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Upside of the downturn

Conspicuous consumption is going out of fashion.
(Barack Obama Campaign)

(Barack Obama Campaign) None

One thing that has bothered me about Seattle of the last 25 years has been the rise, along with Microsoft millionaires, of conspicuous consumption. Seattle went from being a town where the rich wore paint-spattered polo shirts and drove old Volvos to a town where McMansions started crowding out bungalows. People forget that as recently as the mid 1980s, even Bellevue used to be ashamed when someone went overboard building a showy waterfront estate. I remember one on Meydenbauer Bay that was the subject of much community ire. One of the marvels of the mid-century modern Northwest school of architecture was the designing efficient, simple, beautiful and inconspicuous new homes that were integrated into the trees, not show-off villas trying to compete with Mt. Rainier for attention.

There's a real social benefit to inconspicuous consumption, or simply less consumption: it doesn't flaunt class divisions, it doesn't suggest that the rich are better or have more right to public space than anyone else (another reason I hate those downtown Frasier Crane condos that privatize the public views). Restraint also contributed to a more egalitarian civic ethic which was once more prevalent: rich and poor often lived side by side in the same neighbs, used the same parks, walked the same streets.

So, I was delighted to see this story in the New York Times, titled "Conspicuous Consumption, a Casualty of Recession." Here's the nut graph:

In just the seven months since the stock market crash, the recession has aimed its death ray not just at the credit market, the Dow and Detroit, but at the very ethos of conspicuous consumption. Even those who still have a regular income are reassessing their spending habits, perhaps for the long term. They are shopping their closets, downscaling their vacations and holding off on trading in their cars. If the race to have the latest fashions and gadgets was like an endless, ever-faster video game, then someone has pushed the reset button.

Folk are cutting back on luxury goods, using coupons, recycling the contents of their over-stuffed closets, taking the bus (public transit ridership just hit a 52-year high).

This downturn, be it the Great Recession or New Depression, is not going to be one we can simply shop our way out of, in part because, as a friend recently said, it's one where the rich are impacted too. And it's also global. And it comes at a time when doing with less is a planetary health imperative. At any rate, people are cutting back on what Abe Lincoln called once called, in horror, the "flub dubs." Even the Obama girls are getting their clothes off the rack.

The point isn't class warfare, it's promoting a way of life that's more sustainable and less corrosive. The differences between rich and poor won't be erased, but I think things work better when those material differences are sanded into curves rather than sharp edges that flaunt privilege and waste. I'm enough of an old Seattle Calvinist to think that's a good idea, and at one time, much of Seattle's old money agreed.

I thought one of the people interviewed in the Times story said it well: "'It's disrespectful to the people who don't have much to flaunt your wealth,' said Monica Dioda Hagedorn, 40, a lawyer in Atlanta who is married to an heir of the Scotts Miracle-Gro fortune. 'I have plenty of dresses to last me 10 years.'" Time to wear 'em.

Knute Berger is Mossback, Crosscut's chief Northwest native. He also writes the monthly Grey Matters column for Seattle magazine and is a weekly Friday guest on Weekday on KUOW-FM (94.9). His newest book is Pugetopolis: A Mossback Takes On Growth Addicts, Weather Wimps, and the Myth of Seattle Nice, published by Sasquatch Books. In 2011, he was named Writer-in-Residence at the Space Needle and is author of Space Needle, The Spirit of Seattle (2012), the official 50th anniversary history of the tower. You can e-mail him at mossback@crosscut.com.


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