Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Ethical Spending

An old joke says that our continent leans to the left so eventually all the nuts roll out to California. As a resident nut, sometimes I'm hard pressed to argue with folks who live elsewhere and are convinced that there's more truth than humor in that punch line.

But I do like the fact that California is a place where most unconventional behaviors and points of views are tolerated; where you can reinvent yourself, repeatedly, if necessary; and where the hard edges of reality are at least softened slightly by the temperate weather. Here in Los Angeles, I enjoy having so many different ethnic groups represented that it's possible to experience a mini-excursion to other countries just by taking a day to explore a neighborhood, like Little Tokyo, Chinatown, Little India, Koreatown, Olvera Street, and many others. And the drive down Sunset Boulevard from the far eastside all the way out west to the Pacific Ocean is a fascinating trip. Unfortunately, one of the things it exposes is the enormous gap between the living circumstances of the rich and the poor.

L.A. certainly isn't the only city in the world where crushing poverty coexists with unfathomable wealth, but this is a show-biz town so I've always felt that we have a special gift for flaunting the extremes. Consider a house that's currently on the market in Bel-Air, the neighborhood adjacent to the more famous Beverly Hills 90210 zip code. The 34,458 square foot home features a bowling alley, a racquetball court, indoor and outdoor swimming pools (with an outdoor kitchen), a theater, a disco, nine bedrooms and twenty bathrooms. Oh, and his-and-her offices, just in case someone might need to do some sort of work to support the place. Asking price: $29,995,000.

When it comes to an example of conspicuous consumption, you'd think this would be tough to top. But it turns out that heading north up the coast to wine country brings us to a rival that also deserves our attention: Castello di Amorosa, a sort of wannabe Tuscan castle, boasts 121,000 square feet, has 107 rooms on seven levels, and includes, among other things, a drawbridge, a church, and a dungeon, fully-equipped with medieval torture devices. This gigantic structure is the creation of a winery/deli owner who expects to spend $30 million completing it. However, rather than simply dedicating the castle as his private home, he plans to open it to the public for tours at ten bucks a pop -- as long as they pay another ten bucks for a tour of his winery.

So, in both cases about $30 million dollars are being devoted to these places and this prompted a letter to the LA Times from reader Carol Palladini of Santa Barbara. In spite of also living here in Nutland, she thinks that spending that kind of money is conspicuous consumption run amok. "As long as a significant number of people are without decent shelter, adequate food, clean water and opportunity for basic healthcare, it is shocking to see the excesses on which people with wealth choose to spend their money."

The operative word I want to point out is the word "choose." Perhaps you're thinking, "We're Americans, dagnabbit, so we can spend our hard-earned cash however we want!" True, and I'm grateful that we do have the freedom to make choices, including ones that are totally self-indulgent. The problem lies in the ethical issues that arise when we make those choices: how do they reflect our humanity, our compassion, our sense of fellowship with others?

When confronted with the enormous social problems that exist throughout the world, at some point most of us open our wallets and donate what we can. We're consistently a very generous people. But at what point do we feel comfortable enough to say that we, personally, have enough? When does striving for more -- more of everything -- stop? If it never stops, is that a sign of great ambition or a sign that we've started to define who we are by what we have? And if the latter is the case, how do we ever find peace and contentment within ourselves?

I don't know where you need to draw the line and say that you have enough; I'm busy trying to sort that out for myself! But somewhere, for each of us, there are boundaries that can, and must, be drawn between comfort, luxury, and obscene over-indulgence. An important part of being a thoughtful consumer is working hard to determine where those boundaries are and then choosing to avoid excess. That doesn't mean we must sacrifice every opportunity for luxury forever, just that we must have awareness when we do allow ourselves something special.

So, if you've earned a pile of money and want to spend $30 million of it on a house or a castle, or even the world's most fabulous party, you're certainly entitled to make that choice, but that just doesn't sit well with letter writer Carol, or with me. Maybe our feelings are best explained by the now famous judicial quote from 1964 in which Justice Potter Stewart struggled to determine a definition of obscenity: "I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced . . . [b]ut I know it when I see it . . . "

(c) 2007 Cynthia Friedlob


Angela Storm said...

I that are not practical wish I would have read this before I spent alot of money. Well it's to late now but I will think twice next time. THe only thing I can do is try to get as much out of my investments as I can. Sometimes we do things. Thanks for your blogs. They teach me something each time.

Angela Storm

Cynthia Friedlob said...

I received a coffee mug as a gift from a thoughtful friend. On the mug is a quote from Eleanor Roosevelt that says, "Yesterday is history, tomorrow is mystery, today is a gift." Wise words. We can't go back and undo decisions we made in the past, but the gift of today is that we can, indeed, think twice when we make our choices now. So enjoy the things that you already have or pass them along to others who will be happy to have them! Thanks for reading my blogs and for your comment. I'm very glad that you find them helpful.


dB said...

Have you seen this guy's project? It's pretty extreme, but I think we should all think about adopting some aspects of it. However, I'll never stop using Charmin, or going to movies!



Cynthia Friedlob said...

Thanks for the link to NoImpactMan. I agree that his project is extreme.

It's an interesting experiment, but I'm wondering why the most obviously attention-getting sacrifice of toilet paper was necessary for anything other than the publicity it would generate. If you look at the list of consumer-related activites that impact the environment that he cites from The Consumer's Guide to Effective Environmental Choices, it seems like abandoning something that contributes to the health and hygiene of your family and society would rank very low on any sensible list of priorities. Maybe "all publicity is good publicity" is his motto, but I think that single choice makes him comes off sounding like a bit of a kook and detracts from the other more significant choices he's made.

I was also interested in the following comment on the "Cure the Planet's Fever" post, left by a reader called "tioedong":

"As one who lives in the 'third world', I wonder if you know what you are talking about. Organic food? Yes, let's get rid of the 'green revolution' and let people starve. 'no plastic'. Just let the flies land and spread disease. 'No pesticides'. Fine. We had 300 cases of Dengue last year in this province alone. Without pesticide spraying it would have been 1000 cases. As for the commenter who thinks they could live without toilet paper, yes, squatting behind a tree and using leaves is ecofriendly but spreads hookworm and other parasites."

Our motives are good when we're trying to make environmentally-friendly choices, but sometimes we just don't understand how to implement them appropriately or the consequences of implementing them at all. I once saw a documentary (with a very liberal slant) in which the benefits of pesticides were being touted by aid-workers in an area of Africa in which no crops could grow without them and where people were starving to death daily.

Being thoughtful about these kinds choices really can drive you crazy! But if NoImpactMan can stir up some conversation about the issues through his experiment, good for him.

I'll be interested to see how they're all doing in August. No air conditioning in a New York summer, along with their other self-imposed limitations, will be quite a challenge for people used to take-out and high fashion. I hope NoImpactMan doesn't end up NoFamilyMan.