There may be no fact of life about which Americans complain more than taxes. Now, I'm not thrilled about where my money goes (my total 2005 IRS bill covered about 3.5 seconds of the Iraq war), or about the portion of income that I fork over compared to, say, Dick Cheney. As a self-employed person, I deduct the cost of every paperclip and remotely business-related martini.
I don't want to pay more than my share, in other words. But I'm happy to pay my share.
I wasn't so avid until a year ago. That's when I undertook a radical experiment in consumption, or rather, its antithesis: I went a year without shopping. For fun, stimulation and meaning, I was thrown onto the offerings of the public sphere. There, I felt gratitude, grief and, finally, ownership.
The idea came to me in late 2003. I was panicked about my maxed-out credit card, depressed by visions of overworked Chinese, assembling all those Christmas toys and electronics -- and of those same toys and gizmos, cast off six months hence, migrating to the landfills. I wondered: What would it be like to duck out of the marketplace, even for a while? Was it even possible in the 21st century to maintain a social, cultural or political life, or an identity, without purchasing?
Single-handedly, I wasn't going to save the world's workers or its ozone layer -- or cripple the economy. Overconsumption is a huge problem, requiring big national and global policy solutions. But shopping is personal. I knew there was a connection between what we do and feel down here at the mall, and what happens in the big Out There.
So, starting January 1, my partner Paul and I vowed to buy only necessities. We said yes to grocery ingredients, insulin for our diabetic cat and Internet access for our businesses. Among the no-nos were clothes, books, CDs, restaurant meals and movies.
Instead of picking up a video on a Friday evening, Paul and I sought out free concerts, or stayed in with our library books. Our weekend cross-country skiing ended at home, making dinner for friends. When the snow got iffy, we didn't rush out to Onion River Sports for fancy fluorocarbon waxes to fix our slipping skis. Instead, we improved our technique.
In New York, where we live half the time, we did more or less what we do in Hardwick: went to the library, rode our bikes. The library was ababble with immigrants learning English and English-speakers (including Paul) acquiring new tongues. Our rides took us up the long Hudson River Park trail, past buff men sunning on the piers of Greenwich Village, at the southern end of Manhattan, to Washington Heights in the north, where Dominicans played soccer, surrounded by salsa music, kids and massive picnics. We whiled away hours mesmerized by the dancing fountain outside the Brooklyn Museum.
But as much as we reveled in our town's and city's free spaces and places, we also grieved the condition they are in. Hardwick's library can barely afford new books. Crossing a bridge on Route 15 on foot, I noticed what I don't see from the car: The Rebar is poking through the crumbling concrete.
In the U.S., politicians of both parties parrot the dogma that private is always better than public -- both on the revenue and the expenditure side. In 2004, "Jim Means Jobs" Douglas was caught when Vermont's private food stamps administrator, Citibank, outsourced $450,000 worth of computer work to India. How many laid-off and underpaid workers applied for food stamps that year?
In New York, faced with budget shortages, Mayor Mike Bloomberg was floating a proposal to peddle corporate sponsorships, along with naming rights, to subway stations, buses and bridges. Paul came home one day from his Italian class singing out, "I love our library!" It occurred to me that he might not feel so proprietary if "our library" were the Bertelsmann BookCenter or Burger King's Read It Your Way.
We also think of the government as a kind of company. We pay our taxes for the product -- our nation -- and if not 100 percent satisfied, we want to call customer service and demand our money back. Politicians of both parties also parrot the dogma that the less we pay in taxes, the more we have left for what we really want and need. Happiness, it is assumed, comes from having your own -- your own swimming pool, transportation or health-care account.
In the rest of the developed world, taxes are higher. So is public investment. The municipal pools are open, the trains go everywhere, and everyone gets basic health care. There's less left for private consumption. Still, people seem still to have much of what they want and need: Europeans consistently report higher levels of well-being than Americans do.
During our year, spending less on ourselves meant giving more to others, whether political candidates or tsunami victims. At the same time, our expenses fell, including deductible business ones. On my 2003 tax return, I claimed $719 in "professional viewing tickets" and $1494 in "meals and entertainment." In 2004, I entered a zero on both lines. In 2004, therefore, I paid more taxes on similar income. And because my spending has not reverted to pre-2004 levels ($455 and $547 for those two items), for 2005, I'm once again sending a substantial check to the IRS.
Am I gleeful? Come on. But I no longer feel I am mailing "my" money away to "them," the less fortunate; or to "it," a distant government detached from my life. In 2004, the libraries and parks became mine. If they were broke, it was up to me -- us, our government, me -- to finance them.
A year without shopping transformed me from consumer to citizen.