The Price Is Wrong

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It is hard to live in this country and not realize how materialistic we have become. If you watch television, every program is punctuated by what seems to be an endless stream of ads trying to tell us what to eat, what to wear, what to drive, and even how to handle our various physical ailments, real or imagined. It is no wonder that in this context it is difficult to fight the tide (or maybe I should say Tide, for those who want the cleanest wash in town). The late, great comedian George Carlin had a wonderful routine where he talked about Americans’ penchant for collecting “stuff.” He suggested that a house is simply a box to keep our stuff in. But once we have a place to keep it, we get more stuff and then get a bigger house to put the extra stuff in. We have dozens of television shows dedicated to Americans’ tendency to collect “stuff”-Pawn Stars, Hoarders, American Pickers, and Salvage Dawgs to name a few-not to mention several networks dedicated to helping people find or renovate their homes (stuff boxes).

This materialism has even invaded our political system. We learned in the last election that “corporations are people” too, at least according to one candidate. But that is a feeling obviously shared by the Supreme Court, who ruled that money was speech so that those with money appear to have more speech than those that don’t. The result of that ruling is that a couple hundred people pay for all the candidates who run for President. Then you have to ask, who will largely influence their decisions-the millions who simply voted or the hundreds who made the campaign possible? If you ask elected officials at the state or federal level what their least favorite task is, they will likely say the need to constantly raise money to be reelected. Elected officials don’t need ideas. They just need the green. This year’s presidential primary election has been dominated by a billionaire who likes to brag about his money and emphasize how the fact that he doesn’t need to raise money for his campaign will make him more independent and less beholden to others. All this has taken the valuing of “stuff” to the ultimate level-stuff and the money to buy it is equivalent to our humanity.

But let’s go back to television for a minute. Most of us are very familiar with the long running daytime game show known as The Price is Right. It features a peppy host (for years the loquacious Bob Barker, who had the good fortune to have a name that perfectly described his job), assisted by lovely ladies and an audience made up of potential contestants all dressed in their finest Halloween costumes in hopes of being noticed and picked to compete on the show.

When the names of audience members are called to “come on down” by a near crazed announcer, they run down the aisle to join the other contestants in hopes of winning something of value. Then they try to guess the price of an item. The contestant who guesses closest to the actual retail price (without going over it) wins and then moves on to the next game. The next game can be one of a number of possible games, each involved in getting contestants to correctly guess the price of the items so they can go home the happy winner. This is America in 2015-focused on the need to get more of the “stuff” we don’t need by focusing on the price of whatever it is. Of course, what the lucky winners find out later is that every expensive item they won comes at a price. They have to pay taxes on the value of the item. Many have found that they can’t afford the item they won and either have to sell it or get in trouble with the IRS.

I have often thought this show demonstrates some of the worst qualities of our society. There is such a value placed on the gathering of material items, we often nearly lose our minds in their pursuit. In fact, we are even willing to look foolish in our quest. Often all we hear in the end is the out-of-tune horn that signals we have lost everything-“wah, wah, wah.” Our culture’s emphasis on the acquisition of material pleasures has warped our sense of what is important and our mindless pursuit of “things” has led us into moral debt. We might do well to heed the biblical admonition that asks what good comes from profit if we lose our souls in the process.

My biggest concern centers around what all this is teaching our children. At this time of year, we begin to focus on the coming months and what our children should learn. We have the conflicts on Common Core, high stakes testing, accountability, and the like. It would be nice to see a deep and healthy discussion over the values we are teaching our children. The constant bombardment of advertising and the common acceptance of the idea that how much money you make is somehow determinative of what kind of person you are, is poisonous to our well-being. We are raising a generation of children who know the price of everything and the value of nothing. That is a sure path to misery and an unhealthy society.