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Sunday, November 27, 2011

Consumerism

I came across a book title the other day:  Against Thrift:  Why Consumer Culture is Good for the Economy, the Environment and your Soul.  Really?

I have a habit of reading books whose premise I applaud, and support my own opinions.  Anybody else have this problem?  Anyway, I decided to see if my critique of consumer culture could stand up to the author's argument.  As a pastor, of course, my concern is the good for your soul part.  I know this blog has readers far more capable of assessing the economics than I am.

James Livingston, the author, has a surprisingly simple argument based on work as an economic historian.  Since 1919 capital intensive efforts to create economic growth have failed.  Included in his litany of failure are inducements to save rather than spend, taxing income from wages rather than capital gains and corporations, and other economic policies that raise the availability of capital.  He argues that our current economic troubles are the result of a glut of capital moving around from speculative bubble to speculative bubble, but doing no job creating investment.  This repeats what happened in the 20s and 30s.  He repeats Ben Bernanke's reference to "a global glut of savings."  He also argues that what is necessary is putting money in the hands of those who will spend it, whether they work or not, stating that we need to go back to a need based economic contract and away from an effort based one.Livingston believes that this consumer based approach to   capitalism offers our best chance at eventually having a balanced no growth economy, meaning it is better for the environment.

I could go on with his economic arguments, but you get enough of the picture to see where this might make a good Mennonite think a little bit.  Here are some thoughts, but no conclusions.

Let's begin with frugality and simple living.  I have to say his critique of frugality is kind of shocking at first.  But then it occurs to me that, aside from some references in wisdom literature, saving and frugality are often frowned upon in scripture.  What does Jesus say about storing in barns?  Jesus' critique of worries about clothing and food Jesus Matthew 6 are not admonitions to saving, frugality and simple living, but to not save and be generous, seeking first the kingdom.  Matthew 6 fits right into Livingston's argument.  Even selective extravagence has its place.  Mary Magdalene's outrageously costly nard?  (Babette's Feast)  A truly biblical response to money is not frugality.  The unreformed Scrooge was frugal and lived quite simply.  The biblical response to money is generosity.  I don't plan on giving my Mennonite Retirement Trust to Maple City Health Clinic just yet, but I do feel a little guilty about it.

How about work?  Certainly work is a high value in scripture, and laziness and sloth are roundly condemned. But it is also true that justice is understood in terms of need.  People do not have value in the biblical worldview because of their effort, but because God made them.  The parable of the workers come lately comes to mind.  Often this parable is spiritualized, but it also fits a biblical worldview.  The workers who come at the end of the day need just as much as those who came at the beginning, and the owner of the field has every right to generosity.  The other high biblical view here has to do with paying workers a just wage, which in the biblical view is a wage sufficient to meet need.  Taxing workers more heavily in order to free up more capital may or may not be good economics, but it is an abomination by biblical standards.  Livingston has a point on that one.

My struggle with consumer culture has to do with its effect on relationships.  When people, and especially God, are turned into commodities to be used for economic value rather than those with whom we covenant, and with whom we share responsibilities, we have trouble for our souls.  I haven't finished the book yet.  I will let you know if Livingston says anything about it.

2 comments:

The Foolish Wisdom of a Fool said...

On this rainy morning Rhoda and I went with our entire family to Waterford. Then I took our entire family of 15 to the Hacienda where I bought us all a thanksgiving meal as a token of our joy that Rhoda could be with us. Then we came home and watched the Hour of Power. They had a guest who had been in prison in North Korea. There he was asked if he was a capitalist or a communist. He replied that he was neither, but that he was a lovist. He said he was asked to write his last will and testament. He wrote that those who loved him should not seek revenge on those who had done him ill. He has since been able to open a university in North Korea. - Martin Lehman.

Micheal McEvoy said...

I would agree about 'frugality' as a self-centered lifestyle. My wife and I live simply/plainly and this allows us to be generous. If we lived a life like that of those around us, we could not be generous. Spending on superfluous items does none good other than the corporations