Kenny pointed out to me another example of people feeling a yearning for a simpler existence: "What Could You Live Without?" a New York Times op-ed about a family who, at their daughter's urging, downgraded to a smaller home and donated the proceeds to charity. The family experienced a double benefit: not only did they get the warm-and-fuzzies for making an enormous gift to the needy, they also discovered that a smaller house gave them more time together.
The benefits of cutting back are getting renewed attention these days. The recession certainly removed a lot of excess buying power, forcing people to look for happiness that couldn't be bought. The environmentalists, as we had discussed before, consider overconsumption to be a moral issue, since consumption of energy and other resources is what ultimately drives pollution, deforestation, and (is widely believed) global climate change. Kim John Payne, a therapist who recently spoke at our school, published a book called Simplicity Parenting that urged parents to jettison substantial amounts of both material possessions and scheduled activities as a means of making their kids happier and more well-adjusted.
I'm glad that people are rediscovering these truths. But I put the emphasis on re-disovering, since these are hardly new. While some forms of evangelical Christianity have occasionally gotten sidetracked down the doctrine of wealth, the mainstream Christian message has always advised people to "lay up their treasure in heaven" – moral action, not material accumulation, is the secret to happiness. It used to be that thrift – only buying what you needed – was a common-sense virtue, not a startling epiphany.
The Salwens, the family that sold their house, did so because their daughter observed, ""Dad, if that man [in the Mercedes next to us] had a less nice car, that man there [begging for food on the other side of us] could have a meal." While I admire the moral bravery of such a statement, I shudder at its economic naiveté. It's such a small step, intellectually, from wanting to help those in need, to believing that poverty can be "fixed" through a simple redistribution of wealth. It reinforces the massively mistaken notion that economics is a zero-sum game – that someone having more is somehow taking away from those who have less. My ethical heroes are not the sackcloth-and-ashes folks that make "sacrifices," but rather the mega-philanthropists like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, who generate enormous value and wealth by doing what they love, and who then use that wealth for something better than mere conspicuous consumption. You never know – that guy in the Mercedes might have already fed more hungry people than you could even dream of helping with your modest means.