Issue #96, 9/9/2007
Family Court Philosopher
Every product has a practical underlying purpose. The purpose of food is to fuel your body and keep it running optimally. The purpose of shelter is to protect you from the elements and give you a safe place to sleep at night. The purpose of clothing is to keep you warm but also to fulfill basic social requirements. (To walk around naked might be functionally adequate but would probably disrupt your relations with others.)
When you have "enough" resources, then you will adequately fulfill your needs without much waste. When your resources are meagre, then you are going to be relatively efficient about how you use them. If you have a budget of only $2 a day for food, then you are going to be very careful and conscientious about how you spend that money, and you'll probably end up with a relatively healthy diet that is close to your body's optimal fundamental needs.
If you have $100 a day to spend on food, you won't necessarily be better nourished. In fact, you'll probably be eating worse. Your diet will depart from the underlying purpose of food, and you will start pursuing other goals, like taste and image. Your risk of obesity is high, which consequently may reduce your lifespan and quality of life.
Being "rich"—that is, having plenty of extra resources beyond your basic needs—is seen as a desirable goal in our society, but the disturbing reality for most people is that being rich makes you fat and lazy. It tends to disrupt people's underlying physical and mental health by separating them from the underlying purpose of the products they use.
Wealth tends to lead to obesity—not just the physical kind but many forms of social and mental obesity. Obesity is when you have absorbed and metabolized too many resources, to the point where they are inhibiting the practical and meaningful functions of life.
Extremely fat people have great difficulty getting around. They are largely housebound, and every time they do something it is a big production. The irony is that their extra food resources—which other people in the world might kill for—have crippled them rather than helping them. If they had to eat on $2 a day, they certainly wouldn't be obese and would probably live longer.
Likewise, rich people tend to buy big houses. The bigger the house, the bigger the maintenance burden, until a rich person is just as crippled by his purchases as the obese one. When you drive through a wealthy neighborhood and see the exotic homes some people have, there is no reason to be jealous. Most of these people are imprisoned in their own homes. The more they own, the more it holds them down and the more fragile and isolated their existence becomes.
In theory, being rich can give you enormous freedom. If you had a $100 income but maintained your $2 lifestyle, you would indeed be rich in the sense of having more options and more future freedom. The problem for most people is that extra resources lead to an obese lifestyle that departs substantially from the underlying requirements of life.
When people have extra money and time, how do they spend them? They become connoisseurs. It is no longer sufficient that food be nutritious; it now has to fulfill other esthetic goals. The food has to have the right flavor and texture and be served in the proper manner. Eating your meal in a place with a nice view and pleasant ambiance is seen as superior to consuming the same food elsewhere, and rich people are willing to pay for this priviledge.
Of course, once the food turns to mush in your gut, all the ambiance and the finer points of cuisine are immediately lost. All that matters to your body are the various nutritional components provided in the mush and whether they are healthy or detrimental.
When you have extra resources, true function tends to be replaced by esthetic symbolism, which tends to drift further and further from function the more resources you have. The process of eating, for example, becomes more and more esoteric and sensual, until the point where all of your extra resources are absorbed.
Think of the wine connoisseur. Once upon a time, wine had a purpose. It was a method of preserving fruit juice. It also incidentally gave you a little buzz and helped you forget your problems. Today's wine connoisseur has no interest in underlying purpose, and he insists that he is not an alcoholic. All he cares about are ever-finer gradations in the flavor, aroma and origin of wines, taken in isolation from any human need. He has long ago departed from any functional purpose, and his life in fact is quite hollow.
You can become a connoisseur of just about anything: wine, chocolate, cars, accommodations. The uniting factor in any such avocation is that you have extra resources and a new "need" has arisen to absorb them.
A wine connoisseur would think nothing of spending $50 for a "fine" wine when an "ordinary" $5 wine is available. Obviously, he wouldn't be a connoisseur if he didn't have the extra money to spend. Indeed, the hidden purpose of his hobby is to neutralize his own freedom. In the absence of checks or balances, his avocation is likely to grow until all of his extra income is absorbed. Wine at $100 or $1000 a bottle is not uncommon; your investment is limited only by the money you have. Once the connoisseur has stocked his winecellar, he thinks he has built an asset, but what he has really done is become obese, in the same manner as someone who eats too much. That winecellar will always be a burden to him and will contribute nothing to his true enjoyment of life.
The vast majority of the products advertized in public media have little to do with function. They are trying to turn ordinary people into connoisseurs. Why? Because there is huge money in it. Luxury or the perception of it drives our economy. There is very little profit in just selling people what they need. There is huge profit in selling them things they don't need, which requires conning people into esthetics and luring them away from function.
Is taste important? Only to the extent that it is tied to function. You wouldn't eat food that tastes or smells rotten, and for good reason. There is little benefit, however, in ever-finer gradations of good taste. For one thing, the sensation never lasts. The same chocolate cake that tasted so good the first time you had it will never taste as good the second time.
The good taste or pleasant appearance of something is a siren song, drawing you away from underlying purpose. If you have extra resources, advertizers and your own senses will try to seduce you. They want you to buy a $50 bottle of wine, a $100 meal, a luxury car and a cruise to nowhere. If you give in to these calls, you will soon be as obese and useless as those fat people who move around the supermarket on scooters.
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