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It's Black Friday: Spend for your soul

Our demonization of consumer culture and admiration for the principle of 'saving for a rainy day' are self-defeating, particularly in the current economic downturn.

November 25, 2011|By James Livingston

We like to think that the holidays bring out the best in us, that they are like the feasts and festivals of our archaic past, when we celebrated a successful hunt or a bountiful harvest. So why do we treat Black Friday — when the season to be jolly officially commences with ritualized ferocity — as the occasion for serious lamentations about the "commercialization of Christmas" and the moral emptiness of the mall? You already know the answer: because consumerism is bad for us.

But that's not really the case. Our demonization of consumer culture and admiration for the principle of "saving for a rainy day" are self-defeating, particularly in an economic downturn.

To renew growth and to address the moral possibilities of our time, we need to save less, spend more and get used to the fact that consumer culture is better for our souls than the parsimonious alternatives. And what better time to embrace that realization than Black Friday?

The real economic problem of our time is a global savings glut. We suffer from capital surplus, not scarcity. Don't take my word for it, ask Alan Greenspan, Martin Wolf, Ben Bernanke or the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. The solution can't be more tax cuts for corporations and austerity for everybody else. The obvious, practical solution to our economic problem is instead a redistribution of income that validates more consumer spending, not bigger bonuses on Wall Street.

The real moral challenge of our time is that while we can produce far more goods than we need, we don't know how to consume or distribute them rationally, let alone equitably. For the first time in human history, we can afford to be our brother's keeper; we just don't know how. In other words, we don't know how to justify the obvious, practical solution to our economic problem, which is a redistribution of income that would allow more consumer spending.

Conservatives worry about others getting something for nothing, that people are spending borrowed money — or worse, those "entitlements" — on consumer goods they haven't earned. Liberals worry that this spending merely validates consumer culture and corporate power. Neither side can see that the same opportunity resides in both the economic problem and the moral challenge, and that is because neither side can see anything worthwhile in consumer culture.

We can solve the economic problem by addressing the moral challenge, and we can accomplish both by embracing consumer culture. But first we have to understand the morality of consumer spending, private and public. Here's how.

Consumer culture is good for your soul. It is a part of leisure, not work. It takes place after hours and is aimed at forming social bonds. Whether you're purchasing food for a family meal, buying someone a drink or getting in line to buy a gift on Black Friday, you're spending time and money to create new circuits of feeling among friends and family.

You're not doing these things to earn a wage, turn a profit or procure a bigger bonus. On this scene, your only compensation is an improved emotional climate, and you're a better person for it.

That's the private side of spending. Now look at the public side. We Americans try to live by the criterion of productivity: from each according to his ability, to each according to the value of the work he produces. Because we still have this work ethic, employed or not, we believe that the relation between effort and reward, or work and income, should be intelligible: both transparent and justifiable.

The trouble is, the relation between effort and reward, or work and income, has become totally unintelligible. A laborer works long, exhausting days, yet stays poor; a savvy stock analyst pushes paper — bad paper, even — and gets rich. The de-industrialization of the American economy has almost abolished unionized jobs in manufacturing. And for the last 50 years, the fastest-growing source of labor income (at a rate of 10% per decade) has been government-sponsored transfer payments such as Social Security and food stamps. Such payments now amount to roughly one-fifth of the income received by those who don't report capital gains.

In effect, we have largely detached the receipt of income from the production of value through work. Meanwhile, we have grudgingly learned to embrace the ancient religious traditions of providing for those in need, even as we complain about entitlements. We've decided, for example, that access to nutritious food and good medical care shouldn't be determined by income.

In this sense, we've decided that a person's consumption of goods need not be justified by his production of goods, or by saving for a rainy day. We've realized that we can afford to be our brother's keeper, regardless of how we feel about doing so.

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