For as long as I can remember, I’ve always thought about waking up obscenely early the morning after Thanksgiving, to check out the goings-on at the toy or department store. Not because I wanted to shop, but to visit the safari — it’s always struck me as quite the exotic mystery, why anyone would want to walk away from a calm morning with family or friends to fight for a parking spot. Of course, now indelibly imprinted in our brains are news images of packed stores on Thanksgiving night itself.
For as long as I can remember, my friend and colleague Jonah Goldberg has been outraged by Kay Jewelers. “Every kiss begins with Kay,” suggests the prostitution of women, in his mind. Diamonds might not be a girl’s best friend, but I’ve never shared his chivalrous outrage. That is until catching one of the more recent Kay commercials, for Jane Seymour’s “Open Hearts” collection. A gentleman caller gives a young girl a replica of the necklace he had already given her mother, leaving viewers with the impression that the price of modern love is the mother-daughter bling that “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman” can sell you.
In his book “Shiny Objects: Why We Spend Money We Don’t Have in Search of Happiness We Can’t Buy,” James A. Roberts examines this excessive materialism. Roberts asserts: “Many Americans lack the ability to imagine any life but one focused on the pursuit of material possessions.” Looking at the Black Friday hoopla, it’s hard not to agree.
“We work to spend and must work more to feed a never-ending desire for more,” Roberts tells me. “The average Baby Boomer heading into retirement has saved an average of $50,000. That’s barely enough to get them through the first year, let alone the 20 years most of us will live past retirement.”
Even in painful economic times, we do have a lot more than we need. And perhaps it is because of this materialistic cliff that our government faces a fiscal one.
“Given that most Americans would readily admit that money and material possessions are not going to make us happy, why do we continue to act as if they will?” Roberts asks.
“iPhones embody the very essence of the ‘Shiny Objects’ ethos,” Roberts tells me. “They are very expensive and need to be updated constantly to stay abreast of all of the new features and apps being offered. Apple has fully embraced the strategies of planned and perceived obsolescence to keep us spending more than we can afford. It’s a classic strategy used in many, if not all, industries as a way to keep bringing consumers back to the cash register.”
We might not think of Madonna’s “Material Girl” as our theme song, but that old hit still captures something about the way we live today.
It’s why there’s something incredibly timely about the talk of sacrifice in the air. Catholic bishops, who met in Baltimore this month, discussed following the lead of the bishops in Britain, who have reintroduced the discipline of abstaining from meat on Fridays as an “external act of penance, so necessary to fight the reign of sin so evident in our personal lives, in the world, and even within religious communities,” as New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan has put it. But it needn’t take scandal, bankruptcy, or a hurricane to remember the “essentials of life that no wind or wave can wipe out — love, faith, hope, life itself, family, friends, a future and a community that has let (people) know they are not alone,” as Dolan wrote recently.
“Shiny Objects” isn’t so much a resource for condemnation as a catalyst for change. Fewer shiny objects this Christmas might give us an opportunity to enjoy one another, to move forward together in love, rather than in an exchange line, clutching gift receipts.
“‘Shiny Objects’ was written with two broad objectives in mind,” Roberts explains. “The first was to make a compelling argument that more money and possessions will not make us happier.” Again, we may think we know this, but does our budget this month suggest something else? Once the disease is diagnosed, Roberts, a professor at the business school at Baylor University, offers a prescription: “The last four chapters explain how these new attitudes about money and possessions can be put to work in the reader’s life.
Roberts’ book might save you this time of year. For as Roberts says, quoting Albert Einstein: “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.” Fewer shiny objects means more room for riches.
Kathryn Lopez is the editor of National Review Online. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.