New Internationalist

Simple Life

Issue 312

new internationalist
issue 312 - May 1999

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Simple life
A cautionary tale by George Fisher.

Jeremy Hare was always game, as he said wryly to all who came bearing offers of good times. At the perfect age of 32 he had acquired most of life’s desirable things, even though many of these had been gained inadvertently. He reviewed the list periodically, mostly with guilt, sometimes with amazement and occasionally just for reassurance.

Jeremy was widely liked and well-travelled. His peers recognized he had become a connoisseur of all things fine. Like many of his friends, this didn’t always mean the most expensive. He could see through that trap. He was more aware, more sceptical, canny. He was an educated consumer.

He was never entirely comfortable with possessions. His city-fringe apartment, overlooking the water, was minimalist and spare. The granite kitchen counter held only a coffee plunger and chrome toaster. The hi-fi was almost invisible, its speakers barely larger than his mobile phones.

He had become a lean consumer, self-disciplined and frugal, and was therefore able to save a good part of his salary for his travels, the charities and environmental groups he supported, as well as for his retirement savings. He had taken great pains with the latter, being motivated by an uncomfortable mixture of greed, confusion and fear, and still found himself reciting them to himself, as he lay awake in bed late at night, like a litany to all who might be converted: futures, foreign equities, warrants, bonds, property syndicates.

Jeremy had long found life too cluttered. While he could and did do something about this in those areas where he had most control, there were vast tracts of his existence he longed to spray over and wipe clean.

He was aware, too, of the inevitable problems that this caused and was liked even more for admitting it. Like many of his professional peers, Jeremy shunned the idea of psychoanalysis, but employed a tax-deductible life-goals coach, who warned him about ‘the narcissism of experience’. Jeremy liked this phrase and didn’t spot the irony in adopting it as a private motto. Over the following years he developed a highly refined image of self, ceaselessly honed and tumble-polished like a pebble in a constantly moving stream, one so mirror-like and reflective that it came to defy any further self-examination. The smoother the pebble, someone once said, the easier it is to swallow.

Foetal rather than embryonic, Jeremy’s social conscience was largely topped up by seeing late-night TV community-service announcements. These were timed, he noted, at that very part of the day when he felt full after his meal, comfy in his chair and – after a break of a few hours – happy with his career. Reminders of poverty and illness and disasters such as these prompted him to change his life forever. He would be more generous; he would increase his donations to his charities and conservation groups. He would holiday less in resorts and more on treks and adventures in out-of-the-way places. This, Jeremy reasoned, would help to keep him in touch with what was happening in the world, remind him how lucky he was and give plenty of employment to the locals. And he would save even more for his retirement so he could stop working earlier, freeing himself from all the shackles of the rat-race. This, too, would have to be financed properly and he saw this as the responsible thing to do.

Perhaps in these things – especially in these things – Jeremy thought delayed gratification was overrated, finding it awkward to put off to another day the pursuit of such core values, so many things of substance and meaning. It was here that the cards helped him. Credit cards.

He was able to do so much, thanks to plastic credit. He was able to be so generous. Of course as a radical student he had disdained them, but that was through ignorance of how things really worked. Just a rebellious phase, he knew deep down, probably motivated by jealousy. But he was in control of all those adolescent urges now. He didn’t have to buy the latest fashions or eat at the trendiest cafes. He was completely free to do so if he chose and that was a fine thing. But it didn’t control him. He was in charge.

Being really in control, knowing things about what’s important: he felt most certain about this each month when he opened the shiny brochures that came with his card statements. In fact his monthly credit statement was where his real contribution to the world was made manifest. He would not be a burden. He would carry more than his fair share of the weight of the world. Jeremy would only reluctantly admit this to himself, but he was becoming quite an exceptional individual in this regard, unstoppable so long as the fuel for his credit debt never stopped.

Sure, these past few months the interest charges were racking up a bit, but that was a glitch rather than a trend. He paid off large bills on one card by getting cash advances from another. Juggling transactions and limits for all four cards took some gamesmanship.

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Illustration by SUSAN TODD / 3 IN A BOX Illustration by SUSAN TODD / 3 IN A BOX [image, unknown]

For years life was good. Tough but good. His investments had grown and he’d started negatively gearing into overseas shares. Whenever there was a minor shortfall he’d make it up with a short-term cash advance. No problem. Not one head of corn lay on the field after his harvest, he felt uncomfortable with even the slightest wastage. He extended his credit limits all round.

An early summer break trekking in the Himalayas would do the trick, recharge his batteries and help him get back in tune with the big picture, which of late had become a little fuzzy. He returned fit and strong, and hung the Kashmiri silk rug in his hallway. He had given the vendor a generous tip.

He got a bit of a shock when he saw the price on his next credit-card bill, but he knew you couldn’t let those sorts of opportunities pass you by. Even the air freight was worth it. And it was such a good conversation starter about the country’s struggle for independence. Sure, he’d gone over budget, not that this was ever much of a challenge to him. His deep affinity with nature, his espousal of good politics and generous support of just causes led him perhaps a little too often to think he had risen just a bit above the everyday.

To his bank managers and for all intents and purposes Jeremy was his credit-card statements. They increasingly set the tone, character and quality of his life. And now the character and quality had become severely in debt.

No-one had told him that you needed to count the cost. Over a few roller-coaster months came a haemorrhaging stock market, the collapse of the property sector and the demise of his futures schemes. Further margin calls were made, his various debts were consolidated, but the end result was a massive dent in his income. And still the bills rolled in. Here was the incarnation of his credit-card conditions of use: his assets would be seized. He would be left with just one card.

In order to save his house, he had to sell the car and sell down two-thirds of his investments. That barely covered the costs and left him with a hefty 20-year loan just to keep the remaining third of his retirement funds viable. It would also mean he’d be paying off his mortgage into his mid-50s. But he was committed to a good holiday every year, and to keeping his hi-fi, TV and a few other comforts around him. And he’d do his best to keep up his donations, or at least some of them. He even took another job on weekends and for a time this helped him pay off his credit-card debts ahead of schedule.

But although he had come to know the pointy edge of compound interest, he overlooked the impact of compound consumption: the more he had, the more he needed. What was the point of having a stereo television without a video disc player? What was the point of having a good hi-fi if he couldn’t keep buying CDs? And what was the point of having a gourmet kitchen if he couldn’t eat fine beef and salmon steaks?

The occasional splurge proved an excellent panacea for the emptiness of a diminished credit rating. He kept being drawn as if by nature to the products and services which held the promise of a hoped-for community. Though from time to time he’d suspect the promises lacked substance. Jeremy became the archetype of perpetually unsatisfied desires. And with all the certainty of death and taxes, his final credit card was stopped and his mounting debts once more called in.

His father, who was born during the Depression, spoke to him bluntly that day. ‘Who are you trying to impress with all this? You’re becoming so la-de-da, you’re like some bloody actor watching yourself in a mirror.’ The words hurt more than anything that had happened to Jeremy in a very long time.

Jeremy had indeed become something of an actor, a rather poor one, but this nevertheless enabled his performing self to meet his voyeuristic self in a complete theatrical package.

In the many quieter moments that followed his credit demise, Jeremy glimpsed the truth that the glossy path to self-fulfilment seemed remarkably like self-erosion. The cards, the brochures, the special deals and high-spenders’ offers had become the shackles of Indulgences through which the Reformation of cancelled credit had strangely liberated him. But it ushered in such a poor Enlightenment. Something indeed had been lost in the translation.

Marie Antoinette, Jeremy once read, built a replica peasant cottage – complete with water mill and dairy – nestled safely in the grounds of Versailles Palace. When life at Court proved tiresome, she and her entourage would retire there for a therapeutic dose of milking cows and churning butter.

Doing a spot of milking and butter-churning sounded like a sensible idea – if only he could figure out what the metaphor meant. But then, what would the Palace be, and would he be able to leave it when life there proved tiresome?

The sounds of the city beneath him were discordant tonight and the oranges and purples of the sunset a most unpleasant hue. He didn’t like his debts stretching to some point beyond the horizon and especially not if his spending had been so cruelly curtailed. But what was the most bitter blow, the meanest and the most pitifully ridiculing, was that he now realized that he’d never known how to be content.

George Fisher is a regular contributor to the NI who lives in Sydney, Australia.

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