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Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Cheap Stuff

Culture: We've all worked too hard to acquire too much while enjoying too little.

March 27, 2000|GARY HAMEL | Gary Hamel, author of "Leading the Revolution," forthcoming from Harvard Business School Press, is a visiting professor at London Business School and a research fellow at Harvard Business School

Today, ordinary Americans enjoy a level of material prosperity unmatched by most of history's potentates. Yet Americans seem more anxious, more cynical and more downright exhausted than at any time since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. There's a palpable yearning for something deeper and more enduring than big screen TVs, Caribbean cruises and gourmet cookware. American industry may be more competitive than ever before and American workers more prosperous, but where is the joy, the hope, the contentment?

While Silicon Valley creates a new millionaire every hour, the rest of America has been trudging along on a never-ending efficiency death march. From Syracuse to South Bend to San Antonio, employees chant out the cadence of pre-millennial capitalism: cheaper, better, faster. What is driving them down this arduous, emotionally empty path?

Some blame Wall Street. They argue that Americans are working harder and longer to fill the maw of profit-hungry shareholders and greedy CEOs plumping up the value of their stock options. Still others blame footloose corporations ready to flock to wherever environmental restrictions and worker protections are most lax.

Yet few among the disaffected Dilberts and anti-corporate activists are willing to admit that it is they, not shareholders or avaricious moguls, who have produced this dispiriting state of affairs. Every discontented employee is both producer and consumer. As producers they are fed up and worn out, but as consumers they are, quite literally, impossible to satisfy.

And it is those demands, reverberating through every nook and cranny of the economy, that leave so many feeling like they work in well-ventilated, nicely carpeted sweatshops. As producers they bemoan the grinding pace of their jobs. As consumers, they demand 59-cent tacos, $199 coast-to-coast flights, instantaneous delivery, a never-ending cavalcade of new products and, oh yes, don't forget, 24/7 tech support.

The protesters at the World Trade Organization talks in Seattle were chasing the wrong culprit. It's not faceless corporations that are responsible for capitalism's sometimes rapacious instincts. It's us. A chicken in every pot has become two SUVs in every garage. American consumers have rewritten the Bill of Rights: life, liberty and more cheap stuff.

At the beginning of the 21st century, the essential conflict is not between totalitarianism and democracy, nor is it between marauding corporations and helpless employees. It is between our consuming, acquisitive and materialistic selves and our family-rearing, community-building, spiritual selves.

You don't have to wear Birkenstocks, belong to the Sierra Club or drive a rusting Volvo to sense the need for a little less stuff and a little more satisfaction in our lives. Each of us can choose whether to shop for bargains at "Giganticorp" or savor a little personal service from "Mom-and-Pop Inc." Each of us can say no to that special assignment that will mean more late nights and fewer family nights. Each of us can decide whether having our spouse work is an economic necessity or the price we've been seduced into paying for more things. Chances are, the wheel of progress will keep turning, even if you're no longer strapped to it.

John von Neumann, the Hungarian-born physicist and computer pioneer, once remarked that materialism had saved America from foolish ideologies. Americans, he observed, are nothing if not pragmatic. No Quixotic causes here, just the enthusiastic pursuit of things.

But what if the foolish ideology is materialism? Maybe we've all worked too hard to acquire too much while enjoying too little. Perhaps the way to ring in the new millennium is for our covetous consumer sides to give our weary producer sides a break. There'll be more than enough cheap stuff to choose from tomorrow.

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