Goodbye To All That: Are Our Rituals of "Prosperity" Increasingly Meaningless?

September 28, 2020

The heretical truth is that many of the "consumption rituals" that signified "prosperity" for decades are either meaningless, unaffordable or require way more effort than the meager payoff is worth.

Of all the economic heresies imaginable, perhaps the most heretical is to recognize what we label "prosperity" as increasingly meaningless rituals more akin with Soviet-era staged parades than actual well-being.

This is the most dangerous heresy because it breaks the link between consumption --the core activity of our economy--and human happiness. If conspicuous / surplus consumption is ritualistic rather than fulfilling (i.e. it adds to our well-being), then it becomes meaningless or even corrosive.

The focus them shifts to the negative consequences of consumption , i.e. how the rituals of consumption are eroding / disrupting our well-being.

Rituals are satisfying because the performance of the ritual is itself the source of our satisfaction. Belief or enjoyment isn't necessary; completion of the ritual is its own reward.

But once we pull away from the rituals, the emptiness of the performance becomes clear and we start asking, what am I getting out of this for the expense and effort?

These questions arise because many conventional consumption rituals have become prohibitively expensive and troublesome and others demand major amounts of time with very little payoff.

Consider the ritual of passively consuming sports. The ratings of televised games were falling before the pandemic, and by some measures appear to be in free-fall. It's not hard to discern potential reasons: Millennials never formed the habit/ritual of spending hours watching a game, or attending games; despite the protests from die-hard fans, most of the games are interchangeable, as are the players, as pro and college sports have become homogenized in many ways.

As with many other consumption rituals, those performing the rituals rarely stopped to ask themselves if the ritual was actually improving their well-being, or if it had slowly morphed into a colossal waste of time and money.

Many activities of discretionary consumption are in large part rituals: going on vacations, taking cruises, shopping, dining out, and so on. While many will miss the performance of these rituals, others will realize they don't really miss them. Some will feel immense relief that they no longer have to put up a facade of enjoying the tiresome, meaningless rituals.

The enormous expense of once-affordable rituals such as dining out means many will give up these consumption rituals because they can no longer afford it. Two sandwiches and two drinks, sales tax and a tip is now routinely $50 or more. (Note to wealthy readers: in the real world, it's pretty difficult to earn $50 net of taxes and the cost of doing business.)

Other consumption rituals were embedded in modes of work that are dissolving because they're no longer financially viable. The rituals of business travel and attending conferences paid by employers are dying because the luxury of these consumption rituals is no longer affordable to employers whose revenues and profits are in terminal decline.

Every manager pounding the table for a return of all employees to the central office has yet to discover what happens when the corporation reports a staggering loss and refuses to provide forward guidance. If the manager is fortunate enough to retain their job, their task will be to eliminate all offices and digitize and/or automate every function to cut costs.

The many rituals of a central office--the endless meetings, the petty arguments, the smoking breaks, going out for lunch--goodbye to all that. A couple of quarters of steep losses in revenues will push every company and agency to strip away all the rituals of consumption that are no longer affordable.

Did all that enormous expense of time and money really make us happy, or were we just going through the motions? Even those who were so anxious to resume the performance of these consumption rituals may find that the performance leaves them with a nagging sense of ennui and hollowness, as if something is missing, despite the perfect repetition of the ritual.

Some will blame the pandemic, but this is not the real source of their dissatisfaction. The heretical truth is that many of the consumption rituals that signified "prosperity" for decades are either meaningless, unaffordable or require way more effort than the meager payoff is worth.

So the game is playing on the TV but nobody's watching. The news is playing on another TV, but nobody's watching that, either. A disembodied stock market pundit declares a new Bull market but nobody's listening. The social media feed is scrolling by in a mad fury on a smartphone but nobody's clicking on any of it. It's all pointless, hollow, tiresome, for the completion of the ritual is no longer enough.

The meaningless of the engagement rituals and the consumption rituals is now so obvious that the desperation of the purveyors to get everyone back on board adds an exclamation point to the emptiness of their offerings.

Here's why addressing this is heresy: what props up the economy once all the consumption rituals fall out of favor or are no longer affordable? The answer is of course nothing.

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Recent entries:

Goodbye To All That: Are Our Rituals of "Prosperity" Increasingly Meaningless? September 28, 2020

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