The Miracle and Mystery of Modern Abundance
Overflowing material abundance defines modern American life. Personal consumption expenditures (PCE) have risen more than 4,700 percent during the past 60 years, and the average American household today owns 300,000 items.1 The economic life of the United States in the early 21st century has reached stunning levels. This astounding achievement also presents a mystery: unprecedented prosperity has emerged concurrent with meaningful declines in key indicators of individual contentment. The striking contrast between increasing physical comfort and decreasing personal satisfaction challenges many of the assumptions held by America’s political and business leaders.
The average American has benefitted from a remarkable increase in material abundance and luxury. Even as the number of individuals per household has decreased from 3.1 to 2.5 since the early 1970s, square footage per house has increased 60 percent.2 The number of airline passengers was 400 percent higher in 2017 than in 1970.3 Since 1960, the number of American families with two cars has grown by more than 70 percent.4 Ninety percent of American house holds today own a smartphone, desktop or laptop computer, tablet, or streaming media device, with a median of five such devices.5
Percentage of American households owning the following goods, 1971 vs. 20156
Overindulging and Storing
Explosive growth in the storage industry suggests that American consumer spending exceeds the overall material needs of the population. Rentable self-storage space has reached 1.7 billion square feet, or more than 13 square feet per U.S. household.7 Based on the earliest available data from the U.S. Census Bureau, mini-storage construction was valued at approximately $150 million (2018 dollars) in 1993; that number rose to $5 billion in 2018.8 An estimated 155,000 self-storage spaces are auctioned off each year, providing further indication of American overabundance.9
The nation’s growing “stuff surplus” has spawned a complementary industry to advise Americans on tidying. Expert Marie Kondo, who “help[s] people around the world to transform their cluttered homes into spaces of serenity and inspiration,” has her own Netflix series and sold more than 11 million copies of her books, “Spark Joy” and “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.”10 Ms. Kondo also boasts more than 4.7 million views on YouTube.11 In a concession to American consumerism, Ms. Kondo’s online store offers adherents the opportunity to purchase a $50 tuning fork to “[create] pure tones that have the power to restore a sense of balance.”12
More Fulfillment Centers, Less Fulfillment
Even as Americans enjoy overwhelming material abundance, important indicators of human flourishing signal something deeply troubling about the inner life of the nation’s citizens. The rate of “deaths of despair” – defined as those caused by suicide or substance abuse – has more than doubled since 1959.13 More specifically, drug-related fatalities have skyrocketed from nearly zero to just over 20 per 100,000 deaths during this same period.14 Opioids accounted for nearly 70 percent of overdose deaths in 2017.15 Most shockingly perhaps, the deaths of despair rate for non-Hispanic whites aged 45 through 54 reached 91.6 per 100,000 deaths in 2017, more than double the rate of the rest of the population.16
A recent study headed by University of Chicago Professor Emeritus Susan E. Mayer explored the direction of causation between positive social outcomes and family income. Specifically, Mayer studied three main indicators: low teenage pregnancy rates, high child test scores, and low school drop out rates. For families achieving desirable results in these categories, the study found that higher incomes were the result, not the cause.17 Contrary to the unofficial slogan of former President Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign, it’s not the economy, stupid.
The benefits of modern material progress should be celebrated. In the lifetime of many of our grandparents, health care was nearly nonexistent. Childhood mortality has declined nearly 80 percent since 1960, and the mortality rates of 10 vaccine-preventable diseases have declined more than 95 percent on average during the past century.18 Moreover, the proliferation of devices that alleviate inconvenience and save time has removed much of the suffering that once made the natural state of mankind “solitary, nasty, brutish, and short.” Only a fool would pine for the pre-industrial material world as lived by our forebearers.
Recognizing the wonders of modern abundance, Americans, nonetheless, appear besieged by rampant materialism. Soviet Union Gulag survivor and Nobel Laureate Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn warned against the consequences of such consumerism: “Our blustering civilization has completely robbed us of a concentrated inner life, dragged our souls out into a bazaar, whether of commerce or of party politics.”19
History rarely has featured simultaneous dramatic increases in material wellbeing and declines in human satisfaction. This paradox sets the stage for perhaps the most important policy debate of our era. As summarized by political philosopher Yoram Hazony: “There are prominent scholars and public figures who are convinced that ‘things are getting better’ in almost every way. As for me, I find it difficult not to see the Western nations disintegrating before our eyes.”20 The failure of America’s prevailing political parties to identify the purpose of prosperity in a secular age invites challenges to the status quo.
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1 “Personal Income Expenditures,” U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, retrieved from FRED, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, https://www.bea.gov/data/income-saving/personal-in-come; and Mary McVean, “For Many People, Gathering Possessions is Just the Stuff of Life,” Los Angeles Times, March 21, 2014, https://www.latimes.com/health/la-xpm-2014-mar-21-la-he-keeping-stuff-20140322-story.html.
2 “Households by Size: 1960 to Present,” U.S. Census Bureau, November 2019, https://www.census.gov/data/tables/time-series/demo/families/households.html; and “Characteristics of New Housing: Square Feet of Single-Family Completed Homes,” U.S. Census Bureau, https://www.census.gov/construction/chars.
3 “Air Transport: Passengers Carried,” International Civil Aviation Organization, retrieved from HumanProgress, https://www.icao.int/sustainability/Pages/Statistics.aspx.
4 “U.S. Households with More Vehicles Travel More but Use Additional Vehicles Less,” U.S. Energy Information Administration, June 7, 2018, https://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/ detail.php?id=36414; and “Household Vehicle Ownership: 1960-2013,” U.S. Department of Transportation, https://www.bts.gov/archive/publications/passenger_travel_2016/tables/fig2_8.
5 “A Third of Americans Live in a Household with Three or More Smartphones,” Pew Research Center, May 25, 2017, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/05/25/a-third-of-americans-live-in-a-household-with-three-or-more-smartphones.
6 Mark J. Perry, “The Rich are Getting Richer and the Poor are Getting Richer: The Good Old Days Are Now,” American Enterprise Institute, November 29, 2009, https://www.aei.org/carpe-diem/the-rich-are-getting-richer-and-the-poor-are-getting-richer-the-good-old-days-are-now; “Household demographics of U.S. homes by housing unit type,” U.S. Energy Information Administration, https://www.eia.gov/consumption/residential/data/2015; “Nielson estimates 119.9 million TV homes in the U.S for the 2018-2019 TV season,” Nielsen, September 7, 2018, https://www.nielsen.com/us/en/insights/article/2018/nielsen-estimates-119-9-million-tv-homes-in-the-us-for-the-2018-19-season; “Air Conditioning Accounts for about 12 percent of U.S. Home Expenditures,” U.S. Energy Information Administration, July 23, 2018, https://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.php?id=36692; and “A third of Americans Live in a Household with Three or More Smartphones,” ibid.
7 “Mick Law, P.C. 2019 Storage Industry Market Report,” Mick Law, P.C. LLO, August 2019, https://www.micklawpc.com/documents/MickLaw2019StorageIndustryReport.PDF; and “Households by Size: 1960 to Present,” ibid.
8 “Construction Spending – Historical Value Put in Place,” U.S. Census Bureau, January 2019, https://www.census.gov/construction/c30/historical_data.html.
9 “Twelve Must-Know Self-Storage Industry Statistics for 2018,” Simply Self-Storage, https://www.simplyss.com/storage-options/self-storage-statistics.
10 Megumi Fujikawa, “Marie Kondo Says You Can Have More Than 30 Books, Just Wake Them Up First,” The Wall Street Journal, February 1, 2019, https://www.wsj.com/articles/marie-kondo-says-you-can-have-more-than-30-books-just-wake-them-up-first-11549008700.
11 “MarieKondo,” YouTube,https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCNaPKFA1niUFRgzkVqqhJVg/about.
12 “Tuning Fork,” KonMari, https://shop.konmari.com/products/konmari-decor-konmari-tuning-fork.
13 “Long-Term Trends in Deaths of Despair,” U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee, September 5, 2019, https://www.jec.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/republicans/2019/9/long-term-trends-in-deaths-of-despair.
14 Figure 2, “Long-Term Trends in Deaths of Despair,” ibid.
15 “Drug Overdose Deaths,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, https://www.cdc.gov/drugoverdose/data/statedeaths.html.
16 Figures 2 and 3, “Long-Term Trends in Deaths of Despair,” ibid.
17 “Econ Talk: Susan Mayeron What Money Can’t Buy,” The Library of Economics and Liberty, November 25, 2019, https://www.econtalk.org/susan-mayer-on-what-money-cant-buy.
18 “Under-Five Mortality Rate Total,” U.N. Interagency Group for Child Mortality Estimation, retrieved from HumanProgress, https://childmortality.org; and “Impact of Vaccines in the 20th and 21st Centuries,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, January 2019, https://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/pubs/pinkbook/downloads/appendices/e/impact.pdf.
19 Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Address to the Italian Catholic Press Union, 1974, retrieved from National Review, January 7, 2019, https://www.nationalreview.com/2019/01/aleksan-dr-solzhenitsyn-decries-materialism-modern-society.
20 Yoram Hazony, “Conservative Democracy,” First Things, January 2019, https://www.firstthings.com/article/2019/01/conservative-democracy.