Sunday, April 26, 2015

Day Off

     This will be a day of much yard work – everything has a downside, including the coming of the mild, sunny spring weather – so I shan’t have a brand-new essay for you today. Instead, perhaps you'll enjoy an “oldie but goodie” from the old Palace of Reason, which appears below.

Looking For Trouble

October 27, 2003

Interesting patterns and trends are everywhere around us. It baffles your Curmudgeon how an opinion writer could say that he has nothing to write about. As Robert Pirsig and others have said, "The more you look, the more you see."

A Curmudgeonly acquaintance, who shall henceforth be called Sarah, can be found in the local supermarket every evening between seven and eight o'clock. Yes, she's married. No, she doesn't have a huge family that requires an hour's grocery shopping every evening. She spends her time there because she enjoys it.

Sarah's not insane, nor is she unique. A substantial number of Americans shop for pleasure. If the supermarket seems an odd venue for this pastime, well, different strokes and all that.

But Sarah's not shopping in the conventional sense. She's looking for trouble.

No, no! She's not looking to start a fight over the price of eggs. She's looking for trouble so she can help to fix it. Since she's a gifted shopper, with a remarkable ability to squeeze $10 of purchases out of a $5 bill, she looks for people having shopping trouble: women who can't fill their larders adequately on their household budgets.

Sarah's really good at this, and the folks she helps purely love her. However, at our last conversation, Sarah observed that fewer and fewer people seem to need her assistance. She mused about whether she ought to spend her evenings in a less affluent area.

Another Curmudgeonly acquaintance, a retired gentleman whom we'll call Ray, has the charming habit of driving his truck around Long Island's major roads, looking for motorists with mechanical problems. When he finds one, he stops and offers to fix the misbehaving automobile right then and there, for free. Such is Ray's prowess with cars that he has yet to fail to deliver.

But Ray, too, is longing for richer trouble pickings. Long Islanders' cars don't break down nearly as often as they once did. Worse, most motorists have cell phones now, and they don't hesitate to use them. Ray's been talking about moving upstate, to Sullivan or Delaware County, where the average vehicle is older and more likely to fail.

This past decade, local churches have reported a strong upswing in volunteers for charity work. Charity kitchens often have more willing workers than they have clients to feed. Our hospitals are blessed with a goodly number of volunteers to keep company with the afflicted: reading to them, talking to them, or performing less savory chores that will not be described further here.

A lot of Americans are out there looking for trouble -- and finding that there's less of it to go around.

This is a happy thing. Right? Well, of course it is. Unless your sense of worth requires others in less pleasant circumstances for you to minister to. But the swelling of the ranks of volunteers has your Curmudgeon wondering.

That Americans are willing to give so greatly speaks wonderfully of them. It also begs a question that many would prefer not to face: "Why are you doing this?"

The question is not meant maliciously, but as a measure of another social dynamic whose arrival has been long foretold: the "hedonic treadmill."

Economics teaches that everything is subject to a law of diminishing marginal utility. At any instant, to any potential purchaser, unit 2 of some good is worth less to him than unit 1. Unit 3 is worth still less, and so on. If there's a reason this law shouldn't apply to the direct satisfactions of life, your Curmudgeon can't see it. If it does, then the direct satisfaction of entirely personal desires -- that is, those desires that bear on no one else's appetites and interests but one's own -- will gradually lose appeal as those desires are met to an increasing degree. Therefore, as Smith prospers and accumulates the things he wants, the things that directly bring him pleasure, the effort he must expend to pursue more of them will appear to become excessive. When his efforts seem greater than the pleasure afforded, they will cease; Smith will step off the treadmill.

Put another way: Just how many CDs and video games can you really enjoy?

Of course, this is an oversimplification. It assumes that novelty and variety play no part. It also discounts the changes in tastes that come with age. Even so, it has some force. Handsome, affluent young professionals don't go looking for charitable involvement because they can't afford ski trips or find bed partners. Nor do they all do it because of religious conviction.

We reach out to others, in part, because there comes a point where it's the only way to continue to grow.

The Boomer generation, which participates heavily in the eleemosynary trend, has been the most individualistic, even self-centered, generation in American history. We've almost worn out the word "I." Even so, we appear to have reached our epiphany, our recognition that there are fulfillments beyond those of the senses, and that they deserve a place in our lives.

It's a considerable irony that this should be happening at a time when true misery of all sorts is receding rapidly from our shores. Sarah's and Ray's clients are fewer and further between for the very same reason that Sarah and Ray can afford to help them: the entire nation is getting richer and economically more secure at an incomprehensible rate.

Of course, that's not something to be unhappy about. Indeed, charitably-inclined Westerners headed abroad in search of recipients for their largesse might be the shot in the arm our airlines need. The airlines themselves might be the biggest beneficiaries of such a movement. Imagine that.

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