In the last eighty years

Over the last eighty years, the most extraordinary thing I’ve seen has been the unstoppable rise in the number of things I own. In my earliest memories, I lived in a rented house. We did not own a car but walked, bicycled, and took street cars, buses, and the Greyhound. We rented our phone. I had three changes of clothes, two for school and a Sunday go-to-church outfit. Now, we have two houses, two cars, seven outdated phones, eight bulging closets and bureaus of clothes and shoes, four outdated computers, thousands of books, and stuff piled everywhere. Do I really “need” twelve flashlights? My house is twice as big as the one I used to live in, and I have to stack things in the refrigerator to keep them from falling out when I open the door. It was large enough twenty years ago, but today, they don’t even sell this size anymore.

I see others around me have had the same experience. Behind my house in Hillsboro are foundation stones of disappeared houses from when Hillsboro was the county seat. They are all tiny one or two room houses. There is one that is only about eight by eight. Many houses in the town I grew up in had no garages. But when I was in high school working in construction, single garage homes were the norm. Then later, double garages. Now tract houses have triple garages, while double garages often have project cars parked in the driveways. And, of course, the houses these garages are attached to get bigger and bigger.

This rise in ownership has not actually been matched by our ability to pay for all these things, although there is an illusion about that. In 1945, when the war ended, median family and individual income in the country was about $2,379. Today (2022), median household income (a somewhat different category) is $74,580 and a lot less in Sierra County. That seems to match our increased buying, but most of that increase is inflation. The equivalent 1945 number corrected to 2023 dollars is $40,271 (which is more than today’s Sierra County median household income of $35,256). So, our income (nationally) has less than doubled since we went on this buying spree.

That can mean only one thing. We don’t own what we “own.” The bank owns it, and we just rent from them but call it “ours” though we are legally responsible as if we own it. The houses, the cars, the tv’s, the computers, the phones, the refrigerators, the multiple sinks and toilets, all that stuff in the closets and bureaus, the tools and equipment in the garages, the shoes – for lounging, for working, for running, for hiking, for business, for special events: all debits on the credit system.

But even if this huge investment in ownership is an illusion, it still feels real and has really changed us, utterly, into Homo consumerensis. This is a sea change, a change in kind rather than in degree. We’ve all become private property freaks. The social, political, and moral consequences are huge, because private property is about inequality and privilege.

We are not anymore “the people” that Thomas Jefferson imagined when he wrote in the original rough draft of the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be sacred & undeniable; that all men are created equal & independent, that from that equal creation they derive rights inherent and inalienable, among which are the preservation of life, & liberty, & the pursuit of happiness.” [The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Vol. 1, 1760-1776, ed. Julian P. Boyd (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1950, p 243).]

What Jefferson says about rights comes straight out of John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government, but he has deliberately left out the right of property, and that omission makes what Jefferson claims here revolutionary and the fundamental basis of all modern ideas of democracy. We shout all the time about our rights, but we forget or don’t know Jefferson’s derivation of rights from the more fundamental concept of “equal creation.” Without the prior notion of equality there are no rights, only assertions of privilege. Equality is how we begin life and it is, at the same time, the aim or intent of government. The country is full of inequalities, of education, money, power, status. It is full of hierarchies. But the aim of government is the intent of equality and the perception of people as equals (whether in life they are or not).

This ur-principle of equality, the only principle that defines a democracy, is violated by our privileging property rights (or any other right) over equality. Slavery is an example of that, and it is somewhat ironic that property rights come back into our governmental structure through the 14th Amendment, where freeing slaves from the category of property is sweetened by a declaration of the right of property; although here, these rights are not derived naturally from equality but assigned by government under the legal umbrella of “due process.”

But Homo consumerensis lives far from Jeffersonian equality. Do we care about the drastically increasing income gap in this society? We created that gap with our buying. Once we rented from other individuals and spread the money around. We took public and private transport and kept large amounts of money local. But now we pass almost all our money up the pyramid, the upside-down funnel of credit to the corporations and finance agencies. Sixteen thousand families, business and finance elites, the top 1% of the top 1% (0.01%), make over $7,000,000 a year, and unlike us, they actually own a lot. [Https://] You can bet your last dollar, none of them lives in Sierra County.

We support that inequality because we believe, erroneously, that we own a lot of stuff and that stuff gives us comfort, ease, security, a sense of well-being –quality of life, they say. That is why jobs reverberate so importantly for us. We think, also wrongly, that if we have a job, we will be able to buy things. Many people, especially in Sierra County, have jobs but need help for food and medicine. Remember that jobs are part of that upside-down funnel sucking money upwards. My boss in that construction job I worked as a teenager made it clear to me. “Max,” he growled at me, “if you don’t make me money, why would I hire you?” Right, the job is worth a lot more than what I was paid. It’s the boss who needs to have jobs. Remember that the next time people talk economic development to you.

There was a little bomb earlier in this essay. I said that in Sierra County, the median household income is today less than what the national median household income was at the end of World War II. That is a bit of a shocker. After eighty years or so of local economic development we haven’t even reached where the rest of the country was eighty years ago. But it is even worse. In 1950 the median household income in the county (that means half the households earned more and half less) was $1,266 a year, which is $16,006 in today’s dollars. That was 53% of the national median. Today, our median household income is 47% of the national median. So, relative to the country as a whole, we’ve been falling even further behind. I suggest that there might be something wrong.

It seems to me clear that the Homo consumerensis model of economic behavior we have all adopted is not only based on an illusion but that it doesn’t bring the benefits we want. That is because the federal government created it artificially through its various home loan programs (Federal Home Loan Bank, etc.) and fostered the mistaken American dream of “home ownership,” promoted the primacy of property and inequality. Maybe an egalitarian society is, in fact, more individually beneficial for us. Read what Jefferson said about what to do when the structure that governs our lives fails to deliver.

We hold these truths to be sacred & undeniable; that all men are created equal & independant, that from that equal creation they derive rights inherent & inalienable, among which are the preservation of life, & liberty, & the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these ends, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that whenever any form of government shall become destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, & to institute new government, laying it’s foundation on such principles & organising it’s powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety & happiness.


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Max Yeh
Max Yeh

Sierra County Public-Interest Journalism Project’s board president Max Yeh is a novelist and writes widely on language, interpretation, history, and culture. He has lived in Hillsboro, New Mexico, for more than 30 years after retiring from an academic career in literature, art history and critical theory.

Posts: 35


  1. Yes! See this EVERYWHERE…. Thank you Max for a well written, thought provoking article. A bit bleak but here we are…

  2. Hi Max,
    Yes, I do agree with you to some extent in your article. Inflation has been very high over the years and New Mexico wages and incomes have failed to keep up. New Mexico is one of the poorest states in the U.S.A.
    However, I don’t agree that financing has taken way the American Dream and causes disparity among people. I am a mortgage lender and I help people by homes with mortgage loans. Yes, people make payments with interest for their home. However, if a person rents their whole lives, then their average net worth is only around $20,000. If they own a home, their average net worth is on average $150,000 and above. That is because homes and real estate property appreciate in value instead of depreciating in value like a car would. I agree, consumerism and spending on credit cards is not a good way to build net worth. It just creates junk and debt.

    I encourage my clients to buy real estate so that they have the pride of ownership in owning their own piece of America. I hope you own your own home in Hillsboro. The problem with New Mexico is that we have relied way too much on tourism and hospitality for our main industries for people to work. I would like to see New Mexico build up jobs in technology, industry and manufacturing like other states around us have. That will help narrow the huge gap in income vs. expenditures. But our legislature has failed over the last 30 years to help build up New Mexico with sustainable jobs to help its people compete. But homeownership is one way for people to get ahead in life, and I have several clients that call me and say how grateful they are that I helped them buy a clean and safe home of their own rather than renting and making their landlords wealthy.

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