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That Big House in the Country: American Dream or American Nightmare?   (October 15, 2005)

BusinessWeek ran a piece last week entitled Living Too Large in Exurbia (free online registration required) which pursued the rather obvious consequences of higher energy costs on huge houses set in the countryside--the so-called exurbs. Surprise, surprise, it has become expensive to maintain these far-flung abodes.

Their conclusion was summed up in the subtitle: Big houses. Big cars. Now, bigger bills. A lifestyle built on cheap energy and cheap credit is in jeopardy. But it isn't just the expense; it's about values and economic vitality:
But with energy costs soaring and a hike in interest rates likely in the months ahead, all of a sudden the Exurban American Dream is looking a whole lot tougher for many. Just ask Frank E. Heater, a carpenter who lives in Pike County, Pa., a fast-growing exurb of New York City. To afford his 3,500-square-foot ranch home, planted on five wooded acres, Heater pulls out of his driveway at 4:15 each morning to drive his Ford Expedition 86 miles to New York. In the best of times, his routine was grueling: "Come home, eat, shower, sleep, and you're back on the road again." But his gasoline bill now hovers around $180 a week, about double what he paid two years ago and an ever-growing big bite out of Heater's take-home pay. Now he wishes he could take the bus, tools and all. "The gasoline is killing me," he says.

The economic consequences of a slowdown in exurban exuberance is difficult to measure. Clearly the exurbs' rapid growth has been one of the main engines of U.S. economic expansion in recent years. Consider all the homebuilding plus the malls, box stores, restaurant chains, fire departments, and schools that have popped up on cheap farmland beyond the suburbs. The new arrivals provided huge growth for retailers and other service companies, hundreds of thousands of new jobs for teachers, firemen, and the like, and entrepreneurial opportunities galore. Indeed, it is unlikely that the U.S. economy could have outperformed every other major industrial country in recent years without the explosion of exurbs and their ripple effects on business.
While the piece does a good job of exploring the financial risks of relying on cheap energy and credit, both for individuals and the nation at large (i.e. if the exurban housing boom is over, so is economic growth), it does not address the truly big story here: has the American Dream shrunk down to owning huge, wasteful houses and vehicles on your own fake mini-estate? What about self-reliance, conservation, and independence of thought?

Alas, you can't sell those treasures of the American character, and so they have been relegated to the dustbin. There is a quasi-political spin to exurbia, one which I reject as false. Conservatives view exurbia as a happy extension of everything wonderful about America--getting away from high-tax, expensive cities, the right to enjoy new malls and roads magically paid for with low taxes, and the freedom to ape the rich and their expansive estates in the country.

The progressives view exurbs as the worst excesses of American self-absorption: wastful, mind-numbing commutes, bloated, ugly houses with no design integrity or sense that energy costs will be rising for decades to come, a preening desire to own a three-car garage of big-status vehicles, and of course the severe cultural sterility of homogenous subdivisions and strip malls.

I fail to see how unwise use of our resources is "conservative," and what unnecessarily large homes and vehicles add to American culture, history or character. The average home size in the 60s was under 1,500 square feet, and I don't recall people feeling terribly deprived. Now, houses are routinely 3,500 square feet or even larger, with huge master bathrooms and bedrooms larger than starter homes of another generation. Not only are they wasteful of resources, they are cheaply built, horridly tacky examples of vapid design: giant fiberglass tubs no one uses, walk-in closets for all the clothing nobody wears, expanses of cheap drywall and fake marble which lack any sense of warmth or comfort.

And what about the community you live in? There is no community, just as there is no convenience. Independent bookstores? Don't exist. Independent restaurants? Don't exist. Town square, where you could walk around, be seen and hang out? Doesn't exist. Walkways and bikeways which lead to useful conveniences like a post office, coffee shop or movie theater? Don't exist.

Exactly what is so wonderful about accupying a 4,000 square-foot house in the middle of what used to be productive farmland, sitting alone in one of its giant rooms playing with your electronic toys? That doesn't sound like a Dream; it sounds like the culmination of a long and dreadful nightmare in which independence, ingenuity, spirit, creativity, communion and contribution to community have all been foresaken for a cheap gaudy self-absorption with an utterly inauthentic "luxury" which beneath the fake plastic exterior is a deep, soul-leeching poverty beyond measure.

Have we lost the ability to think for ourselves? Apparently, for these homes and communities are not even comfortable to live in. Their vast size renders them cold, their cheap materials render them inauthentic, their lack of even rudimentary design sense renders them tasteless, and the clutter of cheap material goods which fill them is depressing in its manic enslavement to a consumerism run amok, a hasty constant rush to buy more poor quality, more "entertainment" gizmos, more of everything.

What the article should have said is: we have truly lost our way. This is not the American Dream, it is the American nightmare.

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copyright © 2005 Charles Hugh Smith. All rights reserved in all media.

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