The Gospel of Wealth

The betrayal of the age of excess has made us hungry for a new code reconciling material and spiritual longings.

Comments: 125

  1. You have hit a nerve, David.

    This break-down, and failure of the pulpit to envey against it due to the operating budget of the pulpit is what allowed rampant capitalism run amok.

    There is no way the mass perfidy of entire stratas of society and refusal of professions to police themselves could exist if those professionals and the members of social strata actually encountered the people they were fleecing - at least on a weekly basis at church/synagogue or while shopping.

    The ability to hide behind anonymity has allowed us to be plundered as if we are prey.

  2. "Live as if you made $50,000 a year, he (Platt) suggests, and give everything else away. Take a year to surrender yourself. Move to Africa or some poverty-stricken part of the world. Evangelize."

    Okay, Mr. Brooks and Rev. Platt, I will evangelize to the choir of my fellow NY Times readers. First of all, I and many others ALREADY live on less than $50,000 a year. As far as giving everything away, many Americans have actually had things TAKEN away - think houses, jobs and health, due to lack of insurance.

    Take a year, surrender yourself. Okay, how does 99 and counting weeks of unemployment sound? Sure, we'll take a year, a decade. Surrendering may be an option for nouveau- minimalist rich people, not so much for the majority of Americans.

    Move to some poverty-stricken part of the world? Um... how about our own backyards, if we even have a backyard any more.

    Here's a thought on how to get that good old time religion: have the CEOs making $5 million a year hire a whole bunch of people who want jobs, and pay them an actual living wage! I can't think of anything more Godlike than that.

  3. I have to assert this column is silly. I don't need some unhappy megachurch leader to tell me that living beyond our means is a dead end. I learned that from my parents.

    I'd argue that if you need a columnist from the NYTimes and a megachurch pastor to turn you back to living within your means then you have really failed yourself. Good luck in your personal austerity plan and better luck finding a local set of friends and family that value you and not your fake empty lifestyle.

  4. While I'm not a churchgoer, I have been in the past. I was part of a church that practiced the gospel by living very austerly. The Order of Franciscan Minors even wore brown clothing because they believed it was closer to the earth and the preachings of Jesus, if I recall after all these years. It makes me mad when I see all of these megachurches trying to sell themselves in the name of God and then turning around and putting people down because of their beliefs, or lifestyle. Who put John Hagee, or Oral Roberts, or Jerry Falwell in charge? They may at one time been humbl;ed before the Lord, but they lost that.

  5. A while back, there was an excellent New Yorker essay about the post-consumerism world. There are alternatives. We can go the communitarian route, emphasizing community over consumption, and go back to the era of civic and community engagement we left behind. We can throw some emphasis on transcendence, as many religious leaders might argue for, or go for a little bit of both. http://www.tnr.com/article/spent

    I know that some would say that memories are short, and if the economy does recover, all this talk about living within our means may ultimately evaporate. However, it is a fact that the generation of Americans who grew up during the Great Depression ended up being tremendous lifetime savers and shunned debt..

  6. The constant striving for more is the root cause of the economic decline.

    The ethos of striving to juice the next quarters results, to drive up share prices, resulted in a system which de-emphasizes the production of goods and services in America, and rewards the exportation of jobs overseas. There is no calculation of the end point of this phenomenon, where vast amounts of materials are shipped overseas (at huge carbon cost), so the American consumer will have access to shelves and shelves of low cost goods at Walmart, and other large retailers.

    On an individual scale, the striving of every person to acquire more and more material possessions as "success chits" in the game of Life have driven the growth in the world economy.

    If you are right Mr Brooks, and the tapped out, over-extended American consumer really does reset their meter and start to save, we need to calculate our economic models with 15% less consumer demand for the next decade. This means that there is not the revenue to grow ourselves out of this hole.

    In the long term, if this re-set works to redefine values, and put the levers of production back in America, this will be a good thing. In the meantime, it is going to be a rough decade.

  7. Dear David,
    I am delighted to see you taking up the subject of the conflict between religious and materialistic values in the American culture. I also believe that the emphasis on "having more for me" runs contrary to the more communal ("love thy neighbor as thyself") teachings of the church.

    But when you say "... the country is clearly redefining what sort of lifestyle is socially and morally acceptable and what is not.", you leave out another, parallel "redefinition" America needs to go through. We need to redefine ourselves - after looking really hard in the mirror - and decide if we are going to be a country that tells the truth about our past, present, or future or not. Because - just as our economic crisis is causing people to reexamine their relationship to the old "more stuff equals happiness" foundation of capitalism - the extraordinary level of non-truth telling we are seeing around us is (or should be) causing us to reevaluate just how (and under whose leadership) we want to get to the future that most moral, religious, and even some political leaders still say we should have.

    In the year 2000, a great many religious, civil and political leaders came together and created the Millennium Development Goals. And according to these pretty much universally agreed-upon goals, the world was to be a much healthier place by 2015. That's only 5 years from now. And while some might say that it's time to reconsider whether those goals can be achieved, I say that - if America commits itself to seeking leadership that tells the truth about what's truly possible - then the Millennium Development Goals can still be achieved.

    And by "truth" I mean spiritual and scientific truth. Spiritual truth would mean "growing up" as a culture and giving up our addiction to "stories meant to keep us divided" that claim to be the "news of the day". And spiritual truth would also mean giving up our culture of always being the victim. American has done a lot of good for the world. But it has also done a lot of bad. And wouldn't it be wonderfully mature of us - as a culture - if we were to finally acknowledge that America is not some "never in the wrong" country? Wouldn't it be amazingly mature if - for example - we used the upcoming 9/11 anniversary to have a serious nation-wide discussion about how the anger of certain people in the world towards America didn't just come out of the minds of mad men... but that there were things America did in the past that were not on the side of the angels that played a role in all this as well?

    And by scientific truth, I mean allowing the knowledge and wisdom of the macro-systems-oriented scientific community to enter into American policy making the way people in that community have been calling for ever since Gerard Piel (founder of Scientific American) and Buckminster Fuller (author of "Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth") wrote about the new options available for mankind back in the 1960's? A great many scientists who think "large" like Gerard and Bucky have known that the root cause of war is obsolete... that because of our ability to "do more with less" (including educating people) it's possible to raise the standard of living world-wide. The catch? We have to give up thinking that fighting wars is an acceptable method of achieving foreign policy goals. And we have to radically scale back the military-industrial-media complex's power (as Pres. Einsenhower said we should).

    I am thrilled to be living in a time when so many people are seeking to reevaluate how they live as you have written about it, David. But I am convinced that - unless we include this search for spiritual and scientific truth in this process - that the result we come to as a society in going to be not just extremely "half baked" but also missing in a critical dimension of thinking that (if included) could lead to a true transformation of American society and the realization of the purest form of the Founding Fathers' vision.

  8. I'm not sure I share your hope that what will emerge from this post-excess moment is a new code of restraint. I remember having that hope when I read the Time Magazine cover in 1990 that proclaimed "The 80s are over; greed goes out of style." There were plenty of reasons to imagine people would embrace a new, healthier set of values. But as you noted, in the late 90s Silicon Valley (where I lived at the time) took off again and I remember counting 8 hummers in my little neighborhood of about 10 square blocks, all owned by 20-something engineers.

    I don't think there is anything wrong with affluence. Money is just a mechanism that allows one person to exchange their labors of love (and passions), their invention or product, for another's. I worry when I hear people talking about money or affluence as somehow making those that have it less spiritual. There is no fundamental conflict between wealth and having a connection with some higher power. And while many may choose to believe "success in the kingdom of God involves moving down, not up" it goes against nature, which must have been created by God (if there is one) as a model for us. Nature is abundant, creative and multiplying.

    There is not a single cause of what you are talking about here, the breakdown of values that we've seen over the last few decades. I'm not at all convinced that it has anything to do with the bigger is better mentality of Americans. Our imagination and belief that we can achieve our dreams if we work towards them is one of the best traits of Americans, and not something present in all cultures. Our entrepreneurial spirit is something others aspire to. Sure, there are some side-effects, but If there is a swing to less-is-more as espoused by Platt, it is probably more to do with fear and economic insecurity than anything else. Fear constricts creativity and makes people want to point a finger somewhere. If “money is bad” is the new chant of the moral materialists, then those of us who believe that money is neutral, and that it is our efforts (hard work) and values (saving instead of debting) that count should fight back. Only the creation of products and services, and their consumption, are likely to dig us out of this economic hole that is causing all of this fear.

    The breakdown in values may have more to do with the 15 minutes of fame now available to everyone through youtube, reality tv, the internet and other artifacts of our abundance than the abundance itself. Keeping up with the Joneses is much more compelling when we are bombarded by their images 24/7 on big and little screens. I am not sure there is much hope for changing the media without change on an individual and personal level. It is much easier to place the blame somewhere else, but more efficient to start in our own home.

    www.bruisedandbattered.com

  9. America is a nation that was born under God. Yet, it remains a secular state, that insures freedom of religion. It professes equality of all men regardless of their creed, a government of checks and balances, the free flow of information and the freedom to pursue one's potential regardless of one's social standing. The pursuit of wealth for the sake of wealth has been rejected. We care for our elderly in the form of Social Security and Medicare, we assist the poor with social programs, we provide free and affordable education to all and we preserve our natural resources in the form of protected federal land. We do this while striving to preserve the ethic of self-reliance, hard work and full employment. In America, materialism is a means to achieve our stated goals. That is the Puritan ethic; that is the Judeo-Christian ethic, and that is the American ethic. Although we have been guilty of excesses along the way, we have exorcised our demons and through faith in God and our ideals have risen to a higher plateau of human existence. I think despite the hard times and bitter political battles we are going through right now we have a lot to be proud of. The only thing that stands between us and what we want to be is a little more tolerance of each other's point of view.

  10. Back in 1932,Bertrand Russell wrote a remarkable essay advocating a work week composed of four hour days. As we redefine where we wish to be going, it may be of substantial interest. It would certainly help to dramatically lower unemployment!

    Below are the closing paragraphs. The full text can be found at www.aesopinstitute.org

    IN PRAISE OF IDLENESS

    In a world where no one is compelled to work more than four hours a day, every person possessed of scientific curiosity will be able to indulge it, and every painter will be able to paint without starving, however excellent his pictures may be. Young writers will not be obliged to draw attention to themselves by sensational pot-boilers, with a view to acquiring the economic independence needed for monumental works, for which, when the time at last comes, they will have lost the taste and capacity. Men who, in their professional work, have become interested in some phase of economics or government, will be able to develop their ideas without the academic detachment that makes the work of university economists often seem lacking in reality. Medical men will have the time to learn about the progress of medicine, teachers will not be exasperatedly struggling to teach by routine methods things which they learnt in their youth, which may, in the interval, have been proved to be untrue.

    Above all, there will be happiness and joy of life, instead of frayed nerves, weariness, and dyspepsia. The work exacted will be enough to make leisure delightful, but not enough to produce exhaustion. Since men will not be tired in their spare time, they will not demand only such amusements as are passive and vapid. At least one per cent will probably devote the time not spent in professional work to pursuits of some public importance, and, since they will not depend upon these pursuits for their livelihood, their originality will be unhampered, and there will be no need to conform to the standards set by elderly pundits. But it is not only in these exceptional cases that the advantages of leisure will appear. Ordinary men and women, having the opportunity of a happy life, will become more kindly and less persecuting and less inclined to view others with suspicion. The taste for war will die out, partly for this reason, and partly because it will involve long and severe work for all. Good nature is, of all moral qualities, the one that the world needs most, and good nature is the result of ease and security, not of a life of arduous struggle. Modern methods of production have given us the possibility of ease and security for all; we have chosen, instead, to have overwork for some and starvation for others. Hitherto we have continued to be as energetic as we were before there were machines; in this we have been foolish, but there is no reason to go on being foolish forever.

    It should be noted that the late Louis Kelso devoted decades of his life to seeking ways to make it possible to find practical ways for half of average American incomes to be received from investments that are not necessarily derived from savings. See www.cesj.org for the continuation of his work. Employee Stock Ownership Plans (ESOPs) now used by 11,000 firms were the first successful invention toward that goal.

    As automation and overseas production eliminate millions of domestic jobs, it is time to consider ideas that open new horizons.

    Once past the morass in the markets that presently obtains, investment portfolios that include overseas companies might open a life of liberty and the pursuit of happiness to most of our countrymen.

  11. If the 21st Century is to be recalled as the "the great age of headroom" characterized by vast houses with "areas of empty overhead space" then this would be a metaphor as much for the age of large heads that were empty as much as it would be an icon of moral materialism.

    And the turning point that lead to this empty mindedness would not be inexplicable rise of American materialism, following the heady optimism of Reagan who defeated the communists, but ironically enough the rise of the FED which promised that through the new economics the days of boom and bust were over. With this kind of false assurance, Clinton and Bush took their feet off the brakes, and an entire country--across all classes--felt heaven had arrived on earth, that all could be wealthy and there were no worries.

    The problem with powerful ideas, such as the ones promoted by the FED, is that occasionally they are delusional. When hundreds of thousands, indeed millions of people, start believing in something new that they had not thought before it is time to begin to think about why this might be so.

    At the time the FED promised heaven on earth, the Christian right assumed increasing power in the United States, big government was increasingly derided, and oddly enough, virtue was made of vice. In a curious transformation of the Horatio Alger myth one could go from rags to riches more quickly by committing some crime or another, writing about it, preaching the self's conversion to a new life, and profiting from unreflected upon degeneration than by a true reflection of what had taken place. Instead we were all victims somehow and the cures were new found programs that promised conversion to new lives. Former alcoholics, drug addicts, cheats and liars, became our new heroes. Talk show hosts embraced the new Alger figure who had been rich, then went into ruin, and from these new rags found new riches.

    Meanwhile--keeping Brook's metaphor of the large empty room alive--bookstores emptied, libraries closed, and people walked the streets talking to themselves with barely concealed devices implanted into their ears as America produced a new kind of Aspergers. We could live in a society in which we need not look at neighbors, we could sing to a tune only we could hear, and our live conversations were on cell phones.

    In short, Americans became deeply and profoundly anti-social. The idea of contributing to one's society--a foundational conviction in America--was abandoned. Government, which is there as representative of our collective will, that taxes us in order that we might contribute to the viscera of infrastructure, was not only demeaned but "inside the beltway" had become a phrase that taking part in government, or even to lobby it, was to be corrupt.

    I mention the above because they are only a sample of the negative transformations undergone in the United States in a comparatively short period of time. And while Mr. Platt's own metaphor of what is wrong may be apt for his community (our churches are too big and we need to go back to the simple iconic life of Jesus) I believe the "downsize" metaphor--though intuitively understandable--may be another powerful wrong idea.

    I suggest, instead, that we face and think through a very unpopular idea. That in order for the United States to return to something of its previous greatness it is going to have to increase taxation and the size of the federal government. "You get what you pay for." Remember that? And we haven't paid our way for thirty years now. As a grateful graduate of UC-Berkeley I have watched California slide from first place in the provision of education (in the world in my view) to a dismal no-show position. Republicans and others had a powerful idea: we had to cut taxes. School districts cut back on school budgets. Small schools were merged into mega schools, with yes, great empty high spaces. The UC system charged tuition and cut costs and...so it goes.

    To help this country get back on its feet we must first address paranoid ideas that our own government is our enemy. If we can discuss why paying progressive taxes is a good idea then we may be able to think again about the American dream. And I reckon that the reckless individual materialism of the 80's and beyond will have been simply an outcome of a country that believed it could get something for nothing.

  12. In some places churches of the Middle Ages could be megachurches too, housing in their complex a hospital, a home for the elderly, a school, and an orphanage, all of these supported by the tithe. Churches today often still expect or at least hope for their ten percent, but taxes, health insurance, and personal savings have to support the institutions that the churches have spun off. Prosperity churches often get their ten percent, even from people who have too little left over for food, for the same reason that these same misguided people applaud tax cuts for the rich, enabling the pastor to live like a king.

    It would be lovely if today's megachurches would use their mega-capacity to do more for people struggling in our limp economy. In all honesty, I don't live near any megachurches and just see what the smaller ones are doing - hosting food banks and weekly free lunches, organizing visits to elderly church members - but their size puts limits on how much they can do.

    As for living as if we were earning fifty thousand and giving away the rest - some of us are earning half that and have nothing left over to give.

  13. Your statement that the Tea Party has "Norman Rockwell ends" would probably make the painter roll over in his grave. Even his early, more sentimental paintings were all about community, cooperation, and diversity, not angry divisiveness. Over time his work became more political and spoke to the causes championed by the left. Let's not cede his values of love of family and community to the right.

    Andrew Carnegie, who wrote "The Gospel of Wealth," would also probably be rolling over in his grave this year, now that the inheritance tax has lapsed. He believed that great inherited wealth should not be passed on to one's dependents, but rather taxed progressively by the state.

    Struggling families might also be incensed by this column because of the suggestion that they live as though they made $50,000 a year. That would require an awful lot of them to sink further into debt.

    Many Americans have never needed a code to help them cope with their own affluence. Even some of the more affluent haven't. Here in New Hampshire the wife of a former governor with a successful real estate business helps run a charity shop where she and many of her friends not only sell used clothing, but buy some of it to wear themselves.

    Forgive me if I don't rejoice that some (not all) of the Hummer-driving set will have to begin to restrain their spending. Like you I'm not sure that spending less automatically makes people develop a moral sense and compassion for others. I'm also afraid of the role this "new" religion might play in the lives of those who are already struggling. Should we really be counseling heads of families that are barely scraping by that, "success in the kingdom of God involves moving down, not up?" Convince the poor that lack of money makes them holy, and the ruthless have an open field. That's all we need.

    What we do need is an understanding that politics and religion should be kept separate, and that it is up to governments to structure a society in which ruthless schemers do not take advantage of those whose values (religious or otherwise) prevent them from mastering the universe. If we make more of what we agree is immoral actually illegal, we can begin to worry less about codes that many simply choose to ignore. A well-functioning society may do more to convince us of the value of working together than any admonition from a religious leader.

  14. The author seems to confuse spirituality with Christianity and wealth with materialism and materialism with bad morality. His eclectic line of thinking serves only those who like pontifications.

    “The tension between good and plenty, God and mammon, became the central tension in American life, propelling ferocious energies and explaining why the U.S. is at once so religious and so materialist. Americans are moral materialists, spiritualists working on matter.”

    Morality is a conceptual habit of a society that is rooted in the interests of a dominant social class or masters. Being good may not apply to all groups or classes’ interests in the world. To capitalists, in particular, monopoly finance capitalists, greed is good and plenty of money is good and there is no tension between good and plenty at all; similarly, they are Gods or “masters of universe” and mammon is their way of living; God and mammon are one and the same. Where is the tension? To even ordinary folks, as the new and old masters have brainwashed the contentant middle class and gullible poor people from time immemorial, they have followed their masters or the dominant class, generation after generation, in worshipping mammonist morality closely. “The tension… propelling ferocious energies and explaining why the U.S. is at once so religious and so materialist” does not exist except for some drivellers because capital has effortlessly pragmatized away any such tension, if ever existed, from the ideological sphere of the society.

    Americans whose ideology is that of the dominant class that rule them are neither moral materialists and nor spiritualists working on matter. They are pragmatists or liberal nationalists. (See Brian Lloyd, “Liberty Philosophy: Nationalism and the Making of American Pragmatism,” Science and Society, October 2009, PP. 498-531)

    The U.S. class in dominancy treats Christianity in a self-contradictory content that clinging to it helps the class laundering plutocracy, meanwhile persuading the ruled classes to believe (actually to misbelieve) that it was their destiny, not the system, that caused them to remain poor after hard working for life after life. Since the system and its dominant class have hijacked religions to self-serve and hoodwink the working people, they have reduced spirituality to only religions as though except religions there were no any other spirituality of human being. Capitalism has buried Enlightenment together with any spirituality but monotheist religions.

    Materialism is more than just matter or wealth. Materialism holds that the only thing that exists is matter; that all things are composed of material and all phenomena (including consciousness) are the result of material interactions [in our brains.] (See wikipedia.org) In addition, our consciousness and thought originate from, and reflect in our brain of, the objective reality.

    To equate materialism to consumerism is originally a delirium and deception propagated from Wall Street, along with the complicit nascent monopoly finance capitalism. Capitalists want to sell to make money so consumerism becomes the touting national totem. There is no need to hear a priest to point it out that how bad “the American Dream” is. George Carlin, the late, great American comedian quipped, “It’s called the American Dream because you have to be asleep to believe it.” Objective reality is the best teacher for many philosophically idealists or people that “are central to” apology for the dominant class.

    Materialism is not a mechanical dogma that doubts all notions, thoughts and spirituality. Materialism and spirituality are opposite to each other but they belong to the identity of contradictory existence. Even though the nature of matter is the primary existence, this does not forestall consciousness and thoughts from rendering great influence on and activating tacking power back to the matter that gives rise to the consciousness and thoughts in the first place.

    "Conservatives say if you don't give the rich more money, they will lose their incentive to invest. As for the poor, they tell us they've lost all incentive because we've given them too much money." - George Carlin. That says much of how the “Gospel of Wealth” of the conservatives that the author trumped it up as of everyone in the U.S. has done to the country.

    The economic crisis will not discommode the author from churning out gospels like this again when a recovery, however fleeting, arrives. Morality when meeting with snobbish secular preachers for the masters, it has no choice but to bow them out.

  15. Too bad for America that the damage is already done! Too bad for Christianity that it has adopted the very worst traits of civilization for two thousand years! The United States of America is a bankrupt, insolvent nation which will not afford its citizens a $50,000 a year lifestyle in the decades ahead.

    Humankind is in a bad, bad place. The full extent of damage that humankind has done to the Earth is not yet evident. Once Nature begins changing technological civilization isn't going to survive. Humans failed to appreciate that civilization enjoyed 10,000 years of relative climatic stability. Our species performed a giant global experiment and gambled the survival of the species for the sake of easily squandered wealth.

    Americans are going to need to learn to live with nothing in the years ahead. Americans must accept impoverishment peacefully, too, otherwise this nation will dissolve into social strife and bloodshed.

    After 2000 years of spilling blood worldwide for the sake of gold, resources, power and cross the Christians might want to begin praying to God for forgiveness for all the sins already committed and for all the sins that they continue to commit. Wars in Iraq, exploitation of workers in the Third World, the destruction of the Gulf of Mexico, gluttony and morbid obesity at home ... Christians have set the standard of living in the moral gutter and it cannot find its way out.

    God has already grown weary of humankind (Genesis 6:5-6). Humankind has grown weary of existence. Nature will resolve this problem with the extinction of humankind.

    Don't worry, though, life will go on. There is life after humankind just as the Earth flourished after the dinosaurs went extinct. In losing humankind the Universe isn't losing much.

    http://www.flickr.com/dmathew1

  16. Your piece today would be edifying if weren’t so myopic. The seminal urge to accumulate material wealth may be called “The American Dream”, but only in America: it is a universal bacterium that infects and has infected practically all humans in practically all cultures, throughout history. It doesn’t need to manifest itself by recourse to Hummers and Suburbans, or to houses with excessive headroom, but is merely a very natural human desire to live well while not killing oneself with work. In short, it represents the desire to arrive at the pinnacle of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, in which we seek the leisure to be motivated by self-actualization, rather than merely by the most basic motivation, which is providing for physiological needs, such as food and shelter.

    The only thing particularly American here is that it was in America that the ordinary soul, unblessed by familial connections and inherited wealth, first could aspire to such heights based on his (and eventually her) own efforts.

    Any religious framework that seeks to short-circuit this most human of impulses is highly questionable, and one that should be avoided as one avoids bad cheese, or the excessively, morbidly and loudly liberal. One suspects motivations, since all Christian branches have for ages stressed some form of asceticism as the necessary prerequisite to attainment of a state of grace, which is convenient as it enslaves the individual to the particular needs of a priesthood, whether they dress in black and eschew sexual congress, or whether they call themselves David Platt.

    Finally, your myopia causes you to assume that our current economic troubles are permanent. Nonsense. They are as temporary as the troubles in which Democrats find themselves at present as they are about to lose both House and Senate: nothing but death and stupidity is ever permanent.

    The need to self-actualize rather than merely survive will rise again, just as the American confidence in our ability to secure that objective will rise as well, even without Hummers and Suburbans.

  17. What defines us is a sort of self-loathing. We hate the government our founders fought to establish. Our government. This leaves us expecting government intervention when it's the best option but not wanting government to do anything for fear it will fail and cost us money.

    Perhaps we will downsize our lives. Many have already due to this nasty recession we got through three decades of pretending cutting taxes is a money maker and government is the enemy. All that got us was 13 trillion in debt with an unregulated financial sector that played fast and loose with honesty and honor. And it got us a politics of hate that refuses to recognize the reality of these hard times, still pretending tax cuts will cure the problems tax cuts helped create.

  18. I serve as the CFO for a small technology company with 19 employees. I have also personally guaranteed a small amount of the business debt.
    In the next few months, I will have to withdraw money from my IRA to make up for a cash shortfall. It is also likely that I will have to cut my modest pay, even though I was hoping to increase my compensation.
    The alternative do doing this is to reduce staff or reduce the benefits we offer. We currently match our 401K 8% in cash and we could reduce this. We could also ask that employees pay for a larger portion of their health insurance.
    But our culture is that during difficult times leadership equals sacrifice. And leadership begins at the top.
    On September 22, I have an interview for a consulting job. If I land the job, I am hoping to reduce my pay as CFO to 1,000/month with no benefits.

  19. Another undercurrent in the spiritual/material dialectic that currently plays in the political sphere is the tension between the individual versus the whole. Our society has devolved into an "every man for himself" individualistic "dog-eat-dog" rabid society with those who are best placed gain a disproportionate advantage, barely leaving scraps for everyone else. This further involves demolition of any so-called "safety net," and the widespread perception that there must be something wrong with you if you're not in the elite 1% already. Oh, the shame.

    The other side sees profiting by the few at the expense of millions to be little different from those who dealt in the slave trade in centuries past. Sure it can be done, but is it moral? No doubt those who profit at the top of the drug cartels rationalize their insane profits by casting it in business terms of supplying a desired commodity, but the consequences of their "business" leaves a harvest of destruction behind. The Wall St. crowd is no better, the few manipulating the economic engine so that it crashes and burns on what little the average American can put aside, call it investing rather than "gambling" and the rubes won't know the difference.

    Are we our brothers' and sisters' keepers, or are we lost? Carnegie endowed many public libraries so that education for everyone became far more accessible; the world of books opening this world and worlds of imagination to people who would not otherwise have much access outside of the daily grind. Social Security because helping the neediest strengthens the whole. Medicare and Medicaid because being ill shouldn't bankrupt.

    It is our moral obligation to do better. We've used enough slack in making the demands and responsibilities softer and of less consequence, "out of sight and out of mind" won't cut it. After all, as the Christ put it, "Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me." Matt 25.45

  20. I take exception to the statement that "the American dream emphasizes self-development and personal growth," unless by "personal growth" you mean "growth in material wealth." Even so, it is nice to see someone from the Christian evangelical movement understand how un-Christian it is. If only the mass of conservatives calling themselves Christians would do the same, this country and the world would be a better place. Meanwhile, I'd love to live as if I made $50,000/year, if only I made $50,000/year! I can't say I feel poor, though (I certainly am not). If I lived in a country with a social safety net approaching European norms, I'd probably have little use for the money I do make!

  21. "But the country is clearly redefining what sort of lifestyle is socially and morally acceptable and what is not."

    No, the country is redefining what is affordable when one is either unemployed or living in constant fear of joining the ranks of the unemployed. We don't voluntarily downsize our lives because consumption has become the way in which we choose define success. We need to accumulate more and better stuff to prop up our self-esteem. Any lifestyle changes that you see now are the result either of necessity or fear. They will last only until the next bubble comes along and people manage to convince themselves, once again, that the conventional economic rules no longer apply for one reason or another. We don't learn from our mistakes and so are destined to repeat them over and over again. Kind of like "Groundhog's Day."

  22. I agree. This recession has been a blessing in disguise. People can no longer buy huge homes, cars, televisions and so many other things that add fake value to their lives. They can't fly or drive around as much as they want because they can't afford it. Now they have to find meaning in real things like family, friends, spirituality etc. The government can't spend money on senseless wars and lethal weapons and space programs. Spending money on education and healthcare and infrastructure will seem more sensible. If this trend holds it will be a nightmare for the filthy rich and the Republicans who implement their ideology. But this is great for the environment and the human soul which have been seriously battered by the reckless materialism that has been glamorized and propagated for several decades now. Its probably difficult to get used to this new reality but its a wonderful think to have happened for America.

  23. I see no evidence of anyone downgrading their lifestyle other than those without jobs. Around these parts people are still buying their "cowboy Cadillacs" and the few houses that are moving in the dead real estate are the expensive and lavish ones. The high-end stores and restaurants are doing better than the ones geared to working class people.

    My daughter lives in East Hampton, Long Island, in one of the richest areas of the country. She says there has been no difference at all in the spending habits of the rich, and her business is thriving. The big and lavish houses are still being bought, for less money, but they were extremely over-priced anyway.

    I have heard of the preachers in some of the big mega churches who are talking about downgrading lifestyles and caring more about the poor, but they seem to only be making headway among the young, who don't have much money these days anyway. Here in the bible belt we see just as many little, tiny women driving the biggest trucks.

  24. Religion in the U.S., from Jonathan Edwards through the abolitionist ministers and transcendentalists through Martin Luther King on to current day evangelicals, pitted itself against the rationalism of the Enlightenment, which viewed America as a secular democracy ruled by reason -- classical principles of logic, moderation and self-discipline -- and secular justice. The religious were essentially populists who eschewed "elitist" learning and institutions. Even Jonathan Edwards, a believer in predestination an the authority of the ministry, had to come to terms with such views, queasy as they made him feel. (He wrote an essay deploring the hysterical evangelicalism of the First Great Awakening, but had to hedge his criticism, because the movement was, in local communities, politically powerful -- sort of like the Tea Party.)

    The "new code" sought through religion and political populism was not a rejection of materialism; on the contrary, most of those who adhered to such views were seeking a larger piece of the economic pie. What they did not like, was the political status quo. Whether waved by the right or the left, the religious flag in America has been the emblem of political dissent.

    Unfortunately, in the hands of the right, that flag has also been that of reaction. The abolitionists -- Henry Ward Beecher, and the secular, transcendentalists -- and civil rights leaders of the 1960s, used a religious rhetoric to challenge slavery and segregation, in the name of progressive politics and racial democracy. The right has used religion to tear down the edifice of reason and secular morality in the name of a "democracy" that is more like mob rule; the rule of fear, provincialism and isolation, in opposition to the cosmopolitan views of the the framers, all of whom were highly educated. Big business has tapped this vein of populism, rugged individualism, and religious fundamentalism to fuel its own aim of opposing, not science and technology, but the classical values of justice and temperance that went with such secular institutions, when your heroes were Bacon, Newton, Locke, not the industrial capitalists of the 19th, 20th and 21st Century.

    That's history, according to the historians. David's musings are merely 21st Century radical conservatism, the latest effort to marshal the religion of the mob in the service of the corporate machine.

  25. I'm afraid both Mr. Platt and Mr. Brooks are very mistaken. The wealthy are spending billions on lobbying to make sure they continue to increase their percentage of the nation's wealth. Here in CA, Meg Whitman is spending more than $100M to become governor, so that she can give tax breaks to her wealthy peers and herself. Carly Fiorina is also spending tens of millions running for Congress to accomplish the same goal-tax breaks for the rich. Goldman and the other big Wall Street firms are still paying out billions in bonuses and hedge fund managers are whining that they should not pay more than 15% in taxes on their income. The rich are still spending as if it's 1999. I don't see any of the local luxury car dealerships going out of business and multimillion dollar mansions are selling fairly briskly in LA, although the market for Candy Spelling's $150M megamansion seems a bit slow. Not to worry, I'm sure it will sell soon to some hedge fund manager who is making a fortune on the down real estate market.

  26. I cannot disagree more with everything David has said here. His story is a cynical view, giving those who want to rectify the path of American government and the American economy the lowest place in American society.

    What we want is American government and institutions and their leaders to serve the interests of Americans, and wealth actually has very little to do with it. Americans are not concerned about wealth per se, since they are great generators of their own wealth. They want a system that does not squelch production and quality of life.

    We have two big problems - the interests of the wealthy are at odds with the interests of average Americans, and the money system is dysfunctional. These two problems are related and require almost a revolutionary change in the management of the US economy, its trade relationships and the relationship of its currency to the real American value system.

    David seems to be in one of his regressive sick periods in which he sees things upside down again - the victims are to blame for their valuelessness and their movements only self-serving. Nothing could be further from the truth. He would do better to laud Wall Street and Washington for their loyalty to dividing the nation into predators and prey and promoting the Malthusian end to American Patriotism - at least he would be loyal to his true self (which is well known by everyone but David).

  27. I can absolutely relate to this article. As a twenty-something who grew up in a comfortable middle-class suburb, I've long sought a way to bridge the gap between megachurch consumer spirituality and the aesthetic values preached by the spiritual books I'd purchase (at a megastore Barnes and Nobles). At least among my friends, our material goals involve an emphasis on quality and economy; in general, we appreciate the accumulation of experience and skills (trips to exotic lands, great concerts, increased photography expertise) over material things. Compared to our parents, we have lower expectations regarding our future lifestyle as we enter marriage and child-raising years, and in terms of spirituality, a yearning for smaller-scale, more independent worship.

  28. Here's my question: who are those who hunger for a reconciliation that abandons material wealth for spiritual longings? David, do you see that urge in those who advocate extending Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy? Are those the people who are investing their windfall in philanthropy? Later this morning, my students will be discussing Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle." In it the men working in the stockyards talk bitterly about "working for the church"--the unpaid/underpaid reward that allowed beef trust barons to amass great wealth, a few crumbs of which went to charity. The statistics of giving are clear. Those who forgo wealth, as in the parable of the widow who gave away her second and last mite, are not likely to be those whom 21st century Americans choose to emulate.

  29. I’d like to know where all these affluent people are. Paying the mortgage and car insurance and buying groceries is pretty much the extent of my flamboyant lifestyle. The rest of the country seems to be in the same, or worse, shape. We’re not driving our Hummers to our palatial homes with the 20-foot ceilings. I suspect that you hang around with a different crowd. It’s probably the crowd that the Republicans in congress represent, nice folks like the Murdochs and the Kochs or people of their ilk.

    I can see why a conservative columnist is making a virtue of poverty, since that’s the boat Republicans have put us in, and we have little choice. I hope there are enough churches to hold all the people who will be shedding their material wealth and finding Jesus, once the Republicans take back control of the House, and maybe even do a little damage in the Senate. Sounds like God is the opiate of the downsized, laid off, foreclosed upon, and hungry, who’s eager to revel and glory in our inability.

    Conservative gasbags like Limbaugh, Palin, and Beck promote this kind of mawkish faux piety to the ignorant, and they seem to buy it. I suppose a more sophisticated messenger, and message, was needed for the Times readership, so good job. But I’ll just keep the little material wealth I have, thank you very much, and respectfully ask the Republicans in congress to divest themselves of their wealth, and go evangelize in some poverty-stricken part of the world. Other than the U.S., that is.

  30. ***** Decades of Fake Prosperity
    A frightening and little-known occurrence is taking place in cities all across America: people are, in fact, being put in jail simply because they can’t afford to pay their creditors.
    This chilling article in the Minneapolis Star Tribune details how common the practice is in various parts of Minnesota, and how it’s also taking place throughout the rest of the country, too. For the most part, those getting thrown in jail for being in debt have two things in common: First, they obviously didn’t pay their creditors as agreed. Equally important, though, they failed to show up at court hearings about their debts, which resulted in debtor warrants being issued for their arrest.
    As I read the Star Tribune article, entitled “In Jail for Being In Debt,” my jaw literally dropped. The article profiled multiple individuals who’ve been arrested for unpaid debts, including three women: a 57-year-old patient care advocate who defaulted on a $6,200 credit card bill after a costly divorce, a 41-year-old restaurant cook who didn’t pay a $250 credit card bill, and a 29-year-old new mom who had police show up on her doorstep when she was recovering from giving birth by cesarean section.
    These women were and are not criminals. They simply could not afford to pay their bills — like tens of millions of other Americans. It’s bad enough that people who are truly unable to pay off old obligations get harassed by debt collectors, called at all hours of the day and night, and threatened with wage garnishments or seizure of their bank accounts. Now they have to worry about being incarcerated too?
    What about the 17.8 million Americans who are unemployed or the 47 million Americans who are now on public assistance? I guess they risk getting locked up as well over they’re debts, just because they’re broke?

  31. How convenient that when the vast majority of our citizens are seeing their standard of living drastically eroded, an idea should emerge that makes a virtue of less rather than more. Rejecting the materialistic culture that has defined America almost from Day 1 is a fine idea. It was a fine idea in the 60s too. The problem is to whom it should apply. I would like to see the richest amongst us give up their pursuit of worldly goods - and not just hold it out as a "solution" to the impoverishment of most of the country.

    Bottom line is that wealth continues to accumulate in the hands and pockets of fewer and fewer people, and they keep on thinking up new reasons why this is a good thing. One can hope the new focus on spirituality, in itself a good idea, is not simply converted into another opiate for the masses.

  32. "Platt calls on readers to cap their lifestyle. Live as if you made $50,000 a year, he suggests, and give everything else away." [David Brooks]

    It might be a "revelation" to Mr. Platt and Mr. Brooks, but many Americans can only WISH that they would make $50,000 in any year. Charity is fine and good, but it's no substitute for a moral tax code that would collect a progressive AND sufficient amount from those Americans and businesses that are very well off (they having benefited greatly, and for many years, from American opportunity and stability). Nor is charity a substitute for proper governmental priorities in the spending of revenues collected, or corporate investment in the production of genuinely needed products on U.S. soil.

    For decades --- ever since "St. Ronald the selfish" ascended to the throne --- we've had none of those things, and it shows.

    Mr. Brooks seems to imply that our societal problems are largely about moral failings and improper focus, and with an emphasis on the individual. However relevant that may be, that, together with Mr. Brooks' true-to-past-form vague and laissez-faire suggestion of popular reawakening as solution, lets him avoid facing the issues of SYSTEMIC failures of both government and business --- and the need for governmental action, both with regard to adequate taxation and proper governmental investment in human and material infrastructure, and business obligations to a society that has provided them for many years with the means and the environment to profit far beyond what has been available in most of the world.

  33. Good article. However, Platt sounds like a loon. He reminds me of those Christians who would whip themselves during the middle ages as a display of piety and devotion. Destroying yourself and rejecting this life, which is the only life you are guaranteed to have, is a self-destructive message. If everyone followed his advice, we would all be destitute bums who would die of starvation in a few years. Once all the money is gone, the poor will get no charity. As to the message of the gospels and Jesus, there is no uniform message. Jesus believed the world was coming to an end in his lifetime and thus acquiring any physical possession was beside the point. He was wrong and over time the church and the gospel evolved to actually govern a society that was not approaching Armageddon. At a time, when the pressures of the real world are bearing down on all of us, it is wrong to bash people from wanting to enjoy life. While many over-pious people may hate child-care centers and big buildings, it is important to note those people are only satisfied by bringing down other people.

  34. There's nothing new in Platt's perspective or call for a humilty except that it's couched in specifically Christian terms. Americans' emphasis on self and size and superfluity doesn't differ only from "the call of Jesus and the essence of the Gospel," but from any realistic, reasonable engagement with or understanding of the planet on which we live and depend. That his 'tome' is selling like hotcakes may suggest some kind of 'awakening' to that reality, some way for those who's attention is on the next world rather than this to develop a recognition that this one deserves and requires a different kind of attention and respect than it's received, and for that we can all bow our heads in gratitude. But the insights offered do NOT require religious rationale or justification. Humility, yes; but humility in the face of what is not in respect for or fear of Jesus and some eventual (and personal) retribution for our over-reaching sins.

  35. This nation is getting exactly what it deserves. Greed and egomania of our political and corporate leaders, as well as the deafening silence of our religious clergy, set up a horrific environment for our populace. Money and power became the false religion over the past several decades. Vapid reality shows, plastic remodeled people, entertainers masquerading as saviors of the people and the overall "dumbing down" of our citizenry has lessened our ability to think and cope with the stresses of everyday life. No wonder there are so many depressed people in this country who need to make themselves feel better with material possessions. Hopefully, the moral compass can be reset. But human nature being what it is, lessons learned from this present crisis will be forgotten all too soon.

  36. Moral materialism as "spiritualists working on matter" is semantic garbage. Spiritualists, for starters, are people fascinated with contacting non-corporeal entities "one the other side" -- not really what our guy is talking about. And historically, the endeavor to spiritualize matter was known as alchemy, again something other than Brooks's intended target.

    More fundamentally, the effort to simultaneously enjoy the world of physical desires and pursue the Divine has never been demonstrated to be possible. This is because ultimately the Divine can only be approached from a posture of egolessness, while material desires are intrinsically selfish. Thus they pull in opposite directions. The best that can be hoped for is to attain a state of oneness with God first, after which an intimate exposure to the physical world can be processed as harmless -- so long as you are careful not to identify with the physical experience. In the religious literature perhaps India's ancient King Janaka best exemplified this mode.

    Anyway, our Mr. Brooks is in way over his head on this topic. His sociological recognition of the American post-hangover blues is accurate, but the philosophical analysis is gibberish.

  37. I still believe that strong, empowered, local communities is the way to fix America, and these must inevitably rest on a sense of purpose that is not rooted principally in a national identity. In a nation of 300 million, my single vote is an insignificant percentage, but in my town of 20,000, it is worth much more. The more decisions that I can make locally, the less I have to deal with the gridlock in Washington, and the greater my power to aid my neighbors and the community that I directly participate in. But this model demands that people are held accountable in their communities, that they live frugally, and that they are prepared to know their neighbors and sacrifice for them if necessary. GENUINE Christianity provides these norms, as do many forms of secular humanism. It would be a remarkable thing if a novel political philosophy emerged that emphasized a genuinely local approach suitable for our modern age--no current political party has such a cohesive philosophy. When we stop worshipping Washington and structure the government so that our communities can sustain themselves, we will live in a more robust and democratic nation.

  38. Just to be clear, not everyone bought into the bigger is better ideal of the 1990s. The choices we make are about the values we hold. I want to think that values are learned early and remain constant. I grew up in a small Vermont village where we young children carried shovels in the winter and rakes in the fall, trying to make a dime here, fifteen cents there. Long biographical story short, twenty foot ceilings have never been a need--or a want--of mine. I have accomplished a certain measure of financial success through education and hard work and have always felt that what I had was more than adequate. To this day, now retired and living in a modest house by the ocean, I find myself feeling oddly embarassed by what I have.

    I never owned a Hummer. I never wanted to own a Hummer. Just to be clear.

  39. The Gospels speak for an other worldly spiritual Eastern religion. Christianity is abstemious, pacifist, giving. Yet it was adopted by Europeans who were not spiritual but skeptical, with a worldly, grasping, rapacious and greedy nature. They were not inclined to put off happiness to some time after death. They wanted their fun and women, now and never allowed even their own pagan religions to sink deep roots.

    Thus the West is a greedy, pleasure loving public corseted in an eastern faith that cuts off its lusty circulation. This has turned psychiatry into a booming business, so too the scandal sheets; and society as a whole periodically suffers nervous breakdowns and crises of conscience.

  40. What else can Pratt and others preach? We're all broke. My generation of men hasn't seen a raise in twenty years. We both graduated college, I've a house, two cars, we both work, (thankfully) and the kids are doing well in school. We are the lower middle class, and we're resigned to the fact, that we'll never have a chance for any upward mobility, because both of our employers are sucking up any raises so they can continue with a life style they can't come down from. The American Dream
    was and always has been an American Fantasy, propagated by the ruling elites, so by the time we understood the reality of America, it would be too late to do anything about it. Now the depression is so deep, that lie is laid bare.
    Now what do we hear? Buck up kiddo! Austerity is the new cool, hip thing. Let me just pull this ladder up behind me, oh and don't forget to vote for me in November, we don't want anyone else getting a head of themselves.

  41. Aside from the fact that there is no god or jesus, Platt has some good ideas: spend less on material goods, understand and try to alleviate poverty, stop building megachurches. But the evangelization aspect is just lunacy and must be replaced with something more useful. I would add that it would be interesting if we all spent one dollar on a charity of some sort for each dollar we spend on unnecessary playthings, luxury items, excessive houses and cars, etc. No one needs a hummer. No one needs a mansion or even a mcmansion. If you insist on playing the "christian" game, don't ignore the line about "when you do for the least of my brothers..." Regardless of any religiosity, I think the idea is quite valid. If we don't "spread the wealth", nothing will change.

  42. The Gospel of Wealth is alive today in America, and it will continue to grow since it is really the Gosple of Satan (Mammon) . Statan is always trying to mirror God, to confuse the reader, the follower, the consumer. I know many so-called Christians who live way above the living standards of their neighbors, yet offer to share nothing. Like good Protestants, they are Calvinists, ones who think that God selected them for reward by hard work; they call the poor lazy, untalented, unlucky, they smirk at the striving masses in bus lines, in public school lines, in jail lines. There is not a real Christina bone anywhere in their bodies. Christ would not sit at the same table and break bread with most American Christians today. Like so many Americans, they gorge the majority of the food at the table, and push for even more through tax breaks, loopholes, cheating, business deception, sexual exploitation. Many conservative, white Southern Protestants loath the real poor, and seek to help some abstract, distant group of unfortunates (Israelis: bizarre) continents away. Many show modesty in public, yet are drunken and lecherous in private. The huge mega churches are only an outward representation of the moral smallness within; not blocks from some of these glass and metal monstrosities sit neighborhoods that fester in hunger, crime, and need, but the members of the Megachurch are too busy worshipping a mega-god to pay much attention. Final thought: Ben Franklin was a bigot who disliked Germans and Catholics and he died a wealthy man, and not a man who was known for attending church or feeding the poor.

  43. "Live as if you made $50,000 a year, he [Rev. David Platt] suggests, and give everything else away. Take a year to surrender yourself. Move to Africa or some poverty-stricken part of the world. Evangelize."

    What?! How tone-deaf are both the Rev. Platt and Mr. Brooks, who spends an entire column on the rarefied views of a self-help pastor?

    A lot of young families would be happy to be making the $50,000/year that Platt suggests is enough to live on. I don't know what he earns or Mr. Brooks, for that matter, but I will bet my last dollar that it's a good deal more than $50,000. They can afford to take a year off and go to some poor country to evangelize. However, most Americans (some 15 million, to be exact) would be happy to be earning anything right now. They have no job to give up.

    Of those working, allow me a reasonable question. How is a young family, working 2 jobs, which forces them to place 2 young children in daycare to the tune of over $400/week, paying off a monthly mortgage and 2 car payments, plus forking over skyrocketing dollars for health care costs (after meeting a $5000 deductible), be expected to live on $50,000? This is the current situation for a majority of Americans raising a family: working long and hard to make ends meet, and not having any disposable income to go out or take a vacation. The American dream? Hardly.

    The good reverend's advice: Give everything else away and move to a poor country to evangelize? What happens to your children? Leave them behind or take them to a strange country, with its poverty, disease, and poor educational system?

    To characterize most Americans as "materialistic" is so far off base as to be insulting. The majority are struggling just to pay their bills. Rev. Platt and Mr. Brooks: come out of your comfortable ivory towers for just a little bit and take a long, hard look at the "real" America. You will be in for a big surprise!

  44. Greed and wealth are not good, David Brooks, unless they are in the service of our fellow man and our planet Earth. You spoke jabberwocky and MumboJumbo about the little tennis woman in the great big truck-size car with headroom for her doubles-partner on her shoulders! Give me a break, here. Of course the early Americans, the Ben Franklins and Jonathan Edwards counseled early to bed early to rise, makes a man healthy wealthy and wise...etc. They counseled by whale oil light because they had no electricity, gas or TV. Pablum for the Puritans and segregationists. The decade of 2000 to 2010 provided enough mega mansions, cars, unnecessary material things and junk and genetically -engineered foods to give Americans all e-coli, salmonella, and every manner of disease from air pollution, food pollution and water pollution. What was created and worshiped (such false idols, worse than Baal and dancing eith the stars) will take a long time to disappear. Flathead Asian carp are taking over the Mississippi tributaries and almost entering the Great Lakes, everything we use and buy nowadays (except cars and eggs) comes from China. Yesterday President Obama struck a great chord when he said he wanted to see "made in the USA" on what we use and buy.

    Jesus Christ is not some "suburban dude", David Brooks. Calling him one won't make it so. The "Gospel of UN-Wealth" is very simple and words to guide us back to earlier and saner American values could be stitched on a sampler: "Know the Difference between Need and Want". We Americans need no more moral instruction than that. Keep it simple.

  45. The United State and its pundits go through this "spiritual" awakening ever so often. Yes, our consumer culture is leading us down the road to moral ruin. Funny, though, this lasts until the next uptick in the economy occurs. Then it's on to the bigger and better syndrome. This attitude is especially illustrated by our computer culture: every time you turn around there is another 2.0 or 3.1 something demanding its purchase to stay "current".

    American CEOs with their million dollar office remodelings are held out as examples of success and power. The austerity we embrace now has been forced on us by the greed and recklessness of those paragons of achievement. It's interesting Mr. Brooks would consider living on $50,000 a year as minimal.

  46. NIce to see a return to something of the spirit of John WIntrop, who's 1630 address to the Puritans on the Arabella upon arriving in Massachusetts, the "City on a Hill" warning so often misquoted, admonished the settlers that they would suffer the Lord's wrath if they neglected their charitable duties, noting "the only way to avoid this shipwreck, and to provide for our posterity, is to follow the counsel of Micah, to do justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with our God. For this end, we must be knit together, in this work, as one man. We must entertain each other in brotherly affection. We must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of others’ necessities. We must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience and liberality. We must delight in each other; make others’ conditions our own; rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, as members of the same body. So shall we keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace."

  47. Unfortunately for us, the gospel of wealth has turned into the gospel of survival. The tiny 1% who are the richest among us also personally control over a quarter of our national prosperity--up from less than a tenth several decades ago. A new group of the wealthiest have decided that their financial superiority entitles them to run the country politically as well. The Brits knew how to take care of this with the House of Lords and perhaps we will have the same--the House of Billionaires.

    Those who are not megarich--who cannot live on a modest sum because there are numbered bank accounts to bail them out--are taking their lives in their hands. This is the great act of faith.

    For the rest of us, "speak softly and carry a big stick" might be modified to "live modestly and enact regulations" so that a desire to find meaning in something beyond the grandiose does not translate into self-defeat.

  48. David,

    This is a good essay. Our lust after "stuff" is as old as humanity and periodically the pendulum has to swing back.

    I think this time is different though. As the world enters the plateau phase of Peak Oil economies will have to re-localize and downscale because the energy required to grow the economy will decline.

    This fact has entered the ether and is starting to sink into our consciousness in various ways. I think this is a good and necessary trend.

    The fear, of course, is that a new great awakening will erupt, triggering all kinds of ugly moralizing and self righteousness. America's religious nationalism (the God is on our side kind of thing) could spark violent episodes.

    The next 30 years will be very interesting times.

  49. "The betrayal of the age of excess has made us hungry for a new code reconciling material and spiritual longings."

    David, you are 100% correct.

    Of course, that code has already been instituted and workable for about 2,600 years. It is called Halacha, and forms the essential beliefs and practices of most observant Jews. Other religions have corresponding reconciliation between the material world and the world of spirit.

    We have witnessed the wholesale breakdown of this contract between Man and God (or for some, Man and Nature) for a long, long time, but now the chickens are coming home to roost. Political and religious lunatics exploit the widespread discomfort we feel, but authentic solutions exist.

    Unfortunately, human beings are a stubborn and inertial lot, inclined to 'keep on keeping on' like lemmings plunging into the sea. I grieve at the current and impending tragedies that seem to befall us, but we seem to learn best from our errors not our successes. Things may well get worse become they get better. However, I see light at the end of this particular rainbow.

  50. And so Tim Tebow a devout Christian who believes in the mission experience to help god along also signed for a multi-million dollar NFL deal. The place of worship has let us find an excuse for our greed. Churches are a way to belong. To feel endowed with the right to worship together also puts us in stark contrast with nature which has no leaders. Everyone is food for fodder. We're sure if someone is poor they have led a bad life. If you are rich and cavort as Bill Clinton or someone at the Playboy mansion u did it right.

    But one must realize at the dawn of a new day one has to make a living. And that doesn't include room for god. We are like all the other humans on the earth. We just won't admit it. Babel was not invented here. It was made bigger. We don't care if Warren Buffett cheated on his way to the Oracle of Omaha. We just know he made a mint. Church and other religions give us a false feeling we are right. If I was a murderer and receive last rites I go to heaven?

  51. Go ahead and say it: the wealthy can afford to have the Bush tax cuts repealed. They can afford to pay the social security tax on all their income. They can afford to be part of the solution to the budget deficit. Or is this more of a quasi-religious effort to ask the masses to be appeased with what they have?

    Trickle down economics has resulted in 1% of the people holding 24% of the money, up from 9% in Reagan's era, a clear failure of its stated objective. Calling on the masses to live on $50,000 so we can watch hedge fund managers talk about how they have no incentive to work if they can't make tens of millions a year will hopefully inspire the modern equivalent of Jesus' anger at the moneychangers. He didn't take kindly to the rich cheating the poor out of the little they had and wanted to offer to God.

  52. What we are seeing is something government and politicians cannot control: an economic reset, a "new normal." Without a World War to justify the massive government spending that would lift the economy, as was the case for FDR after his measured stimulus plan failed because they pulled back over worries with the national debt, what will stimulate our economy? Tax cuts. Well, those didn't work so well for the Bush administration whose 8 years produced an anemic net increase in jobs.
    Given that consumer debt is high, and consumers are saving at a record pace, I think Mr. Brooks has written about an important change in America.
    Government can minimize the pain for the least among us, but it cannot control economic cycles.

  53. Until we talk much more honestly about human nature (e.g., the extent to which the primal and fundamental instinct of fear governs our behavior), then no matter how much feel-good-about-yourself-by being-good preaching is praised by powerful pundits, in the end it will have little consequence. Only an unflinchingly honest look at the myriad ways in which we distract ourselves (including by turning to most religious beliefs) from our fears will give us the tools to design a new paradigm based upon the "better angels" in our nature.

  54. My spiritual self is still quite intact thank you. It's every other aspect of my life that has been stepped on repeatedly by the lunatic notions of God, Money, and Military above all else. All three have been shoved down my throat as the gospel and overiding truth.
    America has hit the wall after waging class war for 30 years. The upper middle class you seem to speak to in this article doesn't need to leave the USA. They can volunteer right here. Maybe they can partition half their mini mansion and offer it to a needy family rent free so that family might have a taste of the American Dream. And wouldn't it be right to send those 'disadvantaged' kids to the school in that wealthy district so they might acquire a rich sense of entitlement to everything the wealthy God has to offer?

  55. "Americans are moral materialists, spiritualists working on matter."

    I don't think so. American christians are the great pretenders. They pretend to be moral, even spiritual beings when it benefits them, and they might even go to church once in a while, but the teachings of Christ are quite clearly left at the door as they leave church on Sunday. They are materialists working on matter for sure, but "morality" is used only as a means to gain more material, and usually not in a very Christ-like manner. Take a look at what we are doing in desert for evidence of this.

    Personally, I long for a post-christian US where we keep just one universal precept: the golden rule.

  56. Reading the column reminded me of E. F. Schumacher's "Small Is Beautiful" that emerged during a time of energy shortage and increases in prices of the 1970's. The ideas got consumed by the successes of the years following. President Reagan appealed to the sense of unlimited possibility that has been a part of "the American Dream." The mega-churches with their gospel light followed. I cannot help but wonder if we are seeing another passing fad that will be consumed by something else.

  57. I recently read an interesting book, "Saving Jesus from the Church" by Robin R. Meyers. Robin has been a minister in Oklahoma at Mayflower Congregational, an “unapologetically Christian, unapologetically liberal” church for over twenty years.

    One of the important themes of the book was basically about how to quit worshipping Christ and start following Jesus. I felt he emphasized that belief is secondary and acts are primary.

    He mentioned an interesting exchange with a potential congregant near the end of one of the chapters (p. 161).
    “You probably understand the Christian faith better than 99 percent of the people who join this church. What’s holding you back.”

    He responded “I’m a military man, and I know how to take orders. Therefore, my level of understanding is not an advantage. It might even be grounds for a court martial.”
    I must have still looked confused. That’s when he made it as plain as possible. “Reverend, I get it. I just can’t do it.”

    This exchange reminded me of the following quote:

    "It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God" (Matthew 19:24).

  58. Great philosophy and I agree almost 100%. But...please don't "move to Africa." As someone who has lived and worked throughout the continent over many years, I can only conclude that the naive would-be saviors have done more harm than good, sapping a continent of its self-esteem with next to no understanding of its culture and ecology. The many and varied African peoples aren't objects for you to suck meaning from, anymore than are SUVs: they are humans with dreams and intents of their own.

  59. It's ridiculous to view the forced scarcity and deprivation of the common American people as a sign of changing social norms and morality, that has tended the people towards adopting an austere life as if, they have finally grasped the secret of happy and self-contented life contained in the gospel of Christianity. For if, more and more people seem to be limiting their needs, and saving whatever they could, it's not their choosing, rather a forced predicament, having been thrust upon them by the greedy bankers and speculative financiers in collusion with the regulators. As such, looking at the common people through the tainted prism of American dream,revolving around the worship of wealth or self-aggrandising hedonistic individualism, doesn't only amount to twisting of social reality, but also a mockery of the economically distressed people, and an attempt to lull their sense of questioning injustice and its perpetrators, in the name of the Christian gospel and preachings or pitting austerity against affluence, materialism against morality, and small being beautiful as against the big always bad. What a strange way of justifying injustice or a social and economic hiatus in society!

  60. The reason that our revolution did not go rogue like the French Revolution, at least to the extent the French Revolution did, was that Americans lived in the most prosperous per capita economy at the time. Americans couldn't risk being too hard on the Torys because many of the revolutionaries were like the Tories economically, so they could just let them go rather than kill them.

    I believe that this sense that economies should not be judged by how rich the rich are, but how rich everyone is, is a part of our culture. It is the reason for legends like Horatio Alger. The rags to riches theme is very much a part of our culture. But in the more recent past this myth has been replaced by the idea that each individual should get as rich as possible, no matter its effects on the overall economy. A British professor, Isaiah Berlin, in his lectures "On Liberty" pointed out how this kind of aristocratic thought (my term) was a threat to liberty. A person who is too poor to partake of liberty is nor free. I think that we, as Americans, must reconsecrate ourselves to the idea that Liberty is the founding principle of this country, not getting rich.

  61. David Platt's advice leaves me with more questions then answers. Why cap my income at $50,000 per year? Surely I could get by on less. Why consume anything beyond that absolute minimum which is necessary for subsistence? Surely physical well-being is not wholly corrupting or irrelevant to our existence, even for Christians... Not only did God place man in a material world and give him physical needs, but Jesus himself went out of his way to alleviate physical suffering from hunger to leoprosy.
    Coherent spirituality must acknowledge and incorporate the realities of our material existence, not deny them. And is it really that difficult to imagine how materialism and spirituality may be reconciled? I think of Bill Gates, who dedicates his fortune to things like eradicating malaria. That seems pretty Christlike to me. We only get in trouble when we treat our material wealth as an end in itself, rather than a means to something greater.

  62. Brooks is an advance man with rationalizations for the republican's objective of eliminating the middle class -

    tell them they dont need anything material to live a decent life: tell them education isnt worth it- dont spend the tax dollars - dont go to college the jobs aren't there - tell them whoever paid for and is getting SS is on the "Tit" as Republican Senator Simpson would say - they dont deserve it - tell them medicare is too expensive let them die - tell them their houses are too big or their cars too large - they should walk or live in a cave

    the people who deserve everything - for them it will get cheaper and cheaper now that the middle class is being eliminated and cant afford it - will be those that can travel efficiently on private jets and make small talk with Brooks at luncheons he approves of as he has said in the past

  63. I know from experience the very real feeling of, well, joy would be best way to describe it, when I've done something for someone who tells me, "You didn't have to do that."
    I always answer that I know I didn't have to but I did it because I wanted to.
    When one of my grandsons was a pre teen, he once argued with me that I was rich. I would tell him, no, I'm not rich. I would take him shopping for new school clothes, shoes, and supplies in the Fall. Then again, near Christmas, I'd give him money and take him shopping for Christmas gifts for his mom dad, and brothers. In the Spring I saw that he had baseball equipment.
    I did the same thing for his two brothers.
    And, I guess you could say I was rich, not in money, but rich with happiness I experienced by giving what I knew was needed, to a child whose parents were struggling at times just to get by.
    Blessings come, not from the things you get, but from the things you can give.
    Oh yes, the one who argues that I was rich, I took him Christmas shopping alone one year. His brothers and I had already done their shopping. Well, that little boy bought gifts for all his family, dropped his change into those ubiquitous jars that appear near cash registers around Christmas time, and when we had finished that day, he said to me, "This has been the best day I have ever had.!"
    You think I didn't feel good that day!

  64. Surrender the American Dream. And what is the American Dream? Is it the dream of equality between the rich and the poor? Is it the dream of the strong to use God to quell the the coming fire that will test the patience of all who live in this broken country? I just don't understand when people "believe" that God will show them a "way": they will do anything to break the will of those people who cannot stand "God's will" anymore. Let's start over, and invest in the citizens who have worked with their hands to build this country, but not the rich that take every drop of hope that we have left. If there is a God, he/she doesn't care: we're on our own, and always have been.

  65. And another thing America does is lurch back and forth between extremes.

    From a God that encourages self-exaltation to a God that “delights in exalting our inability”; from a God that wants us to be rich and have a big SUV and McMansion to a God in whose “Kingdom” (interesting word) “success … involves moving down, not up.” Well, which is it? Will this most autocratic of King Gods ever make up his mind?

    But America’s God never seems to waver in his instruction to go “to Africa or some poverty-stricken part of the world [Afghanistan, anyone?] and evangelize.”

    Over the years of booms and busts, the “moral code” simply lurched between flagrantly spending it, or sanctimoniously saving it. But the only Gospel of Wealth America ever had -- and still has -- was that it is good, and that having it is inextricably aligned with God and Virtue. (Goldman Sachs does "His" work.)

    But wealth in America still remains all about “I, me, mine.” That particularly American God’s moral code never changes, and luckily for the top 2 percent's ever-growing share of the pie, probably never will.

    In a nation more willing to share and take care of each other, and less willing to watch their neighbors suffer, the deep immorality we see today in the American God’s “Kingdom," with its inequality, financial criminality and material injustice, would not be possible.

    Be it Ancient Greece, Rome or contemporary America, aren't our Gods always our own projections?

  66. I have found that when I have money, I need money. Something I thought would serve me, I end up serving.

    Being in servitude seems to be my way. The only question is what will I serve. Jesus said, "No one can serve two masters."

  67. Well from Silicon Valley I can tell you that was the ugliest, stupidest, gas guzzling, high-fructose-food-additive, assault and battery-henned era of all time. Here in Los Altos Hills you our neighboring family, in their 8,000 foot Silly Ugly Vehicle of a McMegaMansion cowering in the corner of the cavernous family room - doing what we all do - looking at a screen while the rest of the house goes heated and cooled and ignored the hummer in the driveway.

    The cold-war warriors at the Hoover Insitute on Stanford Campus still preach the gospel of superpower warfare even though the enemy isnt there morphed into a multi-polar fight for hearts and minds not a blunderbus military of bravado and faux heroism. Totally out of touch.

    And you are right. In the cafes the young kids sit shoulder to shoulder gazing at their screens ignoring one another. Twits maybe but they take up a whole lot less space and resources. Small IS hip. at last. Maybe there is hope for the planet afterall.

  68. The challenge is that more people have lost faith in govt. since 2000. Not only did our election system fail and empower the people that most of us feared most, elections have not brought peace to Iraq, Palestine or Afghanistan either.

    To restore our faith, we need these election systems fixed to end this ridiculously bad govt. The election system steers the power. Ask how to fix the failures in govt. caused by outdated election systems to stop squandering society's wealth, and then individuals will be more likely to sacrifice for the common good.

  69. As one who believes many of our norms are shaped by television, I doubt David Platt will have much impact. Put him and his book up against the decadent wealthy who invade our homes and set our expectations every evening, the overpaid sports figures who represent success to so many of our children, and he pales to non-existence.

    I wish our culture were less materialistic. But it's not going to happen in my lifetime.

  70. I miss making $50,000 a year. I'm just longing to keep my head above water and keep a roof over my family's head. I do though have a suggestion to the credit card companies. Quit charging us 30% interest, That would be a real spiritual thing thing to do,

  71. I just paraphrased Fahreed Zakariah to my Moldovan friends about this sociologiocal pheonomeon. "American Religion is a mile wide and an inch deep!" The churches in Eastern Europe evoke a sense of awe and wonder. They are works of beauty. American protestant churches are nothing more than auditoriums. Devoid of anything spiritual or any beauty. They aren't "Evangelical". They are simply enterpeneurial.

  72. I'd love to think that you're right about Americans reassessing core values and guiding principles. But then I try to imagine the top 1% of people who already get 25% of America's income renouncing the more-is-best-materialism. It won't happen. The beneficiaries of the financial industry's gambling are grumbling that their bonuses aren't big enough. Bank of America, no paragon of financial rectitude, is starting to impose monthly fees on checking accounts - - apparently to get more of other people's money to gamble with.
    Do people really "need" granite countertops or Hummers or $300 shoes? No. But the reality is that most of us are cutting back, not necessarily because we want to, but because costs are up, incomes are down. The unexpected benefit could well be a new appreciation of a simpler, less materialistic life, but it's likely to be achieved through necessity, not choice.

  73. Our family has been this way for a long time, largely because we didn't get caught up in the religious ferver of individual responsibility (as you correctly say, individuals and probably even the human race are probably not that impoetant in the long run). Collectively, we should be trying to raise all boats and only then will our way of life be perpetuated. An old Buddhist saying serves as a guide for us, "Do what you can to protect the earth and all its creatures".

  74. Too many have been taught that somehow seeking wealth is not spiritual or that we should feel guilty about being wealthy. This has never made our world better nor will it ever. Instead of giving to others as charity, we should be investing in them and teaching them how to help themselves and how to improve their own futures.

  75. David, any lifestyle changes that you see are the result either of necessity or fear. They will only last until the next bubble comes along and people manage to convince themselves, once again, that the conventional economic rules no longer apply for one reason or another. We don't learn from our mistakes and thus are destined to repeat them over and over again. Kind of like "Groundhog's Day."

  76. "The United States once had a Gospel of Wealth: a code of restraint shaped by everybody from Jonathan Edwards to Benjamin Franklin to Andrew Carnegie". Are you kidding?

    Wealthy people have "ruled" the US of A since the beginning. Just any member of the DAR. Just ask the Bushes.....they go all the way back. Remember, George the Father had never been in supermarket. He has never done any of the other things like normal people do....shop, grill a burger, do a load of laundry, mop up a spill. His sons never did that, neither did his wife or their wives. The "little people" do those things.

    The men who took this country into civil war to fight for their Property -- other men -- had no code of restraint, to help the country cope with its "abundance". What they had was greed, a commodity still very available, only now it is regarded, as the movie said, as "good greed"

    There will be no "code" for people with no jobs, no prospect of jobs and no homes because they have no jobs, there will just be poverty. Rich people, however, will continue being as wealthy as ever, doing all the things that they do, like buying yachts, $1000 purses and shoes, and eating $100 entrees at the local country club. They will pay no taxes because they have their money "off shore" and they will "tsk tsk" at the sorry state of affairs of the people they lay off because they have to "downsize" so they can make more of what they already have.

    Wake up, sir.

  77. Soul searching can become an expensive endeavor. True religiosity demands a sympathetic response to those who are suffering, and a determined engagement in trying to make improvements in our common life. It is not selfish, trumped up, jealous or self-serving. Nor does the megachurch and self-promotion accomplish much.

  78. If only living so simply could "catch".
    I have always felt that the worldly ladders I've been trying to climb are very unstable. But stable or not, I tend to climb so as to not be left behind by other climbers on their unstable ladders. Where are we going since we are not reaching any destiny that we are satisfied with?
    What about stopping to smell a rose or two?!
    Reading this article has sure reminded me to do that more often.

  79. Platt sounds like a very sincere man. He did some soul searching and had the courage and integrity to examine his life and paradigm critically. I wonder how this will resonate with the likes of Glen Beck (and his disciples) who not so long ago were trying to convince us that "social justice," the term many Christian churches use to describe their efforts to address poverty and human rights, was a "code word" for communism and Nazism. It gives me hope to hear that Platt's book is flying off the shelves in Christian bookstores. The demise of the corporate megachurch with all its hypocrisy might be the one good thing to result from the Great Recession.

  80. I'm trying to figure out what the term moral materialism means.

    Moral in this case is an adjective and materialism is always a noun, and the adjective (moral) describes, or modifies, the noun (materialism). I'm not sure how else to read this phrase.

    Does it mean that materialism itself is moral, i.e. good, behavior? Thus, if a drug dealer is materialistic and builds a fortune, he is being moral at the same time?

    Does it mean that morals are material in some way (difficult to imagine, that).

    I wish Mr. Brooks had defined the term more directly.

  81. So this God requires downward mobility. Nothing easier to achieve in a Capitalist society. Then perhaps various good works with the poor. Who unhappily will 'Always be with us'. It strikes me that reorganizing social production and distribution to eliminate poverty is a better bet. Once God ,the Soul and the Souls avatar Human nature have departed from the human stage. P.S. the point about religious worship involving a contradiction. As soon as human achievements are attributed to action by a divine source was first made by Hegel.

  82. Platt is saying something I have noted for many years: the more prosperous one is the more religious one is. Can't be denied as it is evident in the empty six days a week "buildings" they build, when all it takes is to accept the lessons and live them. The lessons been placed in the "holy" books of the many versions of faith; so simply apply those tenents to life, save some money and all might turn out allright. You might even be able to do something for the family that surrounds you.

  83. i have always been suspicious of the concept of the megachurch. When I was in Orange County, California, I attended services at the Crystal Cathedral and found the experience to be unsettling. I do not doubt the sincerity of the congregants' faith, but I felt during the service that I was praying in a suburban mall and that just beyond the lectern I could find a Starbuck's or Gap store. I was raised Catholic and certainly I know the concept of the cathedral as a house of worship, but somehow I have never had this same feeling in St. Patrick's or Notre Dame or even Rheims. On the other hand, small chapels and churches can make you feel closeted and separated from the greater idea of joint faith. This is something I still need to work out in my search for faith. I think this column has given me a lot to think about and I will pick up Rev. Platt's book to view his ideas.

  84. "The Tea Party movement is militantly bourgeois. It uses Abbie Hoffman means to get back to Norman Rockwell ends."

    Financed by the Koch brothers, two of the wealthiest people in the world today, who have created an astroturf movement designed to get poor white people to do their fighting for them.

    The events of the last 18 months clearly demonstrates that Candidate Obama was right when he asserted that, in uncertain times, people cling to guns and religion.

  85. Thanks, David. The push for consumerism was certainly promoted by the Bush administration, largely post 9/11. It waged war, lowered taxes, and asked average Americans to patriotically spend their personal treasure to keep the U.S. economy strong. It took advantage of weak federal oversight, and arguably further eroded it through its policies. It's about time the folly of the consumerism mindset is getting some traction, regardless of the source.

  86. Isn't religion great for making people who wind up at the poo end of capitalism feel better? I can't wait to see the hedge fund kids and bond market charlatans catch this new wave of personal austerity. It will be rough for them at first: Tramping around Old Greenwhich in rough woolen garments, their knees bloody from so many hours praying in their tiny new churches.

    Maybe we need a 12-step backward program toward enlightenment. Even the smaller bizjets burn over 40 gallons an hour, David, so that "living like you make $50,000 a year" would be a bit hard on some people. How about we start with "live like you make $50,000 a week" and work back from there?

    Of course, there are millions of people in this country who would give their eye teeth to live like they made $50,000 a year. They're the ones making $30,000 a year, or $20,000 or, um, nothing a year currently. I guess they can't afford trendy new age Christianist literature, either.

  87. I would be more concerned about governments taking more wealth from the people. I would be more concerned about governments taking freedoms from the people.

  88. Nice try...! You captured the essence of 21st century me-ism, but you went far afield in trying to put a shine on the Gospel of Wealth perspective put forth by Jonathan Edwards and Andrew Carnegie.

    The former was an adherent of Calvinism and "the chosen few" who had the divine right to take from the Natives the land (America) bestowed upon them by God, so as to 'use' it properly...exploit its wealth.

    The latter was the nastiest form of capitalist: ruthless with his competitors to the point of using any form of subterfuge to destroy them, while treating his employees as chattel with little if any care for their well-being.

    Don't let Carnegie's endowments of his later life or Edwards racist exploitative 'religion' dilute their partial responsibility for spawning the current form of me-ist capitalism.

  89. There will always be a tendency to recreate God in our own image. The question is can we find a moral compass that can give us direction. I think most Christianity, popular Christianity specifically, has consistently failed. There are certain truths about humanity and how to create the greatest good for the greatest number. In fact these principles predate the birth of Christ by at least 3 centuries. Organized religion keeps warping them for their own political reasons and to make us feel good about ourselves as we are rather than bettering ourselves.

  90. It is heartening to see that Christians are beginning to reject the Gospel of Wealth. Now it is time for non-Christians (including Atheists) to abandon it as well. This country's preoccupation with material possessions and the acquisition of the means to support it (oil, corporate tax-breaks, the gradual abolition of government services) has destroyed not only equality but also morality.

  91. I like this story:

    A dervish went to visit a great Sufi master. To his surprise, the Sufi master lived in such lavish wealth that even the tents' stakes were made of gold. Seeing his affluence, the dervish thought to himself, ”How can Sufism and such prosperity go hand in hand?” After staying a few days with the master, he decided to leave. The master said, ”Let me accompany you on your journey!”

    After they had gone a short distance, the dervish noticed that he had forgotten his begging-bowl. So, he asked the master for permission to return and get it.

    The master replied, ”I departed from all my possessions, but you can’t even leave behind your begging-bowl.”

    * * *
    Having less "stuff" does not make a person less materialistic.

    Having more "stuff" is not some unambiguous evil. And, in the context of our economy, less buying and selling of "stuff" means a slow economy and greater unemployment.

    I think that for which your article yearns is a cultivation of "service above self," a quality best evoked through enormous, shared adversity. This is well described in Putnam's "Bowling Alone" as he observes the loss of a service-oriented generation uniquely welded together by the Great Depression and a World War.

  92. The east coast intelligencia has missed the boat once again.

    Most of us already live as though we make 50,000 dollars, because that's all we make.

    Until the elites who make 75,000+ start to understand they are the elites, and they are responsible for setting the world straight, we will continue to have a disconnect between greed and morality.

  93. Mcmansions and Hummers have been emblems of wretched excess and embarrassments to thinking humans everywhere. And yes, mega churches are part of the same disease system.It is refreshing to hear of a preacher who has the insight and conviction to speak a different, less popular, but much-needed truth.

    I also see this emerging philosophy as being at odds with Wall Street, trickle down economics, the Koch Brothers and the Tea Party members who would dismantle, disrupt and disturb important social and health programs that benefit the poor and needy.

    As a lifelong atheist I cannot condone the 'evangeliz'e part, at least if it relates to Jesus and God, I thoroughly understand and believe in "...take a year to surrender yourself. Move to Africa or some poverty-stricken part of the world..." I don't think one can truly empathize (and therefore take appropriate actions) from the comforts of home without actually seeing the sights, smelling the odors, and feeling the sun, wind, rain or cold of the lives of others.

  94. What piffle. David, please stop telling us to lower our expectations. We are heading to a depression and political revolution if something doesn't change the robber barron tax structure and job-killing globalization promoted by the curiously ineffective or destructive governing of the plutocratic DNC and GOP, respectively.

  95. Your entire column captured in 1975 in one song stanza. The utter genius of Bruce Springsteen. It may be too late to run because 'there's a darkness on the edge of town'.

    "In the day we sweat it out in the streets of a runaway american dream
    At night we ride through mansions of glory in suicide machines
    Sprung from cages out on highway 9,
    Chrome wheeled, fuel injected and steppin out over the line
    Baby this town rips the bones from your back
    Its a death trap, it's a suicide rap
    We gotta get out while were young
    `cause tramps like us, baby we were born to run"

  96. "In the coming years of slow growth, people are bound to establish new norms and seek noneconomic ways to find meaning."...and that's where all goes horribly down the drain, meaning can't be found but only handed out since there's no meaning to life.

    All who have been conditioned in "thinking" otherwise do so merely to have an excuse to hold over others.
    That ranges from gods to $$.

    It's time for a brand new dream for "We The People" roaming this planet (and therefor not bound to made up country-lines)..a dream that's non-theco-"logical".

  97. A good social commentary! But the wealth of the old iron, coal and steel barons was even less Christian in the way they were accumulated. The modern excesses of the middle class was made possible by the real estate bubble, and hurt all Americans.
    The Republicans helped feed this big home and big cars and trucks by their manipulation of misinformation regarding global warming. Their manipulation of the Christian right has led their churches away from the true Christan message. Instead encouraged economic and racial divide as well as persecution of immigrants.

  98. "But the country is clearly redefining what sort of lifestyle is socially and morally acceptable and what is not."
    Correct. For the super rich, whatever they wish will be socially and morally acceptable including their increasing financial evisceration of the middle and lower classes. For everyone else, managing with less and less will be touted as virtuous.

  99. Amen. One would think from observing the cutthroat capitalism and unabashed consumerism of many of the purported Christians today that when Jesus taught, "Love thy neighbor as thyself," he must have added as a cute, rhyming caveat "just don't love him more than wealth." Seeing the amount of money the U.S. invests in making war or the ridiculous salaries payed to incompetent CEOs of American companies who are then given even more ridiculous golden parachutes while people are starving in the streets would make a carpenter's son cringe. If this really is a "Christian nation" as many would have us believe, I don't recognize it, which isn't a surprise. Here's an age-old question: Do you know, since the establishment of Christianity as a state religion, a single example of a state which really followed a Christian policy?

  100. I suspect that for most people, living "as if you made $50,000 a year" will not involve scaling back expectations. I have been a college professor in West Virginia for more than twenty years, and only in the last few years has my salary reached $50,000. Two Americas, anyone?

  101. Live as if you made $50,000 per year? Lots of Americans would like to. Let's go back to the Eisenhower era tax rates, save social security, create a better safety net, and stop sending jobs overseas. Or, would it be better to continue to live in our cutthroat system with all wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, with a small number of "enlightened" people voluntarily foregoing an excessive lifestyle?

  102. I hate Brooks like poison but the first 3 paragraphs of this piece are pure brilliance. With these few words, he has changed my opinion of his intelligence an powers of observation 180 degrees. Well done, sir.

  103. I wonder whether the morality play on materialism (that 'the people' are now paying for their consumption) blinds us to the real crimes of the oligarchs and ideologues preaching "free-market meritocracy" who have for decades hi-jacked American democratic government. Writing that "mini churches" and the "tea party movement" is a new social awakening obscures the decades of increasingly unequal wealth and consumption by some and not others in America, as well as the people living through and protesting this illegitimate system for a long time. I'd look to the history of Afro-American civil rights movements rather than the 'tea party' propaganda and austerity rich new-age evangelists for answers on how to find equity, justice and democracy in the 21st century.

  104. Atheism has always been about casting off mythology and knowing thyself. The trouble with religion - OK one of the many - is that it discourages one from knowing thyself and instead implores one to pretend to know the nonsensical. With that kind of disconnect between self and world no wonder the blind pursuit of possessions pervades most Americans lives. Get to know yourself. Ask an atheist for guidance.

  105. Brooks writes from the perspective of an affluent protestant and is a good spokesperson for the country's power establishment - despite his populist guise. He conveniently disregards the Irish, Italian, southern Germanic, Polish, Mexican, and other Latin American waves of immigration, not to mention the non-christian and simply non-religious immigrants. The pilgrims and blue blooded anglo-saxons represent a tiny and distant drop in the demographic bucket (although they've managed to keep control of much of the country's wealth.) The evangelical movement is a significant, but very recent sociological phenomenon that will hopefully dissipate as fast as it formed. To me, it seems there are too many "born again" people willing to throw it all away - like a self-imposed Shoah.

  106. A few years back Norton Garfinkle addressed this subject in "The American Dream vs. The Gospel of Wealth: The Fight for a Productive Middle-Class." In short, the American Dream--the opportunity to better yourself (honestly) and provide a good life for your family by serving your community--has taken a back seat to the Gospel of Wealth; i.e., success defined by the accumulation of stuff. Then, when wages start to stagnate and income inequity increases, we drive past our neighbors' stores downtown to Wal-Mart in order to buy as much cheap junk as we can afford. And now the American middle class has disappeared, nobody knows whither.

  107. "The United States once had a Gospel of Wealth: a code of restraint shaped by everybody from Jonathan Edwards to Benjamin Franklin to Andrew Carnegie"
    As usual, Brooks, you just don't understand and as usual you serve nonsense. We don't need more? new? Carnegies - we need a civilized society where employees are not shot just for wanting to be treated as humans, where workers aren't treated just as a tool to enrich the most ruthless ones. In other words, Brooks, we need a Social Democratic society with a civilized workplace, civilized vacations, affordable child care and education ...
    Enough of this psychobbabling about good criminals.

  108. Live on $50,000 per year, give the rest away? For about half of Americans that would mean living beyond their means and giving away nothing. In 2007 the middle quintile (that would be the middle class)of American households earned $36,000 and $58,000. The median American household income was just about exactly $50,000. It always amazes me how many pundits seem to have little idea how much money average Americans actually make.

  109. Much of what Reverend Pratt preaches may well be good, but let's say you're a Lebron James or anyone else making megabucks for what will most likely be a limited number of years. What generates the bigger good, Lebron James taking off a year to do missionary work in Africa, or Lebron James playing basketball and contributing a few million dollars from his basketball salary so dozens of missionaries can do their work in Africa? The first may well be better for Lebron James' soul, but the second is better for those who need help.

  110. What is missing from your discussion is the question of individualism vs community focus. While it is true that materialism is not in line with gospel values, American individualism is actually more of a stumbling block. God is communal from one end of the Bible to the other. God calls the people into community, speaks to them as a community, rewards or punishes them as a community. Jesus forms up a community and eventually sends his Holy Spirit to the gathered community.

    The very early church, as portrayed in the Acts of the Apostles, was communistic... an early echo of Marx - having all things in common, giving to people as they had need (though Marx was, of course, also athiestic). Unfortunately, in this Tea Party world of ours, being communal, caring for and about those with more need is very far out of favor. The conversation runs far more to defending me and mine, MY rights, MY needs, and the complete repudiation of community responsibility - at least any community responsibility that extends beyond personal tribe/clan, 'people just like me' clanishness. The focus only on the material leaves this problematic individualism, this 'I've got mine, you get yours' unchallenged, yet it is troublingly out of line with gospel/biblical values.

    As to living as if we make $50,000 a year: that would be a raise for me - for all who might actually try to come down near my level: it's quite doable - really.

  111. Dorothy Day, on whom be peace, was way ahead of Dr. Platt. Coming out of the Depression and the Communist Party into the Catholic Church, she said that the only true security came from living so close to the bottom that your could not drop far. If we could bring ourselves to identify with the poor, we might see to it that we built a society where everyone was treated with justice. As it stands now, we keep slipping into social Darwinism instead.

  112. As a Gen X progressive evangelical, I can say that Mr. Platt truly does represent a generational shift that's taking place within evangelical circles where the younger generation's (Gen X, Y, and Millennials) are reacting against the various follies they believe resulted from their parents' views of the Gospel and its application to public life. Whether its in the form of Mr. Platt's re-focus on simplicity and the concomitant notion of "carrying your cross daily" in reaction to the "Gospel of Wealth" or the Emergent Church's focus on issues of social justice in reaction to Perkins/Robertson/Fallwell, et.al.'s monomaniacal focus on social morality, change is underway. I must say I look forward to the day when this younger generation are our country's Christian leaders.

  113. Wow. I read this just as I came home from a meeting with a film crew of twenty-somethings celebrating our first screening of a home-grown film that depicts exactly this tension. We got a small budget from our church to examine our local town (Abbotsford, BC) and the relationships between the community and the church; virtually everyone in the film comes to the same conclusions as Platt does. We've felt like our little project was part of something much bigger, and this article seems to confirm it. If you'd like hear some of these voices for yourself there's a trailer at http://www.facebook.com...

    Blessings!

  114. Thank you David Brooks. The evolving attitude of your article's focus could be Buddhist, Hindu, Jain, or (dare I say it in the current climate) Muslim. As well as Mennonite or Amish, or even part of the secular simplicity movement. The material world is illusory, if only for the value modern humans seem to place on the naked acquisition of goods. Why does a god want me to be rich more than he wants the Pakistanis to survive floods?

  115. The "Health & Wealth Gospel" preachers of the past decade seem to finally be falling out of favor with many in American Christianity. It's amazing, given Jesus's extensive teachings of the dangers of making money into a god, that so many churches have been reading their Scriptures so selectively.

  116. David Brooks asserts that, “The Tea Party is militantly bourgeois. It uses Abbie Hoffman means to get back to Norman Rockwell ends.” While this assertion is debatable—whatever else he may have been, Abbie Hoffman was not ignorant, and Norman Rockwell was not a fear-ridden, hate-spewing racist—what is more to the point is that the ghosts in the Tea Party machine (i.e. the Koch brothers) use Machiavellian means to get back to ancient regime ends.

  117. So, if you really believe all that stuff about de-emphasizing the material in favor of the spiritual, then a truly socialist government with massive taxation of the wealthy and redistribution to the poor is the way to save the uber-rich from themselves. But, somehow, I think you and Platt mean for it only to apply to those who have to work for a living.

  118. I like David Platt's revolutionary idea of calling on the readers of his book to cap their lifestyle and live as if they made $50,000 a year, and give everything else away. I like the mid-East proverb: Enough is a Feast. Following through on Dr. Platt's idea would really please our Creator. It is impossible to serve both God and money.

  119. It would be nice if Preacher Pratt addressed 30% credit card interest rates. Aren't there some pertinent verses in the Bible about that.

    It would be nice if President Obama and Congress addressed it as well.

  120. David Brooks touts the following:
    "Platt calls on readers to cap their lifestyle. Live as if you made $50,000 a year, he suggests, and give everything else away. Take a year to surrender yourself. Move to Africa or some poverty-stricken part of the world. Evangelize."

    Median family income is somewhere around $50,000 as it is. Therefore half the families already live on this income and have little to "give away" as a result. So it appears that their lifestyle has already been capped through little choice of their own. Once again we have a Brooks essay bereft of practicality. Will he take the above advice of Mr. Platt, I wonder.

    I am more concerned with last nights TV show "60 Minutes" where it was revealed that Medicare fraud amounts to $60 billion a year. The Health Care Fraud Industry is alive and doing very well. One could certainly call this a vital part of "the age of excess". Excess writ large, so to speak.

    Somehow this fact disturbs me far more than anything Mr. Brooks has to report or that Platt advises us to do. Medicare is of far more importance to me, oddly enough. But this program, as well as Social Security, are the ones that the Republicans are dedicated to eliminate and/or modify to the point of meaninglessness.

    I do hope that Mr. Brooks will soon leave his alternate universe and join the rest of us in a current, real universe existence. He could and/or might even write about it on occasion.

  121. David. The ultra wealthy have 20 room condos and huge yachts. Let's let them be subject to appropriate taxation so the rest of us can survive. Isn't America supposed to be a Democracy, where all protect our fellow citizens, rather than run them into the ground for profits for the ultra rich. Where is the spirit of barnraisings?

  122. Yes, David. Now that government programs have blown up the housing market and our 401Ks, it is time for us little people to re-evaluate our lives and reduce the little that we have left, in the name of God.

  123. "Live as if you made $50,000 a year." What a thing to say. Just scrape by, eh? If I did, I'd go in the hole $15k per year. And I'm a 60yo computing professional. Thanks to outsourcing, I've been going backwards. Corporate profits are up though, that must be good for everyone, right?

  124. "Americans will not renounce the moral materialism at the core of their national identity." So, I'm wondering, Mr. Brooks, what is moral materialism other than the objectivication of self? And, along with your hero W, you conclude that the wealthy are inherently more virtuous because their financial success proves it. Were you to be honest, and were the wealthy to be candid, they would conclude that life's fortune plays a large role in determining wealth. I'm sure each of us chose the zip code and family income of our parents.

    Jesus is difficult for Christians because he is so closely allied with the poor. There are over 2000 Bible verses connected with the poor in the New Testament. Today, any discussion of the poor in a political context is akin to promoting leprosy. You often talk of the critical nature of culture, wanting to divorce it from the detriment of government. Perhaps your dismissal of class and race in almost all of your writing rests on the assumption that the wealthy are virtuous, have so much to offer and should be indulged because such character will lift us all. What Platt argues, and many of your political opponents, is the powerful and wealthy use wealth for their self-interested selves at the expense of others, Where is your evidence to the contrary?

  125. Platt has it right - partly. But one thing I've never been able to understand is in the quest for ascetism, as Brooks notes, why is it necessary to "move to Africa" and "Evangelise". I agree, the crush of materialism in this country was stifling, and I guess it took people losing almost everything (and some lost all), to really see none of that is needed. But, rather than move to Africa, how about moving to Detroit, or Flint, or any other decrepit area in need, and rather than evangelize, how about working to provide needed community resources? I know, I know, one can always dream...