Hey, big spender

Culture | Spending our way to the poorhouse, laughing at science, & other cultural buzz

Issue: "Promise Keepers breakdown," March 21, 1998

The secret of wealth: avoid consumerism
Two years ago, Thomas J. Stanley and William D. Danko published a book about rich people and made themselves a fortune. The Millionaire Next Door (Longstreet Press, ISBN 1-5635-2330-2) remains on the bestseller lists as readers pick it up to discover this secret of success: Wealthy people are frugal, frugal, frugal. Twenty years of research is poured into 258 pages arguing this point. The authors say that the truly wealthy live far beneath their means. They avoid big-ticket toys, buy used cars, and are more likely to buy from J.C. Penney than Brooks Brothers. More of them avoid mega-mortgage mansions and live in blue collar suburbia. Often they didn't inherit their money or earn professional degrees. Instead they live a lifestyle of prudent spending and wise savings. Meanwhile, the guy who chases Porsches and posh vacations risks living a paycheck from disaster. Our society's obsession with consumption drains the would-be wealth through unnecessary luxuries. "It's much easier in America to earn a lot than it is to accumulate wealth," the authors warn. The income-depleter that receives most attention from The Millionaire is car buying. The pride of new car ownership and the thrill of owning the latest model can suck away thousands upon thousands of dollars. Wait for that hot little number to depreciate for three years, they argue, then find a good one used. Many readers may be thunderstruck at the keys to financial freedom found in this book. But all parents tell their kids at some point not to waste money. Accumulating possessions doesn't make one well off any more than collecting books makes one educated. When science lies
Scientific quackery is one of the world's great truth-is-stranger-than-fiction stories, and it is more common than we realize. In addition to the Piltdown Man, the evolutionary missing-link that turned out to be a hoax made of pig bones, we keep learning about the questionable methods of Ivory Tower brand names like Freud (who mistook child abuse for sexual fantasies), Mead (who was bamboozled by show-off Polynesians into believing that a culture can practice free love), and Kinsey (who combined his own perversions with those of sexual criminals to generalize about America's sex life). Krippendorf's Tribe (rated PG for sexual humor) is a movie about scientific charlatanism. Regrettably, although Richard Dreyfuss gives it the old college try, the good idea goes to waste. Mr. Dreyfuss's R. Krippendorf is paid a hefty sum to find a lost tribe in New Guinea. He comes back empty-handed and must explain himself. So he makes up a story about a band of single fathers who execute their tribal divorce lawyers. These sham primitives perform appropriately exotic rituals that support a scriptful of inappropriately lewd gags. The scam succeeds too well. He ends up dressing his three kids as his homemade Piltdown Men and films fake footage in his backyard. His rival is sure the whole thing is fake; Lily Tomlin looks the part perfectly as the ultimate crazed college prof, but the lackluster material shuffles her off into the background. M*A*S*H veteran David Ogden Stiers also wastes time as an exec with an all-anthropology cable network who wants to cash in on the humbug. There's a good idea in Krippendorf's Tribe that got lost in the jungle. Millions still believe old lies about noble savages, unspoiled sages in touch with nature and the true meaning of life. Those who believe their freedom died with the invention of the wristwatch and written law are easy targets for purveyors of pre-premodern fantasies. Maybe the ancient warriors of yore knew something your parents forgot. Maybe their ancient wisdom can unearth your unreached potential. Such fables are far wilder than Krippendorf's fraud-and, alas, far more successful. Futurists need to come up with something new
There are two types of technology books: how-to guides and futurist tracts. The first category came when publishers discovered they could make a killing selling books to explain software. After all, computer manuals aren't well-written and nobody reads them anyway. These books are usually helpful, but they're expensive and have the shelf-life of skim milk. The futurists avoid all those nuts and bolts. Instead, they give us the latest version of the Three Big Ideas that have caught the world's imagination since Sputnik: (1) Technology is turning life upside down; (2) computers are getting faster, cheaper, and niftier every day; and (3) humanity must brace itself for future shock. In short, they all sound the same. Perhaps the most qualified futurist is Michael Dertouzos, author of What Will Be (HarperCollins, ISBN 00625-15403). He's run MIT's Laboratory for Computer Science since 1974. He watched the Internet grow from 1970s science project to 1990s postmodern revolution. His book is a thoughtful trip through the maze of issues raised by expanding technology. In 300 nontechnical pages, Mr. Dertouzos covers everything from code-cracking to computer crime. He calls the Internet an "Information Marketplace," an electronic farmer's market for the brain. His expertise beats the naiveté of those who gush about taking the top down on the Infobahn. Too bad his arguments boil down to variations on the same old themes. Even for futurists, there is nothing new under the sun.

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