This ad perhaps captures Deirdre McCloskey’s observation that “love runs consumption” better than anything I have yet seen.
There’s an intriguing piece in the NYT from last month by Hiroko Tabuchi that explores some of the challenges facing traditional retailers (HT: Sarah Pulliam Bailey), “Stores Suffer From a Shift of Behavior in Buyers.”
Department stores like Macy’s and Kohl’s seem to be losing out on the rebound in consumer spending. “Department stores made up one of just two categories tracked by the Commerce Department where spending declined, the latest in a choppy performance from them this year. Spending at electronics and appliance stores also fell 1.2 percent in July,” writes Tabuchi.
One major explanation offered by Tabuchi’s sources is that this part of a larger paradigm shift in American consumer attitude. “The religion of consumption has proven to be unfulfilling,” says Richard E. Jaffe, a retailing analyst, “The ‘pile it high and watch it fly’ mentality at department stores no longer works.”
Today over at Think Christian I explore how Christmas relates to material goods, and specifically how we are to “seek first the kingdom of God” (Matt. 6:33).
Over at his blog, Peter Boettke writes, “The idle rich are never really idle in a free market economy.”
Now while we might want to distinguish between the rich and their riches, could it be that even in their consumption, conspicuous or otherwise, the rich are contributing to a rising tide that lifts all boats? Wesley Gant makes that related case over at Values & Capitalism: “Is It Possible to Waste Money?”
Gant seems to conclude that it isn’t possible to “waste” wealth. “Humans do not consume resources; they create and exchange them,” he says.
One might argue, however, as John Mueller does, that humans create and exchange things, but that they also consume and distribute them. It’s a truncated and reductionist economism that doesn’t do justice to that fuller picture. A basic problem with this kind of view is that it cannot distinguish between types of consumption. Maybe we need “ethics” rather than “economics” proper to do so, but that just goes to show the limitations of the economic way of thinking.
On Gant’s account, it would seem that there is no such thing as bad stewardship. Now it may be that consumption of luxuries is not always bad, or that such consumption often does have some redeeming virtues. But is it the case that such reasoning can justify any exchange or consumption? (As long as it doesn’t involve the government, of course!)
Perhaps the guy who got the one talent and buried it in the ground should have just given the wealthy owner a basic lesson in such economics.
At Reason Thaddeus Russell argues that Macklemore and Lorde embody a kind of progressive cultural critique of capitalism, captured in the attack on “conspicuous consumption” made famous by Thorstein Veblen. Russell traces the “progressive lineage” of this critique: “Their songs continue a long tradition, rooted in progressivism, of protests against the pleasures of the poor.”
Having never listened to him, I have no opinion about Macklemore. Russell’s piece makes me want to take a moment to hear “Thrift Shop.” But over at Q Ideas today, I argue that in Lorde we find some cultural resources to inoculate us against the corrosive effects of envy.
The Christian tradition has long recognized that the poor can be just as materialistic and greedy as the rich. The poor just don’t usually have the same resources to bring those vices to such “conspicuous” manifestation. And it really is a stewardship problem to spend money on luxury goods when basic necessities are given short shrift.
Yesterday’s Grand Rapids Press had an attention-grabbing feature graphic, which highlights an online interactive “game” that gives more information about each of the candidates for the “economic blame game” bracket.
The four brackets are broken down by group, so the four major categories at fault are 1) the financial industry; 2) consumers; 3) government; and 4) inexplicable forces.
Notably absent are the media (except perhaps as personified in Jim Cramer’s “Mad Money”) and government over-regulation, including especially the Community Reinvestment Act of 1977 and variations on that theme in the intervening decades. To be sure, “deregulation” is a top seed on the government side, and makes the blame game Final Four. But the summary for that option manages to lay the blame on Ronald Reagan and his dictum: “Government is not the answer to our problems. Government is the problem.”
The Press’ pick for the blame game champion is “Fear and Panic.” Writes Press copy editor Dan Hawkins, “So for your consideration, we rounded up 32 suspects and arranged them in a tournament bracket, as we did for White House scandals and the presidential race. For the first time, however, we decided to declare a winner. This crisis, this worst-of-the-worst competition, is too awful to leave without a scapegoat.”
There isn’t really a good representative for what I consider to be greatly culpable, the culture of consumptive capitalism (as opposed to democratic or entrepreneurial capitalism). Consumptive capitalism adds “spend all you can” to the more stable triumvirate of flourishing: earn all you can, save all you can, and give all you can.
And today comes news that confirms that the recession of the US economy began in December of 2007. The Press’ advice for the ordinary American citizen is “Don’t panic.” If that’s true for the everyday American, how much more so for the Christian.
One reality saves us from the necessity to assign blame to others and enables us to accept responsibility. As we begin the season of Advent in 2008, it is proper for us to reflect on the ultimate “scapegoat,” our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who bore the sins of the world on the cross, rose again, ascended to heaven, and is seated at the right hand of God the Father.
Look full in His wonderful face,
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim,
In the light of His glory and grace.
This is not to say that we ignore the hard economic realities of our world. But the “fear and panic” created by material concerns need to be put into proper perspective, relativized and mitigated by hope in one whose kingdom will have no end.
Last week the Providence Journal ran a piece by me on the forthcoming “rebate” checks from the government intended to be an economic stimulus, “The mandate is to ‘spend all you can’.” I take issue with the idea that the government gives us money that is our own in the first place, and then tells us how we ought to spend it: on consumables and retail goods to spur growth in the economy.
Instead, I propose that people “should use this rebate money as they see fit, since they are the ones most familiar with their own situations and their own needs. Consider giving part of the money to charity or saving, paying off debt or investing. And if it makes sense for you and your situation, you should feel free to buy that hi-def TV if you so desire.”
“But you certainly should not feel obligated to do so as if mere consumption is a civic responsibility,” I add.
The real problem with the package is that it perpetuates a view of the government’s role in the economy as the final arbiter of how markets ought to work and what people should be doing with their money. No doubt this is in part a response to the idea that the federal government in general, and the president in particular, has a primary formative influence on the shape and health of the nation’s economy.
Alasdair MacIntyre puts it this way,
Government insists more and more that its civil servants themselves have the kind of education that will qualify them as experts. It more and more recruits those who claim to be experts into its civil service…. Government itself becomes a hierarchy of bureaucratic managers, and the major justification advanced for the intervention of government in society is the contention that government has resources of competence which most citizens do not possess.
Thus comes the idea that the president is a kind of “economist in chief,” who directs the nation’s and the world’s markets by executive decree (compare that idea with the presidential job description given by the Concerned Women for America here).
Update: It’s 3 am…and this time the crisis is economic…
Of course, if we’re really concerned about someone answering a phone in a crisis, maybe we should elect a Wonder Pet: