Conspicuous consumption | Accommodating the president | Home | Current issues | Back issues |

September 14 - 18, 1998

Wednesday, September 16, 1998

Conspicuous consumption

Consumer: An organism requiring complex organic compounds for food which it obtains by preying on other organisms or by eating particles of organic matter.

--- Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary

Every so often, it's a good idea to step back and look at the big picture, to get an idea of where we've been and where we're going. The catchphrase calls it thinking globally. Every year the United Nations Development Program shows us how it's done. Last Wednesday it issued the latest publication in the annual series, the Human Development Report 1998.

According to the report, the magic word for the new millennium is "consumption," the action that nourishes and sustains human life, the "life blood of much human advance." Like most magic, consumption can be a power for good or evil, but lately it's been pretty nasty, with a few countries --- actually, a few people in a few countries --- running around like hungry Pac-Men, gobbling up everything in sight. It's bad enough that they don't share, but they also leave their mess for the other guys to clean up.

The report suggests that the people of this planet have entered into an eating frenzy, guzzling not merely meat and potatoes but also energy, services and every imaginable commodity. The individual constituents of the global population resemble Jack and Mrs. Sprat: they sit down to a variety of platters, but no one follows a healthy diet and some of the meals are very lean indeed.

The figures are so large that they're hard to comprehend. Try this: imagine a group of ten people, who have just caught a whole mess of fish. When it comes time to divvy up the day's catch, the six members of the Curly clan pile half of it into the back of their pickup truck and take it home for a family fish fry. The two Lawrence brothers begin to cram as much of the remainder as they can into the trunk of their BMW. Finally they stop, realizing that they are not alone. They hurriedly slam down the door and drive off, looking back over their shoulder with --- their expressions are a little hard to read  --- is it guilt or fear? As the dust subsides, we see the Moe twins sadly lashing a small bundle on the back of their rickety old bicycle.

Here are the numbers: If we divide the countries of the world into fifths according to income, the fifth with the highest income "consumes" 45 percent of all meat and fish. The middle three fifths get about half. And the poorest fifth is stuck with a measly 5 percent.

A skimpy diet is not the only problem. While the Curlys and the Lawrences of this world are climbing at varying rates toward a healthier and more comfortable way of life,  the Moe twins and their relatives have been left behind. It's not a question of BMWs versus pickup trucks, or cellular phones versus conventional lines. For the poorest 20 percent of the world's people --- we're talking about more than a billion people --- the important issues are more basic: housing, water, sanitation, health care, education. If anything, the standard of living of this group is declining. The average household in Africa, where many of the Moe kinfolk live, consumes 20 percent less today than it did in 1963.

What is all this "consumption" anyway? The dictionary presents a well-fraught definition. Most neutrally, it's simply "the utilization of economic goods in the satisfaction of wants" --- you use what you need. Sounds healthy. It's the intensifier "com," posted like a red flag at the beginning, that suggests potential perils --- you not only use what you need; sometimes you use it all up.

And like a well-fed baby, the consumer leaves a mess behind. Consumption pollutes. Everywhere. The Lawrences' BMWs spew out carbon dioxide. The Moe's wood-burning fires emit toxic smoke. The increased demand for agricultural products slashes a trail of overgrazed and overfarmed land around the world. The need for wood products, especially paper, diminishes forests in a ripple effect that damages soil, water and the general climate.

But once again, the Lawrences seem to have lucked out. Because they've been at this consuming business longer, they've figured out ways to reduce its pernicious effects on them. It's the Moes who are stuck, not only with a meager fish allotment, but also with outdated technology, so that even using what little they have will increase the hazards to their health. And they get the spillover from the wealthier side of the planet besides.

Yet if you think about it, it's the Lawrences who have the most to lose. And who face the real possibility of losing what they have carefully amassed. The advent of the global era, so proudly hailed over the past few years, has not been merely an economic triumph. Phenomena like global warming have raised worldwide threats of flooding, drought and contagious diseases. Advances in transportation and communication have introduced new, sometimes violent links between the have-nots and the haves. Globalism has dragged us, willy-nilly, out of our happy-go-lucky isolation.

In the end, we have very little choice. To save ourselves, we must work with, not against, the rest of the world. On the eve of the new millennium, the U.N. report offers some words of hope. We in the West have already developed methods that work: ways of preventing environmental  damage, alleviating poverty and protecting consumers. If we wait for other countries to re-invent the wheel, our own economies will suffer. If we lend them a hand, the report suggests, we will inevitably benefit as well.

There's been a lot of doom-and-gloom attached to the waning years of this century, some of it springing from our discomfort with the technological roller coaster we're riding on. We know that we have developed powers that can destroy the world. It's using them to save it that's hard.

--- Copyright Betsey Culp 1998

Friday, September 18, 1998

Accommodating the president

If you insist upon having other women, I'd prefer you not engage in intercourse, and that whatever else you do, it  not occur in my bed or our family quarters.

Might we fairly presume that Hillary Clinton directly set such a marker for her husband's extracurricular activities? And even in the absence of such an explicit request, shouldn't we at least assume that, given the enumerative details of this long-running First Family soap opera, at minimum the terms of their accord had now as its basis the implied good political sense of such an understanding? Whatever the methodology, the evidence that their most recent ground rules were intact and very much operative is substantial.

We've heard repeatedly about Hillary's lamp-throwing eruptions over the president's womanizing. Rather perceptively, she realized that his many indiscretions throughout their marriage had reached critical mass, and skilled blunderer that he is, the possibility of any revelations of second-term imprudence on his part might prove fatal. As a simple matter of practicality, the working partnership this very ambitious couple had successfully constructed through 17 elections on their rise to the acme of young-urban-professional prominence needed some fine-tuning.

How these latest attributes of the Clinton duopoly have escaped mention in any of the impeachment chorusing is stupefying. More astonishing is the inability to understand that, in the end, not only this context, but indeed the very particulars of the scandal are what will save Clinton. And it will be his wife --- perennially the tough cookie on this team ---  who will step forward and finally nail it shut.

Forget any descriptions you've read about this woman's long-suffering. She's always known, and consequent humiliation has never been part of their nuptial equation. That's not to say that embarrassment --- that dexterous difference in genus, and not of kind, the Clintons have incorporated so well into the partnership --- hasn't been a trying occupational hazard in the course of abiding her mate's overgrown adolescent recklessness. But at the end of the day, results are all that have mattered, and how less distant remained the ultimate grail.

Consummate tactician that she is, she has begun the incremental prepping for the definitive speech on her husband's character that she has confided to friends she will deliver when the time seems right. Within the robust affection with which she introduced the president at a fund-raiser this week, I detected genuine sentiment, and the overwhelming sense that through these long months of bargain-basement sanctimoniousness from the Beltway's stentorians, her silent sequester will have honed one fundamental truth that a capo knows and politicians (her counterpart indubitably so) are only beginning to fully comprehend: Revenge is best served cold.

As she waits in the wings, she may well be even relishing how the gaminess of Ken Starr's collected data so easily lends itself to another interpretation. At the moment, her husband's calibrated linguistics may be temporarily sufficient to deter impeachment or a perjury indictment, but on their own inadequate to thwart the hangman's noose in the long run. The full disclosure that Washington's sultans of national propriety are demanding is Hillary's --- and, by default, hers alone --- to provide.

Consider what she has to work with: Her husband telling Monica Lewinsky that they could not have intercourse, that they  could not go upstairs in the White House, that he was unwilling (until succumbing more than a year later) to be fellated to emission, that he had been attempting since turning 40 to curtail his affairs with other women, that he firmly ended the dalliance once he detected Lewinsky's emotional attachment. (This would be poignant if it weren't so dismal.) With this much as introductory to an unparalleled mix of constitutional and personal drama, in deft and strong-willed hands this potentially becomes a spellbinder speech in the noblest tradition of revisionist oratory. Should she approach this unseemliness with much the same parsed language for which the president has been excoriated (but how could she not), in adumbrating the essential facets of her relationship with her husband the injection of dignity she will confer on these base proceedings will at the very least be starkly sobering; what deeper sheepishness and qualms of conscience it invokes in us --- you can bet she'll impart it with proficient grace and bearing --- certainly won't extinguish the sullen V-chip corporate moralism she and the president hypocritically abetted, but it will enable him to remain in office.

Obviously, she's going to be more frank and forthcoming in telling us what we already know: Fidelity has not been that important in their marriage. Mutual support and the good they could do for the nation has always been their touchstone. Her husband's character, she will say, is unassailable; he's a good man, a good father, she loves him, and has come to accept his shortcomings and lapses in judgment. Within the terms of their arrangement, she will add, he has always acted honorably.

I think it's safe to speculate here, because clearly this is the clincher: Hillary Clinton will mention Monica Lewinsky by name and have something kind to say to her. Mrs. Clinton will then remark that when her husband agitatedly pointed his finger and declared that he had not had sex with Ms. Lewinsky, he was not merely exercising the wiggle room provided by Paula Jones' lawyers' definition of what constituted a sexual relationship --- my husband was also conveying that the definition of sex that he and I have currently agreed upon --- and, no, it may not be the same as yours --- was not abrogated in this instance. From all that I have read, that is demonstrably true. The president and I are grateful for the overwhelming support of the American people during this difficult time.

--- Copyright John Hutchison 1998

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