THE SOFT TYRANNY OF LOW EXPECTATIONS

Greg Giraldo, another brilliant dead guy, from his final CC special (and album) "Midlife Vices":

The economy's been terrible, of course. But you know what? There's some good things about the economy being so bad. People are keeping things in perspective for the first time ever. It's unbelievable, people saying things like, "you know what? I hate my job, but in this economy, I'm happy just to have my job. A lot of people don't have their jobs, you know? I didn't get a raise this year, but in this economy, I'm happy just to have what I have. A lot of people don't have that. I have a shit car, But in this economy, I'm happy I still have my car. A lot of people don't even have cars in this economy.

This is the setup for, of all things, a buttsex joke. Giraldo was well above average at the "Let's get serious for a moment…" setup with a completely juvenile punchline. But the reason that the audience bites on this intro is that it is quite true. The Great Recession has prompted a noticeable downshift in the kind of out-of-control materialism that we all love to decry. For the first time in my lifetime, people seem to be unashamed of, you know, buying used things, or making things, or driving small cars, or specifically avoiding all of the usual American "Hey look at how much money I have!" behaviors (that usually signified little more than a high tolerance for borrowing money – but that's another story). Lazy journalists have told the story of "Downshifting" repeatedly since 2008, those endlessly derivative Sunday magazine features about Bonnie and Dale who used to make $250,000 per year, got laid off, and now understand the simple pleasures of used Volvos*, NPR, recycling, knitting sweaters, camping vacations, and planting an organic kale garden.

It's understandable why people think this is a good thing. Certainly the attitudes in our society toward wealth, consumption, and quality of life were (and remain) seriously out of whack in recent years. The kind of values these stock characters exemplify – thrift, simplicity, and so on – also happen to be in line with my own. I should be happy about people "keeping things in perspective for the first time ever." But every time I hear these stories I want to find the responsible six-figure-earning segment producers responsible for it and go on a choking spree. "Keeping things in perspective" is a good idea, except, as is the case in this great experiment in economic insecurity without social upheaval, when it is a more polite way of saying "Lower your expectations" and "Know your place."

It would be great if Americans decided to drive small cars because they realize "Hey, a three person household doesn't need a damn SUV!", but that suggests behaviors changing due to lessons learned. What these tales always imply, though, is that people are merely learning to (insert trite phrase like "make do with less" here). They traded the SUV for a small car because they can't afford the SUV anymore. People aren't "downshifting" because it struck them that working 60 hours per week is a waste of one's life; they're doing it because some guy in Indonesia is now doing their job.

Someone with a sunnier disposition might consider this a net positive regardless. Anything that makes Americans behave less like teen girls let loose in the mall with an unlimited credit card has to be good, right? The problem is that we have all seen the data repeatedly and we know that some Americans – not many, but some – are doing extraordinarily well these days. Far from downshifting their lifestyles, they're doing the exact opposite. If I was a cynic, I might think that all of this Luddite glorification of gardening and handcrafts and home cooked meals and bicycling and thrift was just a way for the people in control to streamline costs. And that's without even getting into the further shift in the employee-employer balance of power implied by lines of reasoning like, "My job sure does suck a lot of ass, but I should be happy just to have it!"

I want to buy used clothes and repair them with a sewing kit because I want to buy used clothes and repair them with a sewing kit – not because I work full time and can't afford a $15 pair of new jeans. There's a big difference between those two scenarios, a difference that journalists and social commentators – lovers of subtlety, one and all – have neglected to appreciate. Shocking, I know.

* This autocorrects to "vulvas." Be careful.

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31 Responses to “THE SOFT TYRANNY OF LOW EXPECTATIONS”

  1. Devon Says:

    Where the hell are you getting new jeans for $15?

  2. Middle Seaman Says:

    The book of Job tells the story of a rich and devout man being treated like shit by god and on purpose to make a point. Job's friends watch and don't really learn. The message they get is: if you broke your leg, you weren't careful enough. If lightening hit your house, god has a reason to be against you. They aren't that blunt, but they do think this way.

    Nobody ever learns to be humble. Your are humble when a big guy keeps you pinned to the ground.

    So go fish.

  3. Neal Deesit Says:

    I'm with autocorrect on this: used vulvas can be a great source of simple pleasure.

  4. eau Says:

    This girl I know recently had kids and swapped her neat little compact for a giant, clapped out Vulva. Took her a while to get used to handling it, but man, when she gets that thing out on the street, it sure turns heads!

  5. eau Says:

    Aarrgh! Auto-correct!

  6. c u n d gulag Says:

    Constantly lowered expectation, is what our Masters want, as they set-up a Dominionist Christian Fascist nation, where most of us will be left happy just to have some food, water, and shelter.

    My Mother, who was born and raised until the age of 9 in Stalingrad, whose family family left Russia with the Germans, and who all spent time in Work, Concentration, and finally, Relocation Camps, knows from lowered expectation.

    Every once in awhile, when I make something to eat, she'll say it's "luxurious" in Russian.
    And I'll say, "Mom, tuna salad isn't luxurious. Stop using that word!"
    And she says something to the effect that when you had nothing to eat for weeks, and little for years, and nothing but dirty ground water to drink, tuna salad is, indeed, "luxurious."
    And how do you argue with that?
    You don't.
    You can't!!!

    And that's our future – for most of us, anyway.
    The Master will have everything, and crumbs from their tables will seem like filet mignon – even if it's just bread crumbs.

    And our national anthem can then be changed to "Serfin' usa…"

  7. Arslan Says:

    What they're basically trying to do is get Americans used to lowered standards of living, so that they will eventually become competitive with workers in Asia.

  8. Tim H. Says:

    Pathetic that the corporate overlords think reduced wages won't impact their sales.

  9. Arslan Says:

    Actually Tim, some of them may think exactly that. A number of industries have noted that they make more of their profits overseas than in the domestic market(Pepsi being one of them). With the growing markets of China, India, Brazil, and Russia, Americans can take a big hit while these corporations still rake in the same if not higher profits.

  10. Anonymouse Says:

    Thanks for this. Lately there's been a lot of right-wing blather about The Waltons and Little House on the Prairie being "role models' for how Americans should live. It kept driving me nuts and I couldn't put my finger on quite why; I remember liking those shows when I was a kid. You've shined a light on it–we're being forcibly accustomed to having nothing and being told to like it; if Mary Ellen got by in one ripped pair of overalls and was HAPPY TO HAVE THEM, why, we should be, too, while Ann Romney who's never worn an outfit twice in her life tries to decide just which of her seven homes to ship one of her $100,000 dressage horses to

  11. John Says:

    The first time my supervisor asked me to work some insane overtime to meet a patently retarded deadline, I said no. When that supervisor reminded me, "But remember, we'll be paying you big overtime for it!", and I repeated No, their eyes widened a bit.

    The second time this sort of incident occured, I didn't have to repeat myself.

    I've been at my job for a good number of years, and have been receiving steady increments up the payscale at it, mostly because it is well known that I am one of the best at what I do for this company. But I am not a slave to this company, and I made that quite clear from the outset. The first time that came up as an issue, the folks upstairs were surprised. Genuinely shocked that anyone would fight back and declare, "No, I am not your serf."

    And so I make less than I could, if I chose to put in stupidly long hours. I drive a beat-up car from 12 years ago, I rent a small studio apartment (gradually saving for a very small house, if only to eliminate monthly payments), and I do not have all of the latest iGadgets. But my basic needs are met, as well as a good number of my wants, and the pursuit of money for its own sake strikes me as an empty goal. I realize that not everyone can live like this — but I suspect that if more did, this country would be in much better shape.

  12. Major Kong Says:

    As a "union thug" (ALPA) I'm protected from the worst of this by my contract.

    Likewise the "Jack-booted government regulators!" (FAA) have rules in place that limit the # of hours I can be made to work.

  13. Douche Baggins Says:

    I refer to the shift away from ostentatious consumerism and towards more thoughtful consumption as "the New Normal."

    Greg Giraldo is dead? Really? I already had his soul pegged as "dead" from watching roasts — now his body dead too?

  14. anotherbozo Says:

    "…and the pursuit of money for its own sake strikes me as an empty goal."

    John reminds me how often in the art world—which I inhabit—we encounter the Newly Rich with checkbook balances that prove how good they've been at making money but who have seemingly no other assets, like what to do with it. Far from knowing what kind of art they want to buy, or knowing what it's for, they've lived lives without time to develop any other side of themselves, like their tastes, intellects, curiosity, etc. Babies with big wallets and talents for making them bigger. Most of them buy art that other people respect, that are good status symbols or good investments. Otherwise they're lost. The same with yachts, opera memberships, houses in the Hamptons, etc. They live symbolic lives outside of their jobs because they've been trained in only one thing

    And of course their politics reflect the same infantile, inchoate level of development.

    How such billionaires as the Koch Brothers can be so retarded outside their limited sphere of expertise. It's the American Way, or at least is now.

    Where have you gone, Thomas Jefferson, our nation turns its lonely eyes etc. etc.

  15. Pat Says:

    Somewhere in the back of my head, the ideas presented in this piece are banging up against the bits from David Foster Wallace's commencement address at Kenyon. You know the parts I'm talking about, the bit where the asshole driving the monster SUV in front of you in the queue to exit the grocery parking lot might be, you know, not an asshole for driving an SUV but probably is on the phone worrying about a sick kid or have any of a thousand other problems and anyway we should be as skeptical of our own cultural perceptions as we are of the cultural framework giving rise to the literature we have deconstructed and blah blah blah blah blah.

    Wallace had his share of frustrating limitations, but he was the most astute observer of the absurdities in this American life, this among them: Most people simply do not have the mental bandwidth, once you take jobs and kids and insurance and looking for apartments and do I have to go to that PTA meeting and did I remember to get cat food and subtract all of the neurons it takes to think about that, most people simply don't have enough left over to think about the questions that one would assume would be the first ones they should be asking. I'm no expert, but my rough understanding of the new neuroscience studies coming out is that our brains are really like ocean liners where all hands are stoking the engine fires, keeping the lights on, filling the water tanks, cooking the meals, setting the dining room tables, sorting out the first class cabins, etc., etc., but no one is actually manning the crow's nest or steering the ship. Most of what we do is informed by habit, not thought. So it's really no wonder we're always (sorry for the timely 3-D metaphor) running into icebergs. Conditions of material want can change behavior, as can big shifts in culture (if often in unexpected ways—remember what we thought the Internet was going to be in 1993?). But simply too few people are even aware of the decisions they're making for much else to do so. Ideas, f'rinstance, ain't got a chance.

    Or I guess another way to put it is that although "[s]omeone with a sunnier disposition might consider this a net positive regardless," someone with an even sourer outlook (but, I maintain, a clearer eye) would nevertheless conclude it's all that really can be hoped for.

  16. acer Says:

    @Arslan:

    It takes a True Real American Patriot to bone America in the ass like that.

  17. Ellie Says:

    The couple formerly making $250,000 now living on $60,000 may be learning An Important Lesson about What's Really Important.

    The couple formerly making minimm wage now trying to stretch the soon-to-expire unemployment benefits to cover food and rent with no new jobs in sight, or the debt-saddled former student who can't find a first job at all, or the umpteenth generation growing up in ginding poverty with no way out are learning…what, exactly?

    Journalists don't ask about those people's lessons quite so much.

  18. Ben Says:

    Great post. Political economy doesn't get talked about enough, but the cultural interaction with political economy doesn't get talked about, period.

    I think Giraldo's a bit overrated (even before his death) but he's undeniably the best out of that Colin Quinn / Nick DiPaolo / Jim Norton / Patrice O'Neal group.

  19. Mo Says:

    Pat – am re-reading Daniel Kahneman's Thinking: Fast and Slow, and he pretty much verifies your mind-as-an-ocean-liner metaphor insofar as operating on habitual autopilot.

    Except, sometimes the crew below decks does indeed summon the slackmeister bridge for a steering decision. And boy, are most of us in trouble then!

  20. terraformer Says:

    Yeah, we're getting that mentality at my workplace too. We're supposed to be happy and feel fortunate that the 2.5% "pool" "merit" raise this year which, – if my boss weren't the consummate bean-counter bureaucrat, and thus didn't realize that the best way to use such a "pool" for a small but talented group of employees would be to give that amount equally to everyone instead of going bell-curve with it – would be insulting enough even if the company wasn't making solid profits year after year since 2008, but we're also supposed to "feel thankful that we have that job" on top of it.

    It's one thing to hold back merit raises and cost-of-living increases when times are bad for your employer, but when that holding back never actually changes back to real, makes-a-difference raises when times are good for your employer, that morphs into the rule of what had been the exception. And without repercussions to the people in positions of power and influence, they have no reason to think that things shouldn't be like this.

  21. Celynne Says:

    Thanks for the food for thought. In this ecomony I'm grateful to have any food at all.
    I do think Ed's correct, it is indeed tyranny of the controlling elite, not self-discovery or the awareness of the plight of humanity that's causing the majority of us to be content with less than we feel entitled to.
    But I wonder why the OWS folks and the Russian peasants of old never really managed to mount any sustainable change to their circumstances against the forces that oppress them, or the nouveau riche haven't ever developed an understanding of art, style and culture?
    I'd like to spend more time pondering these ideas, but the weight of Maslow's hierarchy keeps me too tired. It's past my bedtime.

  22. Scott Says:

    As I read the first three paragraphs of your post, I found myself getting angry, and composing (in my head) a strongly worded comment.
    Turns out it was going to be exactly like the last three paragraphs of your post, only less polite.

    Sure, conspicuous consumption is bad, and I hate SUVs as much as anybody, but I see the US heading toward a future where all shoes are shared, and there's no money for bridges, much less symphonies or parks. That's not the country I grew up in, and not where I want my kids to live.

  23. BruceJ Says:

    @Devon: Costco, man. Kirkland brand, well made standard generic blue jeans.

    Yes, Costco, that temple to 30-packs of toilet paper and 5-pound cans of Kool-Aid mass cosumption that's also a remarkable lesson in how to succeed in business, beat Wal-Mart at their own game and actually treat your employees with dignity, good wages nd benefits for all, none of this nonsense of hiring people for 19 hours a week or calling them 'independent contractors'.

    (and getting TP in those 30-packs is also about 25% cheaper than buying it by the 4-pack in the grocery store…yeah, your house can start resembling some of theose "Doomsday Preppers"

    I have about 4 years worth of dishwasher detergent in my garage, the result of a simultaneous occurrence of a $4 off coupon and a 2-for-1 promotion by the manufacturer, and one learns REALLY hard to never, ever EVER shop there when hungry or stoned or worse, both…)

  24. Bernard Says:

    yes, how dare us value ourselves as fully human and worthy of respect for whatever job we do. for as we all know, Business can ship our jobs off to "cheaper" lands. Cheaper serfs!!! we need Cheaper Serfs!!!

    Keeping up with Jones'. and all that Marketing BS which really worked at having Americans vote against their own economic self interest. ST. Ronnie's nice and wise sounding BS really did just finish off the Stupid American Patriotism we've been sold since the Greatest Generation ensconced the "American Dream" as the "American Way." Bigger is not always better, and this may be the only way Americans can learn this lesson. except, i don't think Americans have any clue, nor want to "ponder" why WE are stuck in a 3rd world Banana Republic, thanks to the One Party which owns the Government.

    those fortunate enough to "have enough" fear falling into poverty and will disconnect from any thoughts or concepts that the American Way is out to devour all of us, one commercial at a time. Keep the Poor and Worthless Losers/ the Others not "making it" as a "threat" we may "become like" and keep them away from us. lest we get their "disease". the Disease defined as weak, impotent failures unable to use their own bootstraps to succeed. I.E. keep feeding the "Us vs. Them/Divide and Conquer/I'm Better than" messages

    i often wonder how long the Elites can bleed the patient/sucker American for his money before killing the patient. this Frank Luntz word game has succeeded for years now. Looks like the Bread and Circuses will continue until the Patient Dies. 40 years i have witnessed the lies and obfuscation of the Republican Right wingers work its' "magic" on the uneducated masses yearning to be "free."

    America, we hardly knew ya!

  25. Barry Says:

    I've got to agree; this post was really, really bad.

    It's part of the right-wing goal to make us grateful for any day in which we get a hot meal, have a bunk out of the rain, and didn't get kicked *too* hard.

  26. Scott Says:

    @BruceJ: My wife and I are Costco fans too. We buy their dirt-cheap paper towels by the case….. 5 pounds of coffee costs about what 1.5 pounds costs in the super market.

    But we're kind of rich, so we can afford low prices; you hardly ever see anybody in there who looks poor.

  27. SA Says:

    You hardly ever see anyone in Costco who looks poor because poor people don't have a whole lot of cars, and you can't take 300 rolls of toilet paper home on the bus.

    It's expensive to be poor.

    I really appreciate the local chain Grocery Outlet, which buys up overstock, cancelled orders, package changes, discontinued products, etc. and sells them at super-low prices, because not only can I get a pint of Ben & Jerry's for a buck (OK it's only usually one flavor, and this week it was pumpkin cranberry, so no thanks I'll pass), but most of their stores are on bus lines. So, I drove there today to buy a case of wine ($2.50 for a wine that's normally $9.99, and I've already had a bottle and liked it? Get in my earthquake kit!), but there were a lot of folks in there with their push carts trying to get through the checkout before the 5:27 stopped out front.

    When I spent 6 months unemployed with $0 income, I didn't have the money to drop on a Costco membership or to buy that much food at once, but I could go to GrossOut and get a nice cornmeal crust pizza and some ripe avocados while staying in my tiny grocery budget, but not feel like I was just eating flavorless glop from PepsiKraftPhillipMorrisCo, Inc.

  28. xynzee Says:

    Here's an interesting article on what thirty years of Reaganist policy has brought us:
    http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702304356604577341940149291220.html?KEYWORDS=What+Money+Can%27t+Buy

    A market that trades in life insurance policies on the elderly.

    Over the past weekend, the Australian Shadow Treasurer has attacked the "entitlements" found in the West, and thinks that we should have a more Asian influence. Yeah, and the Asians also tend to have a family unit that's a whole lot more cohesive than the Western one. I also don't think he realises that it certainly stunts "Personal Aspiration" as one owes everything to family.

    http://www.smh.com.au/opinion/political-news/hockey-blasts-attitude-of-entitlement-20120418-1x7zs.html

    Yup, the faster the US craters taking its asshatery with it, the better.

  29. Andrew Laurence Says:

    My wife and I make six figures each, and I still buy used clothing occasionally so that I have more money to spend on other things.

  30. juegos de estrategia Says:

    XD