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Common Cold

A month ago, The Wall Street Journal granted Duke the dubious attention of a profile on the vast lifestyle disparities among students of varying socioeconomic backgrounds.

It's certainly no news that the Duke student body, like that of any expensive big-name school, has an extremely disproportionate sample of upper-bracket progeny.

But the article's real point of interest was the particularly glaring figure of Duke students' nonacademic monthly spending--including CDs, clothes, off-campus dining and the grab bag of narcotics--which averaged a whopping $825.

Maybe this budget could be expected on an urban campus, but anyone moderately acquainted with Durham's bustling metropolis knows that dropping that kind of dough after $36K a year is not just splurging, or even a hobby--it's compulsion.

In Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic, John de Graaf, David Wann and Duke Professor Emeritus of Economics Thomas H. Naylor take it a step further by diagnosing such spending as a disease that is slowly eating away at society. Fleshing out a 1997 PBS program of the same name, their book finds most of modern America's anxieties to be symptoms of an illness that compels us all to spend like a sorority girl with Daddy's plastic.

Affluenza initially appears to focus on the effects of the astoundingly boosted confidence of the American consumer that has both fueled and been fueled by the soaring millenial economy. The Mall Age and its merciless consumerism are pathological, wreaking havoc not only on our wallets and our environment but also on our mental health.

Naylor and Co. are not content to deal only with the causes and effects of compulsive shopping.

They quickly tirade onward, wielding their statistics and anecdotes like a bloody croquet mallet, harping on every social ill that rubs them the wrong way--from conspicuous consumption and SUVs to missing children and cybersex--until affluenza is pretty much synonymous with capitalism.

of these complaints haven't been registered many times over the past half century (DDT? Chain stores?), and the depth of their analysis probably couldn't pass an Intro to Sociology midterm.

What is outright baffling, however, is that amidst all this they almost completely skirt global warming.

Traffic congestion and Wal-Mart seem like small beans next to the destruction of our biosphere. Yet this coup de grace, which would seem to make all of their earnest predilections a priori, is merely whispered about in a few vague allusions.

This wussing in the face of the big kahuna suggests that perhaps they realize fully that their plan for a simpler lifestyle will not stop the seas from rising.

Now, I appreciate the occasional critique of Western Civ. as much as the next culture stud, but this mishmash of righteousness and naivetZ makes for pretty shallow stuff. Written as if by a castrated Fight Club's Tyler Durden--or maybe as dictated by your drool-chinned Uncle Joe while ranting across the dining room--the book's authors concoct an uneasy mix of Marx, Thoreau, Bordieux and deep ecology.

Of course, the road to a sustainable societal paradigm may well be paved in this way.

But the glue with which Affluenza holds it all together actually comes from the opposite and right end of the spectrum: a sickly-sweet dollop of "civil society"-style family values and O50s nostalgia.

The insinuation that people--rich and poor, student and politician--must look to the morals of the past in order to save the future is banal and atavistic. After all, it's the same past that got us here; if we're going to be trite, we're better off watching Fight Club than Leave it to Beaver.

Ultimately, the book's humble, starry-eyed proposals of a shorter work week, simpler lifestyle, replacements for the GDP and income tax and various other sustainable "green" ideas are likely to turn out to be our only viable options--and hopefully not too late in the game.

But before Americana is going to go all Walden on us, we have to have a more rationally developed platform upon which we can make real progress away from the consumer paradigm.

In the end it's hard to really fault Affluenza, because if people still need such a book to point out the perils of wanton consumption, then ignorance is our first and biggest problem.

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