A five o’clock shadow on a chiseled jaw is barely perceptible in the dimly lit cabin. As the car confidently glides around a corner, the driver speaks over the classical music softly dancing from the speakers: hey fat ass on the couch, do you want to feel sexy and sophisticated?! Buy this car!
Ok, that’s not what he’d say, but it’s the point of the commercial. All day we’re pummeled with images and ideas about what being successful looks like: how to dress, where to live, what to drive, where to travel. The actors wear big bright smiles with perfectly coifed hair, donned in the trendiest clothing. This is the ideal way to live your life. Anything less is failure. You’re supposed to be the Joneses everybody is trying to keep up with. That’s the pinnacle of human existence—apparently.
Who manufactured this? On the other side of the spectrum, here’s a few of Pope Francis’s recent tweets: “God loves the lowly…” “Ask the Lord for a free heart so as not to be ensnared by the false pleasures of the world.” “A Christian who is attracted to the riches has lost his way.” “The emptier a person’s heart is, the more he or she needs to buy, own and consume.” “If we are too attracted to riches, we are not free. We are slaves.” This is quite a contrast from the relentless pressure to buy everything. So which one is it? The American Dream of accumulating some wealth and enjoying the finer things in life appears to be a construct of the devil, according to Pope Francis. But even from a secular angle, without the dramatic good-versus-evil or God-versus-the-devil rhetoric, it’s commonly accepted in general life wisdom that chasing money and basing your personal value on material accumulation is a losing battle. We’re told from an early age that chasing wealth will make us feel empty, that it creates a hole that cannot be filled. The clichés that have this as their central message are boundless. It’s probably the central plot in most Disney movies, with the antidote being to live humbly and appreciate what you have. Yet, what do we constantly see during commercial breaks, in magazine ads, and in full display in trendy neighborhoods?
I Googled a statistic I remembered seeing (a little dated now, 2012) which stated that if you made at least $34,000 per year, you were in the top 1% of income earners in the world, as the global median salary was $1,225 per year. I live in the middle of the United States of America, the richest county in the world. I’m educated (master’s degree) and make over that (not by much, and only recently—I’m a struggling Millennial, what can I say?), but I fully feel the weight of financial inadequacy, even in my relatively good position.
Smack-dab in the middle of the United States is almost literally Denver, Colorado, my place of residence. There’s a lot going on in Denver. It’s constantly ranked among the top cities in the county in topics relating to quality of life and coolness. New construction is rampant in the area and the largest transit expansion project in the county, FasTracks, is ongoing. It’s a microcosm of the American Dream: prosperity, development, increasing property values, higher rates of return on investment, etc. All is good, right? According to most of the literature chronicling the transformation, it is all good. But it’s all good for a certain segment of the population, not for everybody.
When I was in high school the clothing brand FUBU was popular. The name was an acronym for “For Us By Us,” meaning black people. White people could buy the product but you get the idea. Nonetheless, FUBU is a perfect analogy for the development and gentrification of places like Denver. The “For Us By Us” being rich people. All of this development is “for rich people by rich people.” As I mentioned earlier, relatively speaking, I’m in a good position to potentially enjoy the materialistic fruits offered by capitalism and the pursuit of the American Dream, yet even I feel excluded from participating in much of what has transpired in my own city. Look at the development. What does it consist of? Luxury, opulence, swankiness. Downtown by Union Station is now surrounded by shiny glass towers of Class A office space. They tout these gigantic corporations that are setting up shop in these new sparkling buildings. How many people have jobs in Class A office space that commands the highest rent in the region? Not many. I don’t, and probably won’t. Those office towers aren’t built for people like me. Some of these buildings have retail and restaurants located in the ground level. The same theme: swanky, upscale, and expensive. I’m not in a place in my life where I can regularly buy $7.00 beers and eat $12.00 sandwiches for lunch.
The hottest neighborhoods in Denver are places like the Highlands, Five Points, and the Golden Triangle. To own a new place in these neighborhoods, you’ll have to cough up a minimum of $300,000 to $400,000—and that’s the low end of the range. What’s the mortgage payment on that? Probably more than my total income. Renting is even worse. Denver has some of the fastest growing rents in the country. Studios in these new apartment complexes can run over $1,000 per month—for a studio! If you want some actual living space with a bedroom or two you’ll be paying an equivalent mortgage payment in rent.
When I ride my bike through these trendy neighborhoods I feel excluded. This new development is not for me. It’s created by rich developers for people atop the income ladder. Look at the marketing for new development. I’d say roughly 100% of the time it has to speak to luxury. Everything always has to be luxurious, lavish, and lush. You have to be Brad Pitt in a perfectly tailored suit, parking your BMW in the garage of your new gaudy tri-level duplex in the heart of the trendiest neighborhood. Why can’t we get regular shit for regular people? Is the goal of life to live luxuriously?
This circles back to my original question about the manufacturing of this reality. It’s been around since the dawn of civilization. It’s inescapable. I know many people who claim that they don’t care about material things or about how much money they make. While I agree that many people don’t have chasing wealth as a central tenet of their lives, they doubtless feel the pressure to get ahead and sometimes romanticize a bit about what it must be like. If you’re at all social and live in society, you know friends or relatives or acquaintances that drive a brand new Mercedes Benz or live on a golf course or frequently travel internationally or wear a gigantic diamond wedding ring. We’re surrounded by it. Nobody is completely immune to occasional feelings of envy or jealousy or at least doesn’t recognize social stratification along income lines. And I don’t care how cool you think you are, you’re forced to think about your financial condition when your beater for a car keeps breaking down, when someone asks you where you live, when your landlord raises your rent, when you get invited to expensive out-of-state weddings or weekend ski trips. You have to stop and do a little math, and the results usually aren’t promising. And then you turn on the TV and see Mr. Chiseled Jaw telling you to buy this car if you want a girl like this.
In the end it’s just part of being human. It’s easier to be bad than it is to be good. Laziness is easier than working out. It’s easier to eat Doritos than it is to eat lima beans. The societal contradiction of constant pressure to buy everything and be rich when common wisdom tells us that it doesn’t lead to happiness is ever-present and ongoing. The reason for the pressure is greed. People want to line their pockets. But what would the majority of people answer to the question: Would you rather be rich or poor? It’s not tough to take a wild guess at that one. Being poor sucks. Rich people look like they have more fun, and probably do. You just have to find that balance. So, are you going to buy this car or what?