Swamp Rabbit and I huddled next to the wood stove and pored over a cheery Christmas article by economist Arthur C. Brooks, who wants people to make an attitude adjustment regarding possessions. He urges readers to “collect experiences, not things,” and to “steer clear of excessive usefulness” meaning don’t make it a rule to do only those those that are a means to some practical end. And to “get to the center of the wheel” — to belief in something that transcends wealth and fame and other temporal joys.
“Who’s this here article for?” the rabbit said. “I ain’t got nothin’ in the world but a head of lettuce and that bottle of Wild Turkey you give me for collectin’ this here firewood.”
“He wrote it for the one percenters who feel guilty about their piggishness and want to be absolved,” I said. “He takes it for granted that all of his readers are wealthy, or close to it.”
I pointed to the one instance in the New York Times article where Brooks mentions Americans who don’t fit his target demographic: “For those living paycheck to paycheck, a focus on money is understandable. But for those of us blessed to be above poverty, attachment to money is a means-ends confusion.”
“I don’t know anybody ain’t livin’ paycheck to paycheck, or without no paychecks at all,” the rabbit said. “What planet is this guy on?”
“It’s not so much a planet as an alternate universe,” I said. “The other 99 percent of us don’t exist in his universe, unless there’s a need for babysitters or someone to clean the windows.”
I told the rabbit that Brooks is president of the American Enterprise Institute, a right-wing think tank whose boosters include Newt Gingrich, Paul Wolfowitz and Dick Cheney. This helps explain why he writes things like “Celebrate the bounty that has pulled millions out of poverty worldwide” instead of mentioning that income inequality in the U.S. has been increasing since the 1970s. It’s why he focuses on the angst of the affluent rather than on the millions in the world who can’t make ends meet, despite their so-called bounty.
His message is that the well-off should embrace their possessions without becoming “attached” to them, because all things must pass. It’s a contemporary version of Billy Graham-style Protestantism, with the same underlying message: Enjoy your wealth but praise the Lord. Throw a bone to the poor to confirm you are unselfish and worthy of heaven. Fight big government efforts to feed the poor, that’s socialism.
“He’s part right,” the rabbit said. “You can’t take it with you. Ain’t it obvious?”
“What’s not obvious is his agenda,” I said. “He pretends to be turned off by the commercialization of Christmas but he’s a crusader for the free-market capitalism that has made Christmas so ugly. He pretends he has transcended materialism in order to advance it. ‘Abundance without attachment’ is a bullshit expression, a contradiction in terms. I’d like to punch him in the face. His editor, too.”
“Get a grip, Odd Man,” the rabbit said, reaching for his bottle. “A couple of hits of this will take the edge off.’
I could smell the bourbon as soon as he broke the seal. “I might take you up on that,” I said. “But I’m afraid I might become too attached to the stuff.”