Not real simple: the American conflation of needs and wants

October 6, 2006 | By | 2 Replies More

What have they done with the word “simple”?  It appears that they have corrupted “simple” to the point that it means the opposite of what it used to mean (They also done this to the words “essential” and “needs”).  Why do I say this?

Just Google the phrase “simple living” or “living simply.”  You’ll see many websites preaching the virtues of living “simply.”   Many of these “simple living” websites tell us how to re-organize our massive amounts of stuff or how to spend our money wisely when we buy more stuff.  Some simple living sites recognize that many of us have many times more stuff than we need.  Relatively few sites sternly warn us that our culture blinds us to the fact that most of what we own, possess or desire is frivolous and unnecessary. 

Many preachers of simple living fail to focus on a distinction I was taught in grade school: needs versus wants.  I was taught that needs are things you truly can’t do without.  In this category I would put a toothbrush, a pair of simple shoes and an outfit of clothing not suitable for “showing off.”  How much more than that? For a long time, I have struggled to find a good definition for “needs.”  Here’s my best shot for now: imagine that floodwaters are rising and that you have one hour to save only the most important things out of your house by placing them into one subcompact car.  Those things are your needs.  Everything else constitutes wants. 

One friend of mine truly shunned wants for many years (I’ve since lost track of her).  She refused to own any more stuff than would fit in her subcompact car.  Her apartment was small, clean and perfectly functional.  Yes, she lacked decorative collections of porcelain angels, professional sports memorabilia, a pool table, a grandfather clock, ornate furniture made of rare woods, large pictures framed a expensive shops, and most kitchen gadgets. She owned only the sorts of things she actually used.  It was truly refreshing.

As a first step toward recovery, it is imperative that we A) recognize that there is a line dividing needs and wants exists and B) occasionally take the time to examine our own lifestyle in the context of this distinction between needs and wants.

I thought of that old distinction between needs and wants when I recently stumbled across a magazine called Real Simple, a magazine displaying the following banner: Life Made Easier.  

                       real simple.JPG

For the stated purpose of the Real Simple, see the About page of the online version:

Founded in 2000, Real Simple magazine continues to be a leader in the category of women’s lifestyle publications. Its concise, useful strategies, coupled with a clean, inspiring design, focus on making busy women’s lives easier, from preparing a fast, healthy breakfast to getting a good night’s sleep. In essence, Real Simple helps its readers do what they need to do, so they have more time to enjoy what they want to do.

When you read the above description carefully, you can see that Real Simple does nothing to discourage us from purchasing wantsReal Simple thus fits perfectly with the runaway consumerist lifestyle that infects the lives of almost every person in this entire country (me included, I admit).  In this respect, Real Simple is like almost every other American institution—this includes virtually every organized religion.  It is a rare American institution that will intentionally and actively shame Americans into admitting that 95% of the things they own are not needs.  Most people don’t want to hear that they buy too much stuff and that they do so to impress others.  They’d rather bask in the blindered warmth of owning yet another kitchen gadget, yard toy, garment or knickknack.

Really, can you imagine any American institution (a church, government, charity or club) specifically preaching that there is no need to own a big screen TV?  Or that spending money on luxuries like gambling, rare dog breeds or tickets to sporting events is morally suspect on a planet where hundreds of millions of innocent children are starving? 

In America, we actively preach the Gospels of must-have to each other.   We reassure each other that it is okay to pamper ourselves with fancy food, clothing, jewelry, spa treatments and lavish trips at “nice” hotels.  Because we indoctrinate each other so well, we clamor to express our alleged affection for each other by driving to big malls and running up our credit cards at shops geared for impulse buying. There’s a lot of lip service out there:  almost all of us claim that we should do away with those things we don’t need.  But very few people dare to contemplate seriously that dollars are fungible; that the same dollars for use for luxuries could be used to save lives and relieve suffering.  It’s just not American to go around saying it like that.   It’s not surprising that we’ve gotten to this point, given that almost all of our information (TV, magazines, radio) gets to us only after passing through the insidious filter of corporate sponsors.

Here’s an illustration of how “simple” now actually means not simple. I have in my hands the June 2006 edition of Real Simple magazine.  The two million readers of this edition of Real Simple were bombarded with dozens of advertisements for expensive cosmetics and hair products.  The full color ads convey the real gospel of Real Simple.  I see vividly colored foldout advertisements for many types of expensive vehicles, such as BMWs and Cadillacs.  I see lots of ads for designer clothes, including a DKNY advertisement prefaced by a simple living quote by Anne Morrow Lindbergh.  Ads and ads and ads, by Ralph Lauren, Covergirl, Thomasville Furniture.  I can see dozens and dozens of gadgets for sale, including a paper towel holder for only $35.  I learned that I can grow my own cherry tomatoes, if only I buy a fancy “tomato spiral stake,” buy lots of organic dirt, and buy my seedlings from a nursery.

To keep life truly “real simple,” Real Simple’s ads tell me that I can indulge in that “Sweet Romance Getaway Package” offered by Doubletree Hotels.  And why drink water, says yet another full-page ad, when you can drink Coca-Cola Blak, “to awaken your mind and lift your mood.”  I’ve learned that another way to simplify my life is to call Prudential Financial to amass more money (presumably to buy more things); this full-page ad features a picture of the mother elephant and baby elephant. 

The Wal-Mart double-page fold-out ad invites me to buy Wal-Mart’s “chic dinnerware”-I’ll consider doing that if my current dishes stop working.  And, of course, no simple life is complete without those stylish wine racks costing up to $250.  In case I get hungry, the full-page cheese ad of The Laughing Cow reminds me that “indulgence has a lighter side.” 

If I want to peruse the remainder of this 310-page Magazine, you can do so while sitting on that double full-page Smith and Hawken ad touting the need to have those Adirondack chairs costing only $399 each.  I’ll stop there.  This review of one edition of Real Simple only gets us half-way through the magazine.  If you turn the pages of Real Simple magazine carefully, you might actually find a few articles among the ads.  Real Simple is almost entirely a book of commercials, with a cover price of only $4 per issue. 

The bottom line, then, is that living “simply” no longer appears to be cheap or easy. Reading Real Simple taught me that I can’t live simply without buying lots of things.  And that the more I buy the more simple my life will become.  The moral of this story?  There truly are a lot of “real simple” things in life.  It’s just that the real simple things about life aren’t free.

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Category: American Culture, Consumerism

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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  1. grumpypilgrim says:

    One of my personal amusements in the wants/needs category is the ubiquitous set of kitchen knife sets found in most homes. You know the type: a butcher-block base with a forest of knife handles sprouting from it. I remember hearing a professional chef say that he only owns three knives: a 3-4" paring knife, a 6-7" utility knife, and a cleaver. That's it. He was perfectly happy with that small collection because he has them professionally sharpened every year, so he doesn't need any more knives to ensure that he always has a sharp one. Many kitchens also feature a collection of table-top cooking devices (the George Foreman grill being one example), when an ordinary stove can replace all of them.

    Of course, the kitchen isn't the only room in the house with excess stuff: just ask any homeowner how many duplicate tools he or she has in the workshop. I went to a garage sale last summer where the homeowner had three routers for sale, all of which worked just fine. Another garage sale I visited had a large selection of circular saws.

    Unfortunately, I'm just as guilty myself. My own obsession is bicycles: I rescue discarded bicycles and bike parts from curbsides, so they don't go to the landfill. Some parts I reuse, others I donate to a local charity that gives bikes to needy children in exchange for a few hours of community service.

    Speaking of recycling, I saw a PBS show this week about architects who are recycling old highway structures (e.g., bridges, metal scaffolds, etc.) into homes. They use the discarded steel as the frame of the house, thus reducing the energy needed for home construction. They are hoping to help sponsor legislation that will require public works projects to make steel structures easy to disassemble, so the structures will be reusable when they have finished serving their public function.

    Speaking of homes…housing regulations in Europe are totally different from those in America. In Europe, homes must be built to last for centuries, so they tend to be smaller, sturdier and much more energy efficient. It reflects a style of living that is very different from that of America: in Europe, people don't tend to spend a lot of time inside their houses — they socialize outdoors and in pubs. In America, social conservatives brand as "socialist" anything that involves shared community resources, which tends to eliminate the possibility that America will find truly innovative solutions to its (unsustainable) culture of massive consumption.

    Much of it boils down to governmental policies. In Europe, government policies tend to address the needs of everyone; whereas, in America, especially under Republican rule, legislation tends to serve only the needs of the rich and powerful. This is perhaps one reason why so many countries resist having American-style democracy forced on them: they've seen how inequitable the resulting culture can be and they just don't want their lives to be that way. They don't want corporations running their country the way it happens in America.

  2. Deb says:

    "Real Simple" is apparently a design style, like colonial or modern, rather than a style of living. Like "shabby shiek" a style that doesn't usually use old or recyled things, instead take new ones and beat them up or sand off some finish. Then you can pretend you did something good for the environment, like keeping your old stuff or taking someone else's.

    Replacing perfectly useful things, or worse yet, getting more of the same as Grumpy describes, is pervasive in our society. We buy new shoes because the old ones don't have pointy enough toes (or round enough if we are in that fashion cylce). We change furniture so we can have a new decor style. We change husbands or wives because…, well, just because. Some people even change kids that way, sometimes ignoring their children of a former marriage and having new ones, and at worst, having more because they were unfit and had others taken away (like the young couple who lost their baby to the state welfare department when they dropped it in the lake at the age of 6 weeks because they heard babies could swim. In dad's words, "she done real good swimming under the water but didn't come up for air so I had to git her out." When told the child was being removed from their home, the response from the couple was, "We'll jus have anuther."

    And of course the manufacturers meet our demand for throwaway goods. Washing machines have a life of about 10 years, can openers a couple, etc. A German friend of mine, on his first visit to the U.S., was amazed to see what poor quality the standard items were. He was attempting to get a folding knife and a honing stone for camping, and besides the poor quality of the knives available (maybe that is why some need to many, that entire 'forest' in the block are useless), finding a sharpening stone was particularly difficult. I had to admit that: (1) poor quality knives cannot be sharpened and (2) we buy a new knife when the old one gets dull.

    Our rampant consumerism is why we have such a trade imbalance with China, and why the goods available are so often shoddy. Buy a washing machine in the UK, for example. It will cost over $1,000. It will be very small, not the super-duper extra large enough for huge loads from my enormous wardrobe. It will be a front loader, which saves a lot of water, and it will last for years, and years (of course needing very occasional repair, but still much cheaper than replacement). It may be the only, or one of two, washers I buy in my entire life. I've had to buy 4 washers thus far in my life (with a couple decades yet of laundry duty before the nursing home takes over the job), because replacing the shoddy cheap motors was more expensive than buying a whole new washer.

    Part of me thinks this will end with us being covered in landfills, but we'll probably just "contract" to send our garbage to some third world country. Oh, right, we're already doing that.

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