I was driving by a new housing development in Brampton the other day and I just had to pull over and take a picture. I’ve seen big houses before, but these ones just blew me away. I mean, just look at the size of this thing. It’s more like an institution than a house. (You can look at the double garage in order to get a sense of the scale.) Also, even though you can’t see it very well in the picture, these houses aren’t spread out on one or two acre parcels. It’s a dense development (as these things go), I would guesstimate that they’re building over a hundred of them.
I haven’t written much about consumerism lately, mainly because I have it worked out to my own satisfaction, and there doesn’t seem to be very much new on this front. And yet seeing houses like this reminds me of how central the problem of competitive consumption is, how it lies at the root of so many other problems in the world that we live in.
In my view, the biggest “political economy” discovery of the 20th century is that you can increase the wealth of the population by a factor of eight or nine times, and not have it reduce the level of possessiveness, or of resistance to redistribution, by one iota. This never ceases to amaze me (much as it would have amazed Karl Marx, who just assumed that once people were rich beyond the dreams of avarice – which at least 95% of us are, by the standards of the 19th century – that we would become less preoccupied with “mine” and “thine”).
Even during my own lifetime, GDP per capita in this country has more than doubled. My children are growing up in the country where the average person is twice as wealthy as the average person was when I was their age. (And that’s not even taking into consideration technological change.) Yet there is no discernible change at all in how people feel about their financial situation, or their consumption. The suggestion that we might want to have a carbon tax to combat global warming, or a road toll to reduce congestion, or even just a more progressive income tax to help the poor, is met with howls of outrage. We are told that hard-working Canadian families are just taxed out, they can’t possibly shoulder these additional burdens. Apparently there are just so many other bills to be paid, there is no room at all to solve these pressing social problems.
Now I happen to believe that this is actually how most people honestly feel. It’s not just a made-up thing. The average Canadian family does feel financially pressed. The question then is how it could be, given that these hard-working families are approximately twice as wealthy, on average, as families were when I was young. How is it possible to double the wealth, and yet not create any slack?
(And don’t say it’s because median incomes are stagnant, the 1 per cent have taken it all, etc. This is Canada, not the U.S. — the income trends are different. Plus anyone who’s been in an average suburban home of late knows full well that people have a pretty elevated consumption level. Just take a look at that house above, which is being sold to people probably in the upper 60-80% income range, definitely not upper 10%.)
The answer is that people are stuck in a race to the bottom, involving various forms of (implicit or explicit) competitive consumption. House size is one of them. Houses just keep getting bigger and bigger. (In Luxury Fever, Robert Frank cites the factoid that the bottom income quintile in the United States enjoys the same amount of living space as the average European.) I recall once asking one of my in-laws, who had just bought a new suburban home, which model she had chosen. “The biggest one,” she said. I love that answer. It’s one thing to buy the biggest one, but to buy it under that description is just awesome. Let the race to the bottom begin!
These big houses illustrate several things. First of all, they reinforce the old point about the impossibility of a purely technical solution to our environmental problems. Part of the reason we can build them so big is that they are so much cheaper to build and to heat. Notice all the particle board construction – everything but the roof. Also, this thing has 6” walls, probably R40 insulation, a 98% AFUE natural gas furnace, and a vapour barrier so hermetic you have to turn on a fan if you boil a kettle. In other words, technologically it’s an ecological fantasy home. Yet if these new houses were drafty like the ancient one that I live in downtown, no one in their right mind would buy one so big. So we should not be under the illusion that better insulation and high-efficiency furnaces are going to help us with our carbon footprint. People have a certain amount they are willing to pay to heat their houses, and the houses expand to fit that budget. And if they have some slack, they’ll go and install a heated driveway or something. It’s like there’s some principle of waste homeostasis at work.
Second, people who buy a house like this are basically locking themselves into a lifetime of additional consumption, above and beyond their mortgage. Most importantly, a lot of people buy these giant houses without quite realizing just how much stuff you need in order to fill them. I’ve been to quite a few that are almost comically empty. It not just that people don’t have the money to fill them – although a house like this probably costs about $300K to fully furnish – it’s that they also just don’t have the time, or the mental energy to coordinate consumption on that scale. (I mean, how do you go about picking out a 12-seat sectional sofa for the family room?) Plus this house has probably 5 bathrooms – the new rule in home construction is each bedroom has its own bathroom. So they wind up buying, and buying, and buying… It becomes a lifetime project.
Also, I find that people tend to keep buying until their house is full, at which point they stop. This is particularly true of children’s toys. You just keep buying more until it’s all piled up and you can’t find anything anymore, at which point you say “that’s it kid, no more toys.” But with these big gigantic houses, it takes forever to get to that point, so people just keep piling stuff up. They even fill the garage, winding up parking their cars in the driveway.
In any case, I have to say that for me, a lot of big questions of political ideology, particularly about the appropriate size of the state, are driven by my awareness of competitive consumption in the domain of private goods. When the Conservative government announces with pride that they are cutting this tax or that tax, “so you can keep more of your hard-earned money,” the picture that goes through my mind is of houses like this. Even though people don’t experience it as waste, the fact is that most of the money gets wasted.
Also, it reminds me of just how utterly outrageous this country’s stand on climate change is. We desperately need to persuade countries like China, India and Brazil to curtail their emissions, and yet right now we’re saying “we can’t possibly cut our own emissions… our economy is too fragile, we can’t afford it.” And yet this is what a single-family dwelling looks like in this country! Can you imagine how risible and self-serving our stance sounds, to people around the world?