Beauty and the Need for Money

            In the foregoing,  I have limited the discussion to seven core economic needs. Although it is true, as various religious and philosophic traditions have espoused, that it is possible to develop a conception of identity and an outlook on existence in which even these basics are viewed as superfluous, such psychological gymnastics suffer from two problems. First, they can result in an emotionally constricted form of life that is far from ideal for most people. And second, because they call for a vast degree of personal transformation, they are, realistically speaking, unattainable by most people, and even if attained, do not last from one generation to another.

            What I have tried to capture in the seven needs just discussed, is the central economic core of need, which is both motivationally powerful and recognized as legitimate by most people within our society. I believe these needs would also be widely, though perhaps not universally, recognized by most peoples in other cultures and at other times -- though, obviously, with different commodity specifications.

             Insofar as this is correct, the satisfaction of these core needs is required on any conception of simple living that seeks to be broadly relevant to the perspectives and limitations of real people. In Part Two of this book I will introduce and explore a particular conception of simple living termed "graceful simplicity." Graceful simplicity is distinguished in part by the centrality it gives to aesthetic values. To translate this into the present concerns, is to ask about beauty and money -- how much money do we need in order that there be beauty in our lives? Assuming that in addition to the core needs discussed, there is in some sense a need for beauty, to what extent is that need fulfilled, and what has happened over time to the amount of money required to satisfy it?

             This is a much more difficult area to ponder than core needs for food or clothing.  For instance, are we talking about beautiful homes with beautiful furnishings, or are we talking about access to beautiful music and art? Or are we talking about living in a beautiful city or having access to the beauties of nature? Or all of these?  

             A few reflections on the place of beauty within the economics of graceful simplicity may be helpful:

            - Beauty must not be thought of as residing solely or even primarily within things. There is the beauty that is the architecture of time; it requires slowing down and doing things right, and it may call for less income and more time, rather than the reverse.

            - A life of graceful simplicity does not require that our homes be museums; it does not require that every artifact of daily use be striking. At the same time, from the point of view of gracefulness, a life that is aesthetically impoverished is abhorrent.

             - One dimension of graceful living is the awakening of aesthetic appreciation, and with that will come a selectivity that often, without any additional cost, results in the attainment of things of beauty. Anyone who has wandered through flea markets and garage sales and thrifts shops knows that there are great things to be found -- beautiful objects, not seen, not desired, not valued by others.

             - Things of beauty exercise a special power, they radiate within their space, and as they draw us into their orbit they close our consciousness to that which is outside. Thus, it is not necessary that all our possessions, be beautiful, only that some things are.

             - One of the sources, inexpensive sources, of beauty is our own creative ability. In part this is a matter of tapping into our own latent abilities to take a beautiful photograph, to sculpt, to draw, to play an instrument. These to some extent involve mastery of technique -- but within the household, we are constantly engaged with the issue of design and arrangement -- whether it be the utensils, the tools, the furniture, the towels -- what we find in every space, is that beauty resides not just in the objects, but in how they are arranged with one another. Perhaps this is better understood by thinking about marketplaces. If one has travelled in Third World countries and gone into marketplaces, sometimes one is stopped short by a staggeringly beautiful display, formed with fifty loaves of bread, or with several kilos of nuts, or with fifteen cooking pans, or with a few dozen shirts.

             - The beauty in our private spaces, inside our homes, is accessible only to ourselves and our friends. But perhaps of more significance is the aesthetic quality of public space, be it the architecture of houses, yards and gardens, the pavement of the streets, the shops, the trees, the skyline, or access to the sunset. In economists' terms these are public goods, in the sense that the enjoyment of them by one person does not diminish their availability to others. They are not, in the ordinary sense, consumed.

             An enormous part of the need for beauty in our lives can be supplied through the aesthetic quality of the outside space. When one lives in a beautiful city, or when one lives in a beautiful natural environment -- be it the shore, the mountains, a river -- there is an aesthetic abundance that surrounds us, a wealth that we have, merely in virtue of being there rather than somewhere else.

             It is the creation and destruction of this public beauty, whether manmade or natural, that is most significant. No fortune within the home can compensate for not being able to walk outside, for not being able to bear to look outside, for having nothing interesting to see when walking to the store. On the otherhand, it is remarkable how little we feel we need, when we are in a beautiful place. Indeed, rather than retreating to our private spaces, we rush to be outside. How much of our expenditures on our homes, then, represents this failure, this aesthetic inadequacy of public space?

             What has happened over time? Does it take more or less money to satisfy our need for beauty? It is hard to draw up an accurate balance sheet. There are some areas, such as music in which there really have been enormous technological advances -- today at relatively little cost, one can hear, at very high quality, the world's best music played by the best musicians.

             But this it seems to me is more the exception.

 - The "efficiency" of supermarkets, malls, and now ware-house shopping has not only driven out the small shop, but in doing so has robbed us of the chance to walk along an interesting street or to have a friendship with a local shopkeeper.

 - Chain stores rather than individual proprietors have driven out the individual display, the originality and idiosyncrasy that offers opportunities for surprise and discovery.

- Fear of crime has deprived many of us of access to the beauty of the moon and stars; it has made us afraid to take a solitary walk, or run, in the park.

 - Much of our urban world is unremittingly ugly, and suburbanization has made it extremely hard to even arrive in the countryside.

 - Even the possibility of aesthetic delight in our food has suffered. A good bakery, a fine tomato, a nectarine that explodes with sweetness -- these are hard to find, or if we know where to go, running from one special store to another, we pay extra, in time and money, for what was once an inherent part of a loaf of bread and a piece of fruit.

             For many the need for beauty is unfulfilled. For the few that can satisfy it, it is done at very high cost; living in much more expensive cities and neighborhoods; taking vacations to other places that are beautiful, to Paris, to Martha's Vineyard, to Hawaii or Greece. Such escape is very expensive. Necessarily these can only be solutions for a few; the presence of many itself will destroy the aesthetic, and at any rate, it is an escape not a way of life.

             We pay a complex price for our modern world. The world we have lost was in many ways more interesting, more diverse, and often more beautiful than the world we have created. To be aware of these differences only becomes sentimentality if we make the leap to a general idealization of the past. But it is a kind of blindness, if our fear of being accused of sentimentality prevents us from seeing what has been lost.

            Consider just one example: pavement. Goodness knows there are many arguments for pavement. And once one gets started paving things over, there are powerful arguments for asphalt over cobblestones. Yet if one has a chance to walk down an unpaved road, there is no telling what one will find. Perhaps an interesting stone, perhaps a mysterious animal hole that was not there last week, perhaps the erosion caused by last night's storm. What dirt roads lack is "all-the-sameness" and with "all-the-sameness" comes predictability, and predictability makes it easier to go fast. So if you're in the business of getting from place to place, then asphalt is the way to go. But if you're not quite sure of the point of the destination, and not quite sure of the point of being there sooner rather than later,  then pavement is the enemy, and paving over the world is madness.

             There have been tradeoffs, and sometimes we made them quite poorly. This is especially true with things of beauty, because we lack the language for asserting its value. Thus, we sacrificed too much.  We compensate for this aesthetic impoverishment with diverse consumption expenditures, but the road towards a simpler life is one that allows us to regain the aesthetics of public space.


             More generally we need societies in which the level of NRI is low, or to put it differently, a society in which the efficiency of need satisfaction per unit of income is high. It is the background efficiency of the society that determines how much money the individual household needs.

             In the Third World context the rationale for great social efficiency is simple and powerful -- it allows the satisfaction of basic needs at low levels of income. Thus, some live who would otherwise die. But we may also seek a society with low levels of NRI for a different kind of reason: because it facilitates a distinctly valuable form of life.

             In a high productivity society, if the amount of money a family needs to meet its core economic needs is rather modest, this opens the possibility of simple living. First it allows people to put in less time on the job. Thus, in a socially efficient society, a two career family might be able to meet core needs with two twenty hour jobs rather than with two forty hour jobs. This would be a blessing. It would enable us to restore some peace and harmony to our hectic, harried existence.

             Second, a society with low levels of NRI is one in which we are largely freed from the economic realm. If our needs are met with limited income, we are freed from the money side of life. In chosing jobs we can focus more fully on the non-pecuniary aspects of a good job; if needs are met we can afford to experiment, to make changes in mid-career, to rethink a life plan, to re-educate, to take a bold plunge towards that thing we always wanted to do.

             And if needs can be met at low levels of NRI, then there is less to be anxious about if we suffer a drop in the income stream, if we lose our jobs, or if we walk away from producing or selling goods and services that do not conform to our values.

             In a nineteenth-century essay on Gracefulness, Herbert Spencer, searching for a definition of gracefulness,  reached the conclusion that any action "is most gracefully achieved when achieved through the least expenditure of force . . . .[that] grace, as applied to motion, describes motion that is effected with an economy of muscular powers."

  Using that definitional approach, we might say that an economic system operates most gracefully when it satisfies the needs of the population with the least expenditure of income. The social efficiency of money, the ratio of need satisfaction to income is a measure of such gracefulness, and it tells us the extent to which a society makes simple living feasible. When it is high, then with modest incomes needs can be met; when it is low, needs can only be met if income is high.

             In short, a high productivity society with low levels of need required income is a society that makes possible lives that are less pressured, more centered on friends and family and on activities of inherent value and fuller dignity. How we might begin this transition is the subject of the next chapter: The Politics of Simplicity.

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  • published this page in Consumption 2018-02-11 16:55:33 -0500