerism is a function of "selfish-ism" - give me more at any cost etc.
      • AJ-Atheist
        Apr 28, 2014
        -
        Current American policies make the rich richer and the poor poorer.
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