Affluenza – is the US Middle Class Suffering from Affluence?

In the late 1990s, the scolding of the middle class had begun in the USA. Its lifestyle: too expensive, too wasteful, too costly. It used to live in cities. Now it lives 40 miles away, in the suburbs. One automobile used to suffice. Now there have to be 2, or more. The sizes of the living area, the energy consumption and the size of the properties have also multiplied – as have the debts. In 2005, George W. Bush signed a law on the manner of handling bankrupt families. The law prescribed that they should not receive any kind of assistance from the state. It was also a moral judgment on the environmentally unsustainable lifestyle of the middle class. This verdict had been prepared long beforehand. In the late 1990s, PBS has broadcast John le Graaf’s TV-Show Affluenza. This coinage indeed struck a nerve! Countless discussion rounds were held – on TV and the radio, in schools and church communities. In 2001 le Graaf, along with the Duke University economist Thomas Naylor and former analyst of the US Environmental Protection Agency David Wann published a book accompanying the TV program, which has since been followed by several books of the same name and pursuing the same direction.[1] The TV show’s website highlights the didactic concept in form of a lexical entry:

Af-flu-en-za . 1. The bloated, sluggish and unfulfilled feeling that results from efforts to keep up with the Joneses. 2. An epidemic of stress, overwork, waste and indebtedness caused by dogged pursuit of the American Dream. 3. An unsustainable addiction to economic growth. 4. A television program that could change your life.

No question about it: According to the current ecological standards, the lifestyle of the US middle class is in no way sustainable. It leaves much too large of an ecological footprint. It consumes so much environmental space for 7 billion people – and let alone the 9 billion we will become until 2050 – to be able to permanently inhabit the Earth under appropriate conditions. This footprint leaves space only for up to 1.4 billion people. But what does this mean? That the lifestyle of the poor is more sustainable? Their ecological footprint could sustain the lives of over 13 billion people. It is more sustainable, but it is no accident that it does not serve as a role model. The role model – one could regret it in terms of ecology – are the neighborhood Joneses with their large house and the 3 cars in their carport. What needs to be changed is not the individual lifestyle, but the lifestyle of the middle class – social dynamics consisting of conformism (Jones!), top-to-bottom demarcation and an exemplary role for members of the lower class who aim at climbing the social ladder. It is not by means of therapeutic recommendations to an addict (“growth fetishist”) that this can be accomplished (“comply and take care not of your neighbor, but of matters that really count: Your family!“), but only through understanding of the manner in which the middle class operates. A prerequisite for that is, of course, that one is interested in the first place in the fact that all societies – according to political conceptualization – are divided into classes or strata, that between these strata there are desires to climb the social ladder and fears of social decline and that consumption – primarily the symbolic consumption – always represents a location in this fabric of classes and strata.

In actual fact, the US middle class mainly takes care of the family. The family counts. While its expenses in many areas are constantly on the decline, they increase dramatically during the largest investment ever undertaken by such a family: the purchase of a house in a suburb. For, a house defines the lives of the children that grow up in it. Its position and facilities lead to a preliminary decision on whether they will have good teachers in the classrooms, bicycle lanes and safe front yards to play in. When a US middle class family purchases a house, it also buys a school. Failing schools in inner cities are rather costly for the children that have to attend them. However, a subpar public school system proves very much costly for those, as well, who would not, at any price, send their children there. They take on debt for their houses in the suburbs. Schools in inner cities which are not trusted by the middle class are destroying social cohesion and come at a high price – both ecological and financial. And schools represent, pars pro toto, the demise of public goods in the cities: security, air, water, waste, etc.

In the US, a form of privatized Keynesianism[2] (a consequence of the neglect of the public education system and the social infrastructure by the government) has pushed the middle class into indebtedness and into a way of life which is, ecologically speaking, even less sustainable. Now, the opposite conclusion is, of course, not admissible – namely that the lifestyle of the middle class becomes more environmentally sustainable on its own when it meets an inner city public infrastructure with good schools, security and an attractive living space. Still, this indeed seems to be a precondition for an ecological lifestyle. The social and the ecological should be conceptualized together. This would imply laying out the costs of ecological modernization for the impoverished and the poor in a bearable fashion, but also securing preconditions of an ecological lifestyle of the middle class. For, the life of the middle class will remain a role model in the future, as well.



[1] Oliver James, The Selfish Capitalist. Origins of Affluenza. London 2008

[2] Cf. Brigitte Young, Der privatisierte Keynesianismus, die Finanzialisierung des ‚alltäglichen Lebens‘ und die Schuldenfalle. Bielefeld 2011.