The American Dream is too fucking expensive.
I truly believe we would all be happier with a more modest standard of living. A lot of people think a lower standard of living standard of living will be less fun. It turns out, though, that mostly isn’t true.
Most of these studies come to the following conclusions: i) in several industrialized countries where income has drastically increased, subjective well-being or happiness has not increased or in some cases it has fallen; ii) relative income affects happiness more than absolute income; happiness or subjective well-being depends on expectations and social comparisons, iii) income affects well-being of people but beyond a threshold level, it ceases to influence well-being; and iv) people adapt to circumstances and those with higher adaptation capabilities tend to be happier even when their incomes are very low.
People spend too much time away from their families and home to live in a wastefully large, poorly built homes. These homes are expensive to heat and cool, and require long, increasingly expensive commutes through brutal rush hour to be even remotely “affordable” to the average American. And ironically, homeowners don’t feel secure, because they know missing a few mortgage payments will have them out on the street. They don’t really own their home, the banks do. On a $100,000 home, paying off the mortgage requires over $200,000. That means that 50% of the money spent on people’s biggest expense goes to the same people that brought us The Great Recession and our current shitty economy.
And that doesn’t include taxes and maintenance. Even if if were actually better to live in a roomy suburban house, there’s no way everyone on Earth can possibly afford to live that way. I don’t feel like being an American entitles me to live better than people elsewhere.
The house was just one part of the American Dream to work to create a better standard of living for their children. We are, at this moment, at the irreversible top of that process. For the foreseeable future, American children will, on average, have a lower standard of living than their parents. There are two main causes. The first is that we’re running out of resources. People who disagree with this are wrong, and I’m not going to waste time providing “proof.” It’s easy to find for anyone who cares to look. The second is that the extra money we should all be saving from technological improvements is mostly going to corporations and the rich instead of making everything from cars to health care cheaper. I’m tired of having to work 50 hours a week in a small fuzzy box to pay for my life, I’m tired of banks and corporations and the ultra-rich ending up with all of fruits of my labor. I’m also ashamed of the contributions I’ve made to those sins of those same corporations, and sick of doing meaningless, unsatisfying work. And I’m not alone.
My first instinct is to opt out. To move away. Instead I’m going to change America. At least, I’m going to change the part that’s mine, and inspire others to do the same. If enough people see see my life and realize I’m spending more time with people I care about, less time doing unfulfilling work, more time doing work I really love, living in a fun dwelling with no mortgage, all for less money than they’re spending, I think they’ll be interested. If enough people see it’s possible, and that it’s better, they’ll follow along. How big the change becomes will be based on whether it’s really possible and better, not marketing hype or establishment propaganda. And the reason the authorities won’t stop me is because I’m not really out to get them. They’re people just like me, and most of them are as trapped in the system as I am. They want something different too, they just don’t know how to get there. There are definitely some sociopaths at the “top”, certainly more than at the bottom. But the Big Secret that is even with all their money and power, there aren’t really enough of them to stop the rest of us. There never have been. And I’m not interested in mass uprisings or revolution. The changes I’m talking about are all achievable in ways that no one has to get hurt, or even break the law. And if they happen gradually enough, The System will both have time to catch up and move in a better direction. And if enough people are on board, the small number of crazy people at the top won’t be able to stop it. I’m ok with pissing off that small minority, because they have no right to be defining reality for the rest of us.
But the most important thing about changing the system is that we are responsible for creating it. Corporations get rich and buy our politicians because we buy their products and watch their media. Government power exists to protect us from people who are angry that we are robbing them and destroying their culture. The banks that destroyed our economy are powered by the mortgages on our houses. Trying to place the blame on a few crazy rich people is passing the buck. They’re just good at taking advantage of the situation. We are at fault. *I* am at fault. *You* are at fault. We asked for this. We made it. No one else. The fact that this feels bad doesn’t change it.
Not everyone is going to take that responsibility. Even if someone agrees with me, figuring out where to start seems overwhelming. And we are conditioned from birth to blame other for our problems. Nothing, sadly, could be more American.
But not me. Fuck that. I’m going to take responsibility, as much as I can. I’m going to do in a way that’s fun and satisfying. Caring about future generations and our precious, fragile planet is definitely part of it. But the main reason I’m doing it is because life is more fun, satisfying, and healthy when it’s lived smaller, cheaper, and more sustainably. Processed food can’t compete with farmer’s market fare. Small, hand build houses are inherently cooler, cheaper, and more fun than big, ugly suburban ones. Biking is healthier and cheaper than driving, and a great way to stay in shape. But more than anything else, it’s about building community. It’s about living in a place where people all chose to live together by plan, and not simply because they wanted the best school district for their kids. It’s about growing food together, even and especially if you don’t know how yet. It’s about having a whole big group of adults we trust with our kids, so we can have more fun both with and without them.
So I’m actively choosing to lower my standard of living. I’ve been in my 2200 sq. ft. suburban house for nine years now. The only reason I’ve been able to afford it since I got laid off was by taking many roommates. I don’t like having to choose between being their friend and being their landlord. I don’t like paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to a bank for the privilege of living in suburbia. I decided to walk away from my lucrative corporate software career three years ago. In the meantime I’ve been downsizing my life in so many different ways.
I drive a 50 mpg Geo Metro and an 85 mpg scooter instead of a 22 mpg SUV.
I live in a 184 sq. ft. bedroom with a shared bathroom instead of a 500 sq. ft. master suite. I’ve spend twelve weeks living in a yurt I built myself. I’ve taken it to Portland, Oregon, where I dragged it from Austin using the Metro 4400 miles round trip for less money than it would have cost to fly. Twice. I haven’t had certain income for the entire intervening three years, and I’ve managed to make ever dollar count.
But now the house is dragging me down. It’s huge, it’s expensive, and I do all the maintenance myself. Trying to get my mobile gaming business off the ground while being a full-time landlord and maintaining both of my vehicles is too much. I’m proud to say my house is the only debt I have, and I’m done with it. I’m walking away. I’m in the process of fixing it up for sale right now. Luckily property values have done well in this area, so I’ll walk away with some money in my pocket.
I’ve got a friend who bought a small lot and nearly has his plans to put a small house on it through the city bureaucracy. He’ll be able to build it without a mortgage. I’m gonna help him build it, then live there until I figure out what’s next. And what’s next will probably be a bigger property, with several investors, just outside the city limits, where we won’t have city code enforcement breathing down our necks every time we want to do some natural building or put up some solar panels. I might live in a nicer yurt, or I might build a cob or strawbale house.
There might be some time in between. My goal is to reduce my possession to what will fit in a medium-sized room, plus a few large power tools. I’m not paying one single dime to “store things.” I might live at a co-op for a few months, just to see what it’s like. I might go stay at the Austin Zen Center for a while, and see what deeper practice has to offer. There are lots of great neighborhoods in Austin I’ve never gotten to live in, and I can afford a single room in most of them. I’m excited by the future, and I’m done with the past. It’s time to move forward and start defining the New America.