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The End of Bland Affluence

April 17, 2009

Peggy Noonan, at the Wall Street Journal, paints a rosy, but not unrealistic, portrait of a post-discretionary spending America. She describes the impact of a story about a family’s transition to a simpler way of living:

Mr. Wojtowicz was a truck driver frustrated by long hauls that kept him away from his family, and worried about a shrinking salary. His wife was self-employed and worked at home. They worked hard and had things but, Mr. Wojtowicz said, there was a “void.” “We started analyzing what it was that we were really missing. We were missing being around each other.” So he gave up his job and now works the land his father left him near Alma, Mich. His economic plan was pretty simple: “As long as we can keep decreasing our bills we can keep making less money.”

The paper weirdly headlined them “economic survivalists,” which perhaps reflected an assumption that anyone who leaves a conventional, material-driven life for something more physically rigorous but emotionally coherent is by definition making a political statement. But it didn’t look political from the story they told. They didn’t look like people trying to figure out how to survive as much as people trying to figure out how to live. The picture that accompanied the article showed a happy family playing Scrabble with a friend.

Their story hit a nerve. There was a lively comment thread on the paper’s Web site, with more than 300 people writing in. “They look pretty happy to me,” said a commenter. “My husband and I are making some of the same decisions.” Another: “I don’t know if this is so much survivalism as a return to common sense.” Another: “The more stuff you own the harder you have to work to maintain it.”

To some degree the Wojtowicz story sounded like the future, or the future as a lot of people are hoping it will be: pared down, more natural, more stable, less full of enervating overstimulation, of what Walker Percy called the “trivial magic” of modern times.

The article offered data suggesting the Wojtowiczes are part of a recent trend. People are gardening more if you go by the sales of vegetable seeds and transplants, up 30% over last year at the country’s largest seed company. Sales of canning and preserving products are also up. Companies that make sewing products say more people are learning to sew. I have a friend in Manhattan who took to surfing the Web over the past six months looking for small- and farm towns in which to live. The general manager of a national real-estate company told USA Today that more customers want to “live simply in a less-expensive place.”

Ms. Noonan, deservedly well-known for her talented speech writing, is a Republican of long and pre-eminent standing, so some of her enthusiasm for a simpler time could be explained by the typical reactionary longing for the romantic simplicity of the good old days. But Ms. Noonan is not your typical conservative who invariably follows the Limbaugh/Bush playbook and, in any event, disillusionment with the era of profligate spending and the “trivial magic of modern times” is not a partisan condition. The future world she describes, while rougher and slower in some sense then the one we’ve been living in for the past twenty years, has an appeal that isn’t necessarily limited to members of one party or another. There is no discounting the difficult challenges many of us will face in the uncertain economy we inhabit now. But one needn’t be a hopeless optimist to see that the great problems the country and the world are facing may allow for creative and innovative solutions. It is Ms. Noonan’s refreshing insight, I think, that these new solutions may not be all that new.

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