It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World

This weekend the New York Times published an article about the stagnant economic situation in Japan. (You can read the entire article here.) Over and over, the assumption of the writer is that there is nothing more important in life than having lots of money. And it is a mainstream view. Someday this era is going to be regarded as one of the most deeply deluded in human history.

To wit:

The Japanese “enjoyed a level of affluence two decades ago that was the envy of the world.”

A Japanese man is quoted as saying “Japan used to be so flashy and upbeat, but now everyone must live in a dark and subdued way.”

Japan has been “shriveling from an economic Godzilla to little more than an afterthought in the global economy.”

Japan is currently seen by many economists as “a dark vision of the future.”

Fortunately, Americans have a “greater tolerance for capitalism’s creative destruction.”

Indeed, “In America, the bet is still that we will somehow find ways to get people spending and investing again.” That is, unless we fall into “the same deflationary trap of collapsed demand that occurs when consumers refuse to consume…”

Just two decades ago, Japan was a “vibrant nation filled with energy and ambition, proud to the point of arrogance and eager to create a new economic order…” But “Japanese consumers, who once flew by the planeload on flashy shopping trips to Manhattan and Paris, stay home more often now, saving their money…”

Young Japanese men are “widely derided as ‘herbivores’ for lacking their elders’ willingness to toil for endless hours at the office…”

“Consumers see it as irrational or even foolish to buy or borrow.”

“Bartenders say that the clientele these days is too cost-conscious to show the studied disregard for money that was long considered the height of refinement.”

The head of a consumer marketing research institute has a name for Japanese in their 20s. He calls them “consumption-haters.” “Their habits of frugality will have cost the Japanese economy $420 billion in lost consumption.” “‘There is no other generation like this in the world…These guys think it’s stupid to spend.'”

While this is all about the Japanese, the American writer is entirely sympathetic with those who despair over the young not being willing to chase after wealth or to be “consumers.” I think the point of view reflected in this article is way off the rails.

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5 Responses to “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World”

  1. Diane Says:

    Do you think we all, as people or collectively as a culture, have to go through a stage of hyper-consumption before we can wake up to the hollowness of it? Would we appreciate lives of less consumption more only after getting to experience high consumption first?

    • markbittner Says:

      I don’t know. There were a lot of communes in the 1970s that were experimenting with lowered standards of living in exchange for a more authentic existence. But, for various reasons, most of them collapsed. Having access to money is like being a junky, I think. As long as the dope is available, you can keep going back to it. But there are exceptions. What makes some people exceptional? That’s the question. In any case, someday we’re going to be forced to give it all up, whether we want to or not. We might as well be graceful about it. People who own lots of things find death extremely difficult.

  2. Steven Says:

    Freedom is letting go. We pile things up out of fear, thinking, somehow, the more things, the safer and happier we’ll be. Poverty is not freedom; billions around the world suffer daily, for lack of basic food, shelter, clean water and peace. But we all bring so much pain to each other trying to protect ourselves. From what? Our fear. The only thing we have to fear, is fear itself.

  3. Jenny Says:

    Maybe the Japanese could get back to their Buddhist origins and deal with this economic collapse in a better way. Maybe this is what they are supposed to learn from all this. What the article said is true in that the Japanese (and many other Asian cultures) had become so very materialistic, status conscious and glorified money, and all its trappings, above all else. This will, most likely, end up being a good thing.

    • markbittner Says:

      I agree with you. But I’ve been reading a lot about the history of Zen Buddhism lately and I’ve come to see that Japan, like the West, has been living under a Church version of their religion for a long, long time—meaning, it became disconnected from the source centuries ago. To us here in America (at least to some of us) Zen looked mysterious and deep. But we haven’t known the reality. Suzuki Roshi said that Zen in Japan had gotten corrupted. He was considered a small man by the Zen establishment, but he was superior to them all. It’s difficult to keep any spiritual endeavor vital and true, especially when material is abundant. Witness what happened to Suzuki’s work here. But when you lose your shirt, you have to get serious.

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