One of my deepest difficulties as a reader and a researcher is my tendency to chase footnotes and citations, sometimes until I wander off permanently from the primary text. It was a real pain in grad school, because it usually ended up with other people thinking I was showing off my extensive reading. That’s not really what I was after; mostly, I just get curious. For example, even though I read and didn’t really care for Thoreau’s Walden, I just ordered a cheap dover copy since I hate e-books and PDFs. I blame Jerome Segal. It may not be obvious that’s what I was doing when I wandered down the alleys of some of the recent posts.
I’m still trying to process the Segal (and EP Thompson’s book on William Morris too, for that matter). It’s hard to try to focus when there are so many interesting topics at hand. To recap a bit, I summarized the basic framework Segal establishes for impoverishment and listed his criteria for a so called “Aristotelian approach” to political life.
Segal invokes Jimmy Carter’s Crisis of Confidence speech , focusing particularly on the lines:
“Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we’ve discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning.”
There are some interesting rabbit holes to fall down in this book. I had encountered Edward Bok before in a journalism independent study back when I was working on my master’s degree, but didn’t realize until Segal brought it up that his magazine, Ladie’s Home Journal, was a big proponent of “simple living” at the turn of the twentieth century. I’ve trolled their archives on ProQuest for a while, finding all sorts of things that I won’t get lost in here. As Zoe Nyssa once remarked, my mind is a strange and mysterious place.
Segal summons John Woolman, Ben Franklin, and Thoreau to establish a different version of the “American Dream” that begins with simple living. It’s an alternate sort of economics, which he sums up:
The point of an economy, even a dynamic economy is not to have more and more; it is to liberate us from the economic—to provide a material platform from which we may go forth and build the good life. That’s the Alternative American Dream. (22)
The material that follows isn’t really as interesting as the primary sources he cites. He’s got a survey of various “simple living” self-help books, and some political policy arguments about the state of NRI (needs related income) and the difficulties of simplifying things when it’s actually harder to get enough money to maintain a basic standard of living than it has been in the past. Segal has some unique and concrete policy ideas working within existing government programs, like the earned income credit and medicaid, to assist people in finding a better basic quality of life. The general conclusion, after exploring the increasing costs of security, education, transportation, housing, etc. is this:
A general picture emerges. Yes, Americans over the years have increased consumption expenditures quite considerably. Much of this increase in household expenditure has gone to meet fundamental needs, either because needs were previously unmet, or because in real terms the cost of meeting these needs has increased dramatically.
This is quite a different picture than is commonly portrayed of our affluent society. For most Americans, their subjective experience that they always need more money than they have—is not to be explained by inflation in their appetites or standards of decency (e.g.”I must have more square feet, a newer car, better furniture, new gadgets, or I’ll just die), but rather by socioeconomic conditions that have resulted in unmet need or increased cost of meeting long-existing needs. (65)
It’s Segal’s framing of these “unmet” or “long-existing” needs that I find most fascinating. He actually discusses aesthetic impoverishment. It’s not something you see much outside of Morris and other Arts and Crafts literatures. In a long series of bullet points he frames a social conception of beauty that has some interesting twists, which I’ll turn to next. It’s almost socialist in its approach rather than individualist; coming on the heels on so much about standard economic needs, it’s a surprise. Rather than the conventional “ugly American” indictment of consumerism, Segal is on to something quite different.