Wednesday, 18 August 2010


The western obsession with materialism has led to the raw display of greed on an unprecedented scale. It was greed on a vast scale that precipitated the sub-prime crisis and subsequent collapse of banks, insurance and investment companies. This financial misadventure has now led the world into a deep recession. All of this has happened in the unrestrained pursuit of wealth. This is materialism in its most vulgar form. Investment bankers pursued quick money without regard for the underlying value of the investments. No-one noticed that the underlying value of these investments was a mere fraction of the prices at which they had been trading.
The only way that such a catastrophe can occur is through the unleashing of pure naked greed. Many people trying to enrich themselves. The investment had been producing unbelievable returns. A real get rich quick scheme and who cares why the performance is so good. The investment could be leveraged to the bulk of its value. It became possible to earn phenomenal returns with virtually no investment of your own.
The stock exchange boom leading to the 1929 crash has some remarkable similarities. Shares were trading at values that bore no relation to the underlying values. Prices were increasing merely because of the massive demand. Banks jumped on the bandwagon and were quick to lend money to finance these investments. Many grew rich very quickly, often with other people's money.
In either case the bubble had to burst sooner or later. In both cases it was later. The fundamental problem was that assets were being traded at many times their underlying value. No-one looked at the fundamentals. The dream was the reality.
Materialism in its purest form is the pursuit of wealth and material goods above all else. Spiritual, philosophical and other values fall by the wayside in the pursuit of material goods.
In the western economies of the 1950's a middle-class family could live quite comfortably on a single income. Not so in the nineties and the first few years of the twenty-first century. Maintaining their standard of living often came to mean a two income family with the frequent addition of a second job by one of the primary bread winners. Feeding the family had become much more difficult than it was for the equivalent fifties family.
One of the main differences is that the modern family has much more in terms of material goods. During the fifties one television per household was enough. Only a minority of families had more than one car. IPods, cell phones, computers were not household items. People saved for expensive items and used credit much more sparingly.
Many of the items that have become today's necessities were luxury items in the past. The modern world demands one cell phone per person, one car per driver, a television set for each room, the latest in kitchen and bathroom design - the list goes on.
Unlike spiritual wealth, the novelty of material wealth wears off very quickly. No sooner has the latest gadget, accessory or appliance been acquired that the excitement and interest wanes and another new item is sought. The purpose of materialism is simply the accumulation of more and more goods.
The reasons for a materialistic outlook are frequently competitive, a question of keeping up with the Joneses. People evaluate their financial and material status based on what they don't have. The absence of a plasma TV or spa bath causes a sense of inferiority and low self-worth. Many materialistic individuals may see things very differently if they simply compared themselves to those that are worse off.
One definition of a person that is wealthy is one that is content with what he has. In this definition, a truly materialistic person will never be wealthy. There is always the lack of something that must be pursued.
Unfettered materialism can be quite destructive at a personal level. Many work for twelve or more hours per day. They spend many months away from their families. They subject themselves to huge amounts of stress.
The basic material needs of Homo sapiens are really quite modest - food, shelter clothing, education and healthcare. Anything else is a bonus. But few realise just how much they actually have. If they did, then there would be many more wealthy people populating the world.

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