Black Friday, Cyber Monday and the morality of money

Lynne Sladky AP In this Friday, Nov. 25, 2011, photo, shoppers stop to look at a display while shopping at … Continued

Lynne Sladky

AP

In this Friday, Nov. 25, 2011, photo, shoppers stop to look at a display while shopping at Dadeland Mall, in Miami.

I’ve been thinking a lot about possessions lately, as the now-inevitable reports of violence inflicted by Black Friday shoppers on one another during the struggle for discounted Xboxes and television sets has coincided in my life with the depressing and exhausting task of cleaning out my mother’s apartment after her death at age 90.


Stuff
. Even the most financially disciplined middle-class Americans have more of it they they will ever use and a lot of us have closets, storage lockers and basements filled with possessions we cannot even remember that we own. What is truly impressive, when you are going through the stuff that remains at the end of a very long life, is the valuelessness, in both an emotional and a monetary sense, of nearly every object unmoored from specific experiences.

The boxes of family pictures are, as the commercial says, priceless, in that they reflect both ordinary and extraordinary scenes from life in a family that no longer exists-the one into which I was born. But the knicknacks, the decorative Teddy bears (why do people give the sentient elderly stuffed animals as gifts, anyway?), the unworn clothes my mother kept buying from catalogues almost until the day of her death: All now belong to the “river of things” that flows into a bottomless pit. The same dark river awaits the putative bargains snapped up on Black Friday, however ardently they may be desired at the moment by consumers willing to pepper spray their fellow shoppers.

Like most children of the Depression, my mother was not an avid consumer by current standards. To look at the vast array of possessions acquired by even the most frugal and frail among us, however, is to glimpse a touching and troubling aspect of the American character. I know why my mother was buying unnecessary stuff from catalogues at the end of her days: Shopping was one of the last things she could do that she had done when she was strong, healthy and in control of her life. It reminded her of who she had been. Yet there is something infinitely sad about this final assertion of self. Will the last rites of baby boomers be commercial transactions in cyberspace?

The question of whether consumption or thrift has moral meaning has never seemed more urgent than it does today in American society. Our Puritan ancestors certainly viewed thrift and saving as virtues in themselves — even if a person had already saved enough to finance ten lifetimes. Spending has, of course, long since replaced saving as a staple of the American way of life and, while consumerism is not exactly considered a virtue, it certainly sounded like one when President Bush famously implied that the best thing Americans could do to bolster the nation after 9/11 was to go out and shop (actually, what he said was to take your family to Disney World).

While Bush’s advice didn’t sound very sound after the collapse of the housing bubble brought America’s decade-long credit binge to an end, there are hints in retailers’ excitement about Black Friday sales (forget those naughty pepper sprayers) of a return to the idea that one of the very best things we can do for our country and the world is go out and spend. The record expenditures on Black Friday, we are told, may be a sign of resurgent consumer confidence. I do not know if that is true or what the dedicated shoppers are inhaling to facilitate the supposed restoration of their confidence. My suspicion, given the relentless darkness of economic news from around the globe, is that Americans just can’t stand life without shopping and are now willing, despite hard times, to spend money they don’t really have to feed their habit once again.

Jeff Chiu

AP

A Target customer waits with televisions purchased at a Target Store in Colma, Calif., Friday, Nov. 25, 2011.

I am not suggesting that it is immoral for people to buy things they don’t absolutely “need.” Atheists, since we don’t believe in predestination, cannot be Puritans. Who knows, maybe you can find salvation in the ever-expanding flat screen TVs; some of them surely look large enough to accommodate God Himself. And if we are talking about need in its most basic life-sustaining sense, all any of us really needs is food (and a good deal less of it than most Americans consume), water and shelter. Wherever we stand on the economic ladder, none of us wants to live at a subsistence level.

It does seem to me, however, that the good life — in both a practical and moral sense — requires a concept of “enough” that does not seem to exist in much of American society. More than half of American homes now possess three or more TV sets and the average American household has more TVs than people. If those statistics from Neilsen are accurate, and I have no reason to believe they aren’t, how much can it add to the quality of life in a given family to buy a new 42-inch model? Will that have to be replaced by a 54- or 60-inch set next Black Friday? When is enough enough?

In The Wall Street Journal, Megan Mcardle, economics editor of The Atlantic, suggests that criticism of unchecked consumption is one of the means by which “elite” intellectuals denigrate the spending habits of average Americans. Reviewing the recently published book Shiny Objects: Why We Spend Money We Don’t Have in Search of Happiness We Can’t Buy,” Mcardle sneers at the author, Baylor University marketing professor James A. Roberts, for being upset by objects that “doument our preoccupation with status consumption.” His list includes Lucky Jeans, bling, Hummers, iPhones, purebred lapdogs, and McMansions.

John Minchillo

AP

A consumer rests herself and her bags in Herald Square during the busiest shopping day of the year, Friday, Nov. 25, 2011, in New York.

Mcardle writes, “This is a fairly accurate list of the aspirational consumption patterns of a class of folks that my Upper West Side neighbors used to refer to as `these people,’ usually while discussing their voting habits or taste in talk radio. As with many such books, considerably less space is devoted to the extravagant excesses of European travel, arts-enrichment programs or collecting first editions.”

Mcardle begins her review, it is worth noting, by proudly declaring that she is the owner of “what must be the world’s most expensive food processor” — a $1500 Thermonix that not only chops food but weighs the ingredients and cooks them while automatically stirring. “By this means,” Mcardle tells us, “perfect hollandaise and flawless béchamel can be produced in minutes with virtually no effort.”

Well, whatever floats your boat. A $1500 food processor sounds pretty “elite” to me. But if Mcardle can afford it and prefers a food processor to “arts-enrichment programs,” who am I to question her spending habits simply because, after reading a review like this, I feel like chopping up something without the aid of a food processor?

But what if the owner of the world’s most expensive food processor went out and bought a second processor? Might she not wish to make hollandaise sauce in one and gazpacho in another? The heart wants what it wants. What happens, to society and individuals, when the heart’s; ie., the ego’s, wants are bottomless? Economic class has little to do with this issue. The ugly results are equally visible in the battles on the sales floors of big-box discount stores and in the lifestyles of many of the super-rich, for whom one vacation house is as much of a deprivation as one TV set is for the average American.

I have no doubt that saving, taken to an extreme, can be just as compulsive, and as destructive to individual happiness and social good, as unchecked spending. In both cases, there is no concept of enough. In the United States, only the very rich have the power to sock away huge amounts of money for the future while spending lavishly in the present. Indeed, the tax breaks the rich receive on unearned income facilitated spending, before the Crash of 2008, in the form of easy credit extended to the less affluent, who, by making use of that credit, provided more unearned income for those above them on the economic pyramid.

There is a moral here, but it is not that there is something intrinsically wrong or intrinsically virtuous about either saving or spending. They are merely two sides of the same coin, in the most literal sense, and that coin is nothing more than a tool by which we carve out the life we desire. The real issue is the moral consequence of desire without restraint — whether the desire is directed toward the accumulation of more wealth or the purchase of more possessions with that wealth. Enough.

Susan Jacoby
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  • WmarkW

    The storage unit industry is the other noticeable symptom of the growth of indiscriminate buying.

    If there’s one good side to the growth of consumerism, it’s that these buying practices have little negative effect on those left behind. It’s not like the wealthy or middle class drive up the price of medical care or food for the poor, by over-consuming it.

    Although consumerist buying is commonly faulted for running up debt, household debt is primarily traceable to the three H’s: Health care, Housing and Higher education. What all three have in common is that they’re sold in markets that are free on the demand side, but controlled on the supply side by the non-market regulations of suppliers themselves.

    If medicine operated like any other technology-driven industry, in 10 years we’d be taking periodic micro-fluid tests that are much more complete than any doctor diagnosis; but there’s no way the medical community is going to let their half-million dollar educations become obsolete. Higher education has become just one of myriad ways there are to learn in today’s high-communication society; but it’s ability to self-accredit closes the market to new business models, and gives it monopoly power to bloat educational requirements for the benefit of professors in things like non-Western cultures and Women’s studies.

    Housing is limited using a slightly different mechanism. Homeowners are most voters in almost all jurisdictions, so they vote to limit the building of new housing in their area, partly to maintain quality of life, but also for the express purpose of keeping up property values.

    Those young people Occupying the venues of the wealthy older generation may have made some bad choices (a lot of them seem to want recission of their student loan debt to study something like graphic arts or religious history) but they are right that the baby boomers have constructed a political environment to protect their own wealth.

  • david6

    As long as our society collects enough taxes to assure a strong social safety net, I don’t much care how wisely or unwisely people spend their money.

  • jhtlag1

    The concept of a moral athiest is contradictory and she even trips over that in her las paragragh. she states that there’s nothing wrong or virtuous about saving or spending… but then she goes on to talk abut “moral consequence of desire without restraint.” And why is that? Oh sure, I highly suspect people would be happier if they only had the few things that they use a lot pursing their advocations, but I’m always amused hearing an athiest taking the first steps to re-creating religion by a “thought shall not….” Thou shalt not have desire without restraint” Why not live fast, die young, and leave a beautiful corpse?

  • James210

    casse mentum?
    a mind rot in this dump, of intellectual courses, Ms. Jacoby.

    collection call? i see the atheist tithe plate is a little more demanding then the norm.
    I’d settle for deafness and a gross neglience charge? Prove it?

    liquidation is a prayer.

    and, i couldn’t care if its a 20, 30, 42, 50, 60 or 70inch, if it’s got definition it’s gold.
    i need drink.

  • nclwtk

    Current consumption trends have much to do with status, the ability to have the newest and the “best.” It also tied to the idea that if you have the space for it, why not. Fiinally, it lies in the denial of people as to what their retirements hold for them financially

  • Rustylizard

    I’m currently digitizing a box of ancient family photographs, and have been reflecting on the concept of value. A century ago, the making of a simple decorative pillow with “Mother” embroidered on it was cause enough to take photos of it and write a letter about it to relatives. Today, one could purchase a dozen throw pillows at K-mart with nary a thought. Value is time sensitive.

    And value is relative as well. The box of old black and white photos that are so interesting to me are soon destined to become landfill – I am the end of my line, and no other person in this world will care about old farm pictures of unknown persons. A word to the wise for some – if you happen to have a box of old photos, then label and date them if you want them to maintain value for your descendents. And be sure to do so before everyone who knows anything about them is dead.

    Finally, value is cultural, religious, and even political. Would you rather spend that extra quarter of a million dollars to buy a yacht that is four feet longer than your affluent neighbor’s, just to show him up, or would you prefer to donate that money to an organization dedicated to some aspect of public welfare (and not just for tax write-off considerations)? One might ask Newt Gingrich, the next time he steps into Tiffany & Co. to purchase an additional little sparkler for the current (or next) Mrs. Gingrich; then, attends church to take in a sermon about how his Lord and Master values the poor and the meek. It’s a pertinent question, given that he stands a chance of being our next “value” trendsetter.

  • sarahabc

    I think perhaps you confuse atheists with anarchists. We do have rules we live by, just stemming from different motivation than you may have. Otherwise, we’re all very much the same.

    You say a moral atheist is contradictory. I find it troubling with religious people believe they have a monopoly on morality. What about being kind to others because you like them and enjoy seeing them happy or you appreciate you’d want the same done to you or you believe having a positive environment helps people focus on work better, etc., etc., etc. There’s many, many reasons to be moral other than what could happen in an afterlife.

    The moral consequence here of spending without restraint could mean that it leaves others to deal with your stuff or it uses up the money and time that could go to various other pursuits: charity, education, etc.

    If it sounds to you as if atheists borrow heavily from religions, well, most religions borrow heavily from earlier religions. People build on what they know and borrow what they like. Another thing we all have in common.

  • watsond25

    Great article. Is there any other country in the world where the show “Hoarders” could be made?

  • ccnl1

    And Black Friday and Cyber Monday sales caused the stock market to rise 300 points. “God bless” both days!!! Next topic!!!

  • daniel12

    Part one.

    On gift giving and receiving.

    Gifts are for children. Adults should know what they want and pursue it themselves and have such respect for other adults that if they buy something for another adult they should consult the adult first on desires, which of course means buy something for the other adult and not present a gift, which is something a person throws in a box without consulting with the recipient, thus surprising the recipient all too often with something which must be returned or tolerated.

    Of course so many adults are no better than children, frivolous and vain, and demanding almost anything, even if one tosses only something into a box and hands it to them…Too many people produce only junk and expect pretty much junk. Few people expect little from others and produce themselves goods of high quality. Much better to be a poor person in the Near East making quality carpets than to be a modern working for a company which produces frivolous junk…except of course the irony that the junk producer makes a better living…

    So much of modern society is a contradiction. Science, technology, have improved so many lives but we seem locked into some sort of political agreement that we should respect each others junk production and purchase from each other junk. But this seems an unfortunate consequence of respecting individual rights, of taking each person as valuable, a productive member of society. To respect all people is to automatically respect the limited production capacity of the mediocre and their liking for frivolous and vain junk.

    Most people are without method of any sort. They do not want to learn methods toward things let alone methods toward higher things (how many people for example want to learn how to construct a sentence or play a musical instrument let alone learn rudiments of physics and engineering?) but want things period and are willing to work toward the production of most anything if it puts food on the table.

    (continued in

  • daniel12

    Part two.

    Imagine a society with no gift giving and receiving. Such a society would have to be a society in which people consult each other first as to desires. You would really have to know people first before buying anything–and people would become more thoughtful as to their desires when they reflect they are not going to receive any gifts…Probably gift giving will not be truly noble until people really know each other and expect from each other only true surprises.

    I give gifts to only children. And I expect to be consulted first if a person is going to give me anything. I thought about buying myself a quality guitar–a Martin–recently. I realized I have eight low quality guitars already and that I am getting old and it would be better to learn how to play the guitar first…and that I will never be so good as to deserve a Martin–and that a Martin is unnecessary anyway…talent is everything.

    Ultimately there is so much junk in the world because most people are low quality. High quality people are the greatest gift to the world. Most people are nothing more than a vain and frivolous gift unto themselves.

  • daniel12

    Part two.

    Imagine a society with no gift giving and receiving. Such a society would have to be a society in which people consult each other first as to desires. You would really have to know people first before buying anything–and people would become more thoughtful as to their desires when they reflect they are not going to receive any gifts…Probably gift giving will not be truly noble until people really know each other and expect from each other only true surprises.

    I give gifts to only children. And I expect to be consulted first if a person is going to give me anything. I thought about buying myself a quality guitar–a Martin–recently. I realized I have eight low quality guitars already and that I am getting old and it would be better to learn how to play the guitar first…and that I will never be so good as to deserve a Martin–and that a Martin is unnecessary anyway…talent is everything.

    Ultimately there is so much junk in the world because most people are low quality. High quality people are the greatest gift to the world. Most people are nothing more than a vain and frivolous gift unto themselves.

  • mrbradwii

    First, sorry for your loss; I remember cleaning out my grandparents house my grandmother died. Fortunately she had recounted enough stories for enough times for a lot of the stuff to have some sentimental value. But indeed there was much accumulation of stuff over nearly a century that was certainly puzzling. Perhaps a mystery that now could only remind us that she was no longer there to ask about it…. and some of it just forgotten junk for the “perhaps, one day I’ll…” to-do list that we all keep.

    The heart wants what it wants indeed. And it is not really a terrible moral problem. The moral consequences of all choices are in the actions and their affects on others. Most such choices have none. Violent holiday mobs are less about desire, than never having learned or desired to learn good manners and why the are important.

    Greed, lust, avarice, envy…. all associated with negative consequences of our actions for others, usually willfully achieved, especially in the days of the nobles and gentrified elite.

    Most “mine is bigger than yours” issues are straw men. Most Apple Geeks get the latest and greatest i/This and i/That because they’re Apple geeks, or techno freaks, not because they revel in lording their 4g goodness over you–except in good-natured fun of course.

    The housing bubbles and “gee everybody is doing it and I better do it too before it’s too late” types of “herd” behavior are a difficult property of capitalism that is particularly hard to swallow, when it is coupled with government collusion and social engineering. 2 chickens in every pot, a car in every driveway, and a house for every family. Those are fine aspirations, but when they are engineered by specific behavior changing policy, lobbied for by business, touted by politicians, and sealed into official state dogma by law makers — it doesn’t matter how goody goody and soft-hearted the desired result is. The outcome is a crapshoot and dangerous.

    Separation of church and state is g

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