Self-Mastery and the Over Consumption Myth

A couple of months ago I listened to the audiobook for A Fighting Chance by Senator Elizabeth Warren. I highly recommend it.

Two_Income_Trap.jpgHowever, in that book she mentions another book that she wrote with her daughter, Wharton MBA, Amelia Warren Tyagi called The Two Income Trap. I've since read that and their follow up book, All Your Worth. The general theme throughout these books is  why families today are suffering financially when they have twice as much income. In short, they discuss the increase in consumer debts, bankruptcy, and all-around weakness of middle class growth over the last four decades. Classically, pundits and scientists alike have argued that this struggle has been due to a series of cultural shifts in how we spend money. Economist Juliet Schor argues “Over-consumption is about designer clothes, microwaves, restaurant meals, home and automobile air conditioning, and, of course, Michael Jordan’s ubiquitous athletic shoes.”

However, Warren and Tyagi assert that this idea is fundamentally flawed. They argue that in fact, younger generations have not been all about self-gratification. The average family in 2000 spends 21% less on food, 22% less on clothing, and 44% less on appliances than the average family a generation ago (adjusted for inflation). The real spending problem, a lot of times, is with our Must Haves. Our rent, mortgage, utilities, insurance, and groceries are what is pushing us over the edge. We guilt ourselves into a depression because we are told by the experts that we just don’t have that puritanical self control. The issue is not about self-control in discretionary spending.

This reminded me of a lesson a friend of mine shared with me from his time as a missionary. Struggling to fully control his thoughts while serving in South America, he spoke with his mission president who shared with him a scripture. In Alma 30, Korihor teaches: 

that there could be no atonement made for the sins of men, but every man fared in this life according to the management of the creature; therefore every man prospered according to his genius, and that every man conquered according to his strength; and whatsoever a man did was no crime.

Essentially this doctrine of self-control is the doctrine of an anti-Christ. In fact, Christ requires us all to look to him to prosper. That it is through the atonement that we are made whole, not through our ability to master our thoughts.

Two conclusions stand out to me. The first is to stop supposing that we know the answers to everything problem, sin, or addiction that befalls us. Oftentimes, there is not enough data to know the true cause of our problems. You may think you are spending far too much on dinner at Benihana, when really your outdated life insurance plan is what is killing your economic balance. 

And second, stop supposing you can overcome it all on your own. Stop counseling people to “just stop doing it” or as the Tony Award winning Book of Mormon caricatures, “turn it off.” You cannot do it on your own. None of us can. We all require the Atonement. There is no such thing as just walking away to solve an addiction. There is no repentance from sin, without turning to Christ.  

All in all, we need to change the culture that enables both of these conclusions. Stop counseling people to have super-human self control. And stop ignoring the importance of balance when it comes to finances. Guilt is the only benefactor of these behaviors, and Christ did not come to force us to remain in our guilt, but to redeem us from it.

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