Bernardo M. Villegas
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Avoiding the Evil of Consumerism (Part 1-3)

          There has been much criticism levelled against capitalists and business people who have exaggerated the virtues of free market capitalism.  At least the last three Popes have exposed the very pernicious  results of a system which gave free rein to market competition and the maximization of profit by business enterprises  In fact, Pope Francis has even gone to the extent of saying that untrammelled free market capitalism can kill, that it can lead to great inequity in the distribution of income and wealth within a country and between countries.  Business people are being  advised to balance  their desire for profit with other objectives such as environmental sustainability and a more humane existence for workers and farmers.  There are now fortunately more people in business who are seriously balancing the three P’s:  People, Planet and Profit.  In our country, many more large and medium-sized business firms are practising what is known as Corporate Social Responsibility.  Especially among the millennials, there is a noticeable trend towards  the creation of what are known as social enterprises, businesses which are for profit (to assure sustainability over the long run) but the main purpose of which is make a contribution to solving a social problem or to contribute to the common good, like eradicating poverty, protecting the environment or to promote some desirable human or spiritual values.

         It must be recognised, though, that the extreme desire for material gain can also occur on the side of the consumers.  Now that the Philippines is poised to attain the status of an upper middle income economy in the next three to five years (this was delayed because of the pandemic), it is timely for those who are already enjoying middle income status (those with a per capita income equivalent to US$4,000 to $10,000 per annum) to avoid becoming  prey to an equally evil human weakness, that of consumerism.  I first was introduced to the dark side of consumer spending by my Harvard professor, the famous John Kenneth Galbraith, who in the 1950s through the 1970s was one of the most widely read economists in the United States.  The year before I entered the Ph.D. program in economics at Harvard, Professor Galbraith (who taught us the subject of Economic Development) wrote his best seller “The Affluent Society.”   In that book, he introduced the phrase “conspicuous consumption” that tends to predominate in a society that has reached the level of affluence, in which the vast majority are already enjoying upper middle income status.  Once individuals have satisfied their basic needs like food, clothing, shelter, health and wellness and education, they tend to satisfy “wants” that are created artificially through aggressive advertising and marketing.  People become victims to the “keeping up with the Joneses” syndrome.  Galbraith was especially critical of the contrast between the affluence of the private sector and the squalor of the public sector.  He criticized a system in which human wants are created by the production process itself:  “If the individual’s  wants are to be urgent, they must be original with himself.  They cannot be urgent if they must be contrived for him.  And above all, they must not be contrived by the process of production by which they are satisfied…One cannot defend production as satisfying wants if that production creates the wants.”

 

         What Galbraith perceived in the 1950s in the United States was the origin of what has been labeled as “consumerism” by St. John Paul II in his Encyclical Centesimus Annus.  In that encyclical which celebrated the 100th Anniversary of the first papal encyclical on social issues by Pope Leo XIII (Rerum Novarum in 1891), St. John Paul II wrote:  “Side by side with the miseries of underdevelopment, we find ourselves up against a form of super-development, equally inadmissible. This super-development consists in an excessive availability of material goods for the benefit of certain social groups and makes people slaves of “possession” and immediate gratification, with no other horizon than the multiplication of continual replacement of the things owned with others still better  This is the civilization of consumption or “consumerism”, which involves so much throwing away and waste…All of us experience the sad effects of blind submission to consumerism.  In the first place it represents crass materialism.  At the same time it represents a radical dissatisfaction because one quickly learns that the more one possesses, the more one wants, while deeper aspirations remain unsatisfied and perhaps even stifled.”

 

         Consumerism does a great deal of damage to the individual by bringing him or her to the path of intemperance, to the insatiable greed for material goods.   But it also has adverse consequences for the physical environment.  Already anticipating the Apostolic Exhortation of the future Pope Francis entitled “Laudato Si,” St. John Paul II referred to the ecological damage that results from consumerism: “A second consideration is that natural resources are limited; some are not renewable.  Using them as if they are inexhaustible endangers their availability not only for the present generations but for generations to come.  When the ecological crisis is set within the broader context of the search for peace, we  can understand better the importance of giving attention to what the earth and its atmosphere  are telling us:  that there is an order in the universe which must be respected.  The human person has a grave responsibility to preserve the order for the well-being of future generations.”

 

         Pope Francis, in a homily he delivered on November 26, 2018, in the chapel of his residence, descended to even more concrete details about the evil of consumerism: “Consumerism is a great disease today.  I am not saying that we all do this, no.  But consumerism, spending more than we need, is a lack of austerity in life.:  this is an enemy of generosity….it’s the little things.  For example, take a trip to our rooms, let us go to our closets.   How many pairs of shoes do you have?  One two, three, four, 15, 20—everyone can answer.  A bit too much.  I knew a bishop who owned 40 pairs.  But if you have so many shoes, give half.  It is a way of being generous, of giving what we have, of sharing.”  He called on Christians to be generous with those in need and to pray to God “so that he can free us from the dangers of the evil of consumerism which is a psychiatric disease that can enslave.”  (To be continued.)

 

Avoiding the Evil of Consumerism (Part 2)

 

         Consumerism among those who claim to be Christians can actually be more insidious than atheistic materialism as practised by the Communists  who believe in the Marxist ideology which is intrinsically atheistic.   A Marxist who believes that only matter exists and that there is no such thing as spirit is at least consistent with his belief when he has no regard for human dignity and for the sacredness of life.  A consumerist who is a Christian or at least believes in the existence of the supernatural world betrays his belief because he acts as if the only thing that matters in this world is to keep on accumulating material goods.  To him fulfilment or happiness on earth is equivalent to “having” rather than “being.”  One can hear these consumerists mouthing pious incantations but they behave as if there were no life hereafter.  They have literally made mammon their God.

 

         “Mammon” is the Aramaic term used by Jesus Christ to signify the riches of this world.  As J.M. Lustiger wrote in Secularity and Theology of the Cross, the word “refers to an idol.  Why did Christ allude to an idol?  For two reasons:  first, because an idol is a substitute for God, and second, because of the nature of wealth.  Besides serving as a means of exchange ‘mammon’ also serves as an instrument of power, a means of controlling people and events, a source of contention between persons.  The idol offers man a dominion over Creation which is in direct contradiction to man’s role as revealed by the Creator.”  To be sure, there is nothing inherently evil in material goods which have all come from the hands of the Creator. What can corrupt a man as an “economic animal”, whether a capitalist or a consumer, is a disordered love for material goods.

 

         Referring to the passage in the Gospel about the rich, young man who could have been one of the disciples of Christ but went away sad because he had great riches, Francis Fernandez in the book “In Conversation with Christ,” wrote:  “This is the lesson we learn from the incident involving the rich young man…Christians have to examine frequently their sense of detachment from things, as will be shown in details of the way they live sobriety and temperance.  Am I really detached from the things of this world?  Do I value the needs my of my soul more than the needs of my body?  Do I use material goods in a way that brings me closer to God?  Do I avoid unnecessary expenditures?  Do I refuse to satisfy my whims?  Do I fight against the tendency to create false needs?  Do I take good care of the things I own and of the things I am responsible for? “  It is easy to condemn the behavior of the fictional capitalist  Gordon Gekko in the film “Wall Street” whose motto is “Greed is good!”  This motto is also lived in practice by the individual who falls prey to consumerism.

 

    The pause in consumption brought about by the pandemic may actually be spiritually healthy for a good number of those belonging to upper middle class families who are the ones most prone to conspicuous consumption and extravagant lifestyles.  There is clear evidence of a very large drop in the sales of luxury items like fashion goods, leather products, high-end restaurants, five-star hotels, and leisure trips abroad.  Unfortunately, because of the many lockdowns, there were also precipitous declines in such necessary expenditure items like local transport, educational services and construction by households and nonprofit institutions serving households.  Because of the need for social distancing, there was a very noticeable absence of lavish parties held for weddings, anniversary and birthday celebrations, graduation and social events on which arguably there is excessive spending that could be channeled to investing in enterprises that can generate employment for the millions of unemployed or could be contributed to charity to help the millions of marginalized households to attain more decent living conditions.

 

         It is hoped that the trauma caused to many consumers by the very large drop in incomes and employment during the pandemic may help cure many of us of the disease of consumerism.  In the first place, there will be a reassessment of pre-pandemic consumer behavior among families from the upper middle- and high-income households.  They may have to think twice before resuming their penchant for expensive clothes, lavish parties and celebrations, frequent world tours,  and luxurious homes when they realize that they should have saved more to provide for the stormy days of the pandemic when a good number of their households had to spend enormous sums on medical and hospital bills for their family members who fell sick with COVID-19.  There were also middle-income households  hard hit by the massive lay-offs  that occurred in the travel and tourism sectors, in the hospitality industry and entertainment business.  These families would now be wishing they had been more frugal during their more prosperous days.

 

    Since the Corona virus is expected to linger for a long time, even if and when an effective vaccine is discovered and widely distributed,  our expected upper-middle income society in the next decade or so may be characterized by more prudent consumer behavior that would avoid the excesses of conspicuous consumption.  They may replace their frequent partying and gallivanting around the world with more expenditures related to their health and wellness, to the constant upgrading of knowledge and skills in the so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution and equipping themselves with better hardware and software to adopt to the new normal which will be a highly digitalized society.  Realizing that it will take a long time before the Philippines can enjoy a sufficiently reliable medicare system, they will have to channel more of their incomes to better health insurance and pension systems.  Even if the Philippine economy returns to its original path of growing at above 6 percent per annum in GDP, the memory of the disastrous declines in income and employment may providentially cure middle-income and high-income families of what Pope Francis called the “disease of consumerism.” (To be continued.)

 

Avoiding the Evil of Consumerism (Part 3)                                                                                           

 

         Even for those with very high incomes (earning P100,000 monthly income or more) a possible motive to curb excessive spending on unnecessary consumer goods should be the continuing spectacle of millions of Filipinos suffering from dehumanising poverty.  The target of reducing the poverty incidence to 14 per cent of the population by 2022 will be hard to meet because of the damage done by the pandemic to many Philippine industries, especially to the job-rich sectors like travel and tourism, retailing. transport and the related SME sectors.  Unfortunately, the consecutive lockdowns implemented by the Philippine Government, considered the strictest in the world, have exacted the heaviest toll on the poorest segments of Philippine society.  As economist Nick Poblador wrote in the column “Mapping the Future” in the Inquirer (August 17, 2020):  “Existing survey data shows that nearly four out of every five households earning monthly incomes of under P9,500 have lost jobs due to the imposition of the Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ).  By some estimate, this gruesome figure translates to anywhere between 4 and 5 million unemployed.  A good number of these have no visible sources of income whatsoever and have to rely on dole outs for their day-to-day existence… By contrast, only one-third of households earning between P9,500 and P190,000 suffered a similar fate, many of whom are able to adapt either by working from home or by availing themselves of alternative employment opportunities…We surmise that the most affluent in our society, the so-called 0.1 percent, have remained relatively safe and untouched by the pandemic.  Compare this to with the dismal situation faced by the 10 percent at the opposite end of the economic spectrum, those who are living in abject poverty and suffering under untold conditions of extreme uncertainty and insecurity in regard to their material, physical and psychological well-being.”       

 

  Given this very unfortunate situation resulting from the response of the Government to the pandemic, a minimum sense of solidarity or preferential option for the poor should motivate those with excess income to curb their overspending on unnecessary items so that they can channel their surplus income to charitable works that directly alleviate the sufferings of the poorest Filipinos.  For example, money saved from millions of pesos otherwise spent on lavish celebrations for weddings, birthday parties, and world cruises could be channeled to putting up food banks to feed the hungry, scholarship funds for the children of the poor, and medical clinics for the marginalized.   The rich should be reminded of their obligation to spend their surplus income on improving the material conditions of the poor. For Christians at least, the corporal works of mercy are not optional but obligations imposed by the highest command of Charity.

 

         Each well-to-do family should really start by practising charity towards those closest to them:   the families of their drivers, household helpers, gardeners, their barbers, beauty parlour operators, neighborhood peddlers of miscellaneous items, and sundry suppliers of various services with whom they have done business in the past.   Whatever have been saved by upper-middle income, upper income (but not rich) and rich families, as enumerated in a study of economists of the Philippine Institute of Development Studies (PIDS) , from reduced spending on lavish parties, luxurious goods and other items of conspicuous consumption during the pandemic could be used to help some of these hapless economic victims of the  pandemic survive in the coming months until some recovery is made possible.  These affluent families can also make donations to the many philanthropic  organisations such as food banks, orphanages, parish organisations engaged in helping the poor such as the St. Vincent de Paul Society,  Caritas, etc.  The prompt response of the adults in these well-to-do households can give a very good example to their children who should be taught to be concerned about  the poor from earliest childhood.

 

         The avoidance of a consumerist culture should be nurtured as early as possible in the upbringing of the next generation of  Filipinos.  The hardships brought by the pandemic even among many well-to-do Filipinos remind me of what those of us who spent our childhood during the Japanese occupation saw in the behaviour of our parents and other elders in our households.  I remember that as children, we were told not to leave even a single grain of  rice on our plates after eating.  The “clean plate” policy that China and some countries are now implementing to guarantee food security was actually a practice I remember  as a child.  We had a spinster aunt who would give us children a real thrashing if we left some food on our plate.  We had to make sure that we would get only the appropriate amount of food which we could consume at any given meal.  This practice in the home should be complemented by what some food banks today have convinced food manufacturers and retailers to do:  to contribute their Soon to Expire (SOTEX) food products or their surplus dishes at any given day to a food bank that would take are of collecting these surplus food items and distributing them to orphanages, prisons, feeding clinics, public schools and other agencies or institutions that are engaged in feeding the hungry, the very first corporal work of mercy.

 

    I would apply  a similar strategy to the surplus clothes of well-to-do families.  As Pope Francis was quoted above, upper-middle income and high-income people are advised to look at their closets from to time.  Inevitably, they will discover all types of clothing items and shoes that they have not used for ages but are just accumulating in their wardrobes.  They should gather these obviously superfluous clothes and  send them to parish organisations and other charitable institutions directly in touch with poor families.  In fact, it would be a good practice for married couples, once there is more freedom of movement after all the lockdowns, to bring their children with them to visit some of the poor households in the slum areas of urban centers to spend some time conversing with them and leaving some food and other gift items especially for the children of the poor.  This direct contact of children from the well-to-do families  with the deplorable conditions of poor households can help to nurture in their hearts and minds a desire to  help eradicate poverty when they grow up.  Seeing the plight of the poor could help to minimise, if not totally eradicate, the tendency towards consumerism among the economically well-endowed members of Philippine society.  As early as possible, children should be taught that the preferential option for the poor is a moral obligation for  all those fortunate enough to have more than they need to live comfortably. In this regard, I always remember what St. Josemaria Escriva, the modern saint who taught most about the proper upbringing of children, that parents—no matter how rich—should always keep their children a little short of the money they ask for so that they will appreciate the value of earning their own keep and do not turn out to be spoiled brats.  For comments, my email address is bernardo.villegas@uap.asia