Thursday, November 6, 2014

A New Era?

I was just watching a commercial for a credit card that offers 30,000 "Thank You" points to new card holders... whatever the hell those are. I've been thinking a lot about the nature of consumerism in our country, and one of the things that hit me is the one-two combo that most credit cards use to ride on the coattails of the "good life" concept that has goaded Americans into buying lots of crap that they dont need.

Travel and dining. Think about it. Frequent flier miles, companion tickets, benefits, free VIP lounges, so much of credit cards are based on this illusion of people being upwardly mobile, jetsetting superhumans. That's absurd! People in America would have to fly back and forth from New York to LA ten times a year to make all of these credit cards make sense.

Credit cards are not the root of these issues. Credit card companies are part of the problem, but they are also very much a part of a broader social narrative of the good life. Think about the past twenty years. The sheer amount of money being spent on eating out has increased ten fold. Conversely, as is equally American, we are spending less than ever before on this food.

I see this in credit cards. They all offer dining rewards. It is one of the the original credit card benefits. Hell, the first credit card was called Diner's Club! It's a sham. It's selling a hollow dream to people who rack up redit card debt that bogs them down.

I don't know how I feel about this. I love restaurants. I love Food Network. But this "good life" marketing message that we have been fed by both companies and the government since the end of World War I is an infuriating lie. It is doing ever-increasing amounts of harm to us and the planet.

I don't think that I can have it both ways, though. Where I live, Providence, has an amazingly diverse culinary market. Dozens and dozens of restaurants serving up everything from tapas to T-bones. One of the biggest reasons for this being true is likely because of this lie, and because credit card companies push dining out so hard as something to spend your credit on. If not for this lie, my culinary world would undoubtedly be more boring.

I would like to say that without the lie, people would still want their adventurous foods, they would just be forced to make them at home. Food Network (the parts of Food Network that don't show some God awful reality show or something competitive) would be on in every home and we would all be experimenting with creating our own yeast starters in the fridge. But how can I possibly demand that?

So much of this good life narrative is classist. Households spend less, but only wealthy households. This revolution of food has left the poor behind entirely. They have neither the time nor the money to be adventurous. They do not have the ability to fuel progress in a local food industry.

Similarly, how can I hope of even the wealthy households that they may one day turn into chefs when so many of those households are only wealthy because both partners work 10-hour days? One of the great deaths, in the multitude of deaths, in the erosion of the American Dream is the single-income household.

They even coined a term back in the 80's: DINK. It means Dual Income No Kids. It's also apparently a derogatory term for someone from Vietnam. Racist people, man. I just don't know. Moving on, back when they created this term, it was to describe materialistic people who wanted to afford super-nice things. Nowadays, they have the dual incomes not because they want the BMW; they have dual incomes because they just want to be able to afford a car, any car, that isn't used! These people are eating out, and they are the reason that places like Chipotle, Panera Bread, local food trucks, and the seemingly endless array of cupcake shops are able to survive. Their ultimately fruitless drive for the good life gives me more options.

Worse, times are getting worse. The money being earned is being ever-more divided between the haves and the have-nots. We have reached a point in our economic development where those that would at one time been seen as having "made it," — those earning over $150,000 per year — are seeing their income stagnate. They are getting no raises. Their benefits are disappearing. And their job mobility is extremely limited. Are we heading toward a time where our culinary landscape will have large hunks of it collapse as those who were previously supporting them are forced to restrict their spending? Will local cafes close en masse? Will food trucks die off?  Will the quest for the good life finally push everyone to the brink as it so nearly did in 2008? To me, it seems inevitable.

I have no solutions. Really, this has been nothing more than a public musing. But it is interesting how so much of "The Good Life" focuses on eating. And it is sad how much of a lie it all is.

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