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Learned worthlessness

In the most recent NYT Magazine, the always interesting Jon Mooallem has an article about the self-storage industry in America. The need to store one's belongings in a 6-by-6-foot box miles away from where one lives is a pretty good indication that some sort of insanity has taken grip, but the very normality of that scenario shows just how entrenched consumerism has become. Once the need for storage was transitory -- a move or a divorce necessitated it. But in recent years, "the line between necessity and convenience -- between temporary life event and permanent lifestyle -- totally blurred," Mooallem explains. It has become convenient to live as though we are always in transition, that no set of belongings is stable or anywhere near complete or fulfilling. Obviously, this betokens the triumph of a consumerist ideology.

We accumulate things that we can't possibly use, but remember enough of what they once signified when we bought them -- the moments of excitement and fantasies being fulfilled that brought us -- that we can't throw them away. Much of what is stored is furniture, it turns out, in part because it's expensive enough not to seem disposable, but cheap enough to easily replace:

The marketing consultant Derek Naylor told me that people stockpile furniture while saving for bigger or second homes but then, in some cases, “they don’t want to clutter up their new home with all the things they have in storage.” So they buy new, nicer things and keep paying to store the old ones anyway. Clem Tang, a spokesman for Public Storage, explains: “You say, ‘I paid $1,000 for this table a couple of years ago. I’m not getting rid of it, or selling it for 10 bucks at a garage sale. That’s like throwing away $1,000.’ ” It’s not a surprising response in a society replacing things at such an accelerated rate — this inability to see our last table as suddenly worthless, even though we’ve just been out shopping for a new one as though it were.

This phenomenon suggests we are afflicted with a kind of schizophrenia about goods. As behavioral economists have long-known, we overvalue what we own (the "endowment effect"), yet at the same time we can't resist replacing it when we perceive a bargain. We appreciate taking advantage of a sale for its own sake, regardless of whether the opportunity conforms to any actual need, and regardless of whether we can accommodate the souvenir of our consumer triumph. We become trained to recognize potential value in everything and have a hard time recognizing when something has become worthless. It seems like the dark side of the congenital optimism that Americans are supposed to have; we can't give up on anything we once invested our faith in.

Though it has prompted the kind of turmoil that was once the storage industry's bread-and-butter, the current recession is also forcing people to give up spaces because they can't afford the rent. A measure of my own insanity: all I could think of while reading Mooallem's article was "Wow, I bet the dumpsters outside these storage units that people cant afford anymore are full of great stuff." But in this, I am just a reflection of that American optimism. Mooallem secured this great, telling quote:

“I really think there’s a spirit that things will turn around,” Jim Chiswell, a Virginia-based consultant to the industry, told me. “I believe that my children — and both my children are proving it already — they’re going to have more at the end of their lifetimes, and more success, than I’ve had. And so will their children. I don’t believe the destiny of this country as a beacon of freedom and hope is over. And I believe there will be more growth, and more people wanting to have things and collect things.”

What is hope if not the hope to have more?

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