Thursday, July 24, 2008

Thrift

Readers of this blog might assume I am against wealth and spending. This is not so. What I find troublesome is the current culture of financial decadence that is wasteful, hostile, and destructive. Raised in a lower-middle/working class home where government cheese was on the menu, I certainly aim to achieve personal wealth. I enjoy earning and saving money, and even like to go shopping--sometimes at chain stores (a few is okay--it's the over-proliferation of chains that troubles me).

But I also believe in being thrifty and living within one's means. I seem to be in the minority these days.


I Love Money: Meet the cast

In a recent New York Times, David Brooks offered an enlightening Op Ed about money in America and the current "deterioration of financial mores" that has led to a culture of debt and stark polarization into the "investor class" and the "lottery class." To those who argue that New York, and the U.S. as a whole, has always been about extreme commerce and consumerism uber alles, take a look at Brooks' piece, in which he writes:

"The United States has been an affluent nation since its founding. But the country was, by and large, not corrupted by wealth. For centuries, it remained industrious, ambitious and frugal. Over the past 30 years, much of that has been shredded... the most rampant decadence today is financial decadence."


WATCH: "We are a nation of consumers. And there's nothing wrong with that..."

In last Sunday's Times, they added to their Debt Trap series and again showed that America was not always ruled by a culture of unbridled consumption: "Just two generations ago, America was a nation of mostly thrifty people living within their means, even setting money aside for unforeseen expenses. Today, Americans carry $2.56 trillion in consumer debt." And the average American saves about 400 bucks a year. We haven't saved so little since the Great Depression.


the American Way of Debt map

Our most dramatic plunge into consumer debt spans the 2000s. I often wonder why 9/11 seemed to give a boost to the city's hyper-gentrification, Vongerichtification, yunnie-ism--and I think the reasons are manifold (Bloomberg, Bush, war, fear, etc.), but also remember the regrettable "Fight Back NY!" campaign that told people the way to fight terrorism was to "Go Shop!" and "Spend Money!" What terrible advice, and yet it set the tone for the post-9/11 era.

Those in power would like us to believe that consumerism is the golden good and thrift is for greedy cheapskates. As David Brooks wrote in yesterday's follow-up Op Ed, "Norms changed and people began making jokes to make illicit things seem normal. Instead of condemning hyper-consumerism, they made quips about 'retail therapy.'" Thrift, in contrast, becomes the butt of the joke.



But the "word 'thrift' comes from 'thrive,'" writes David Blankenhorn in the Philadelphia Enquirer, "Understood in this way, thrift is the ethic and practice of best use. Being thrifty means making the wisest use of all that we have--time, money, our possessions, our health, and our society’s natural resources--to promote both our own flourishing and the social good."

Ethics, mores, social good. These values are part of New York's history, too. And they are not antithetical to affluence. "Affluence" means abundant flow. And flow is a good thing. But affluence in America has come to be all about conspicuous consumption. That's not flow.



Brooks points us to the New Thrift movement, which has some problematic aspects--like the whole creepy right-wing "defense of marriage" stuff and, let's face it, the Puritans jacked up the country in many, many ways--but their central message is a critical one: "consumerism as a philosophy of life" is unethical, immoral, and detrimental to the country's (and the city's) health.

Under the leadership of BloomBush, our city pushed forward into an age of unethical greed. New York has been corrupted by the type of wealth that devours everything in its path, sparing nothing but that which encourages it, and hiding in its dark heart an emptiness, a yawning debt disguised as success. But every day there is more good news. Maybe the tide is finally turning. Do you feel it too? Fight back NY! Save money!

29 comments:

John said...

"America has become nothing more than a nation of obedient consumers, actively contributing to their own degredation."

- George Carlin

ShatteredMonocle said...

I do feel it. Even SJP's life is falling apart at the seams.

Also from AMNY, 50 Cent suing Taco Bell over unauthorized us of his image in an ad campaign. This is the third example this year where someone's image was apparently felched without permission for advertising purposes. American Apparel, M&M's, Taco Bell...these are big companies that know what they're doing. This is completely brazen hyper-commercialism. I hope Woody Allen, The Naked Cowboy and 50 take these assholes to the cleaners.

ken mac said...

One of your best posts ever, so revealing of what is happening in NYC and the US as a whole. TIP: ING Direct offers one of the best savings rates around, with no fee and no minimum. Save your $$$

Anonymous said...

I hate this decade. I really do.

From popular culture, the music, the fashions, the movies, to the politicians, Bloomie, Bush etc...

I hate everything about this decade. It all sucks.

Usually one has to look back 10 years later to laugh and make fun of a particular moment in time.

The difference with this decade is that I am laughing and making fun of it right now as it is happening.

Will things only get worse in the 2010's or is their some light ahead at the end of this very very very dark tunnel?

Lisanne McT said...

I have to say I sort of a get a sick pleasure at people finally waking up from their spending stupor. I am getting sick of all the "how to curb spending" articles in the papers and the internets, it's all just COMMON SENSE! but hey we had goverment cheese in my house too..big yellow blocks of it that lasted a loooong time.

Jeremiah Moss said...

i don't enjoy sjp's woe, but that article does have some good quotes about the possible end to SATC-NYC.

Jeremiah Moss said...

and the cheese boxes were perfect for recycling into storage for bubblegum and baseball cards, too.

Robert said...

Personal finance and anti-gentrification/pro-preservation are probably the two subjects that pop up most in my RSS. I've often felt there was a connection between the two in ideology and lifestyle, and it was a thrill to see the subjects married in this post. Thank you.

13 Journal said...

The advertisement on top of the cab says it all. Though what is becoming even more obnoxious I think are the televisions inside the cabs that come on as soon as you get in and bombard you with advertisements, idiotic reviews of crappy movies, and celebrity gossip updates. One of my favorite scenes in one of my favorite movies -- My Dinner with Andre -- is when Wallace Shawn gets in a cab at the end of this illuminating dinner with his friends and begins looking out the window of all the places he remembered from childhood. How ruined that moment would have been -- in one of today's nyc cabs -- if instead he was distracted by an obnoxious snippets of the Today show on a touchscreen television that won't turn off.

Joshua said...

Those taxi TVs are there for mind control purposes. You know: "everything's fine, oh look at what Whoopie said on the View today, how about that? are you staying fashionable? maybe you should by a new car, only 'mean people' complain and criticize--you're not mean, are you? have you bought the latest SATC dvd yet?", etc, etc. You get the idea.
If you remember from the 1988 movie "They Live", if you were to put on the special sunglasses you could see that all the little screen was saying over and over was "SLEEP", "OBEY", "PROCREATE", and "CONSUME" in a continuous pattern.

Also, what show or movie is that little blond girl's picture from? I'm getting pissed off just looking at her.

Jeremiah Moss said...

the taxi TVs are not shutting off anymore. it's become some citywide problem.

Anonymous said...

The high costs of housing and food combined with mind numbing expenditures for bar tabs, flat screen TV's, cell phones, etc., it's only a matter of time before the perfect $torm hits NYC. Living out of the city now, I see SUV's you can't give away, McMansions that will soon be rooming houses, malls that are on life support.

Anonymous said...

Do you ever remember people saying: we were poor but we didn't know it? Then came TV. No matter how much you bought, you were still a freakin' pauper. J, this is one of your best posts. We are dancing on a sinking ship.

hntrnyc said...

amen brother jeremiah, one of your most eloquent and poignant posts to date. i usually cringe when david brooks speaks, but this is truly what "conservatism" was/should be about.
the younger generation, raised on reality television, often only dream of making it to american idol or a slot on the real world. higher education moves further out of reach for many with every year. i did my entire undergrad education for less than 10k at a commuter campus ( 5 years) 20 years ago.
i have often said that the proliferation of poker coverage on TV shows that americans only feel their success will come as a longshot. we are in an unsustainable economic state at present, a painful change is inevitable.

Joshua said...

In regards to hntrnyc's comment, traditional social conservatism and traditional populist liberalism have much in common, particularly on the suject of a bloated, unproductive elite. Unfortunately, today both "conservatism" and "liberalism" are utterly subordinate to the interests of that elite, even in spite of their traditional philosophies. Official conservatism is currently semi-fascist and corrupt, official liberalism is a joke, and neither offers any logical solution to our economically and socially unbalanced society.
The situation is actually very similar to the 1920's (even down to an infantile and Babitt-like "roaring youth": ie yunnies), and we all know what happened to their speculation pyramid.

Jeremiah Moss said...

thanks everyone. i hope the tide really is turning. remember the ant and the grasshopper? ...winter is coming on fast.

and don't forget to click the link on that crazy discover ad. it's a must-see.

Anonymous said...

They only consume things -- how is that a sin? You and the other hand consume yourself.

Anonymous said...

Manhattan has become the thyroid of all that sucks about the state of our nation.

I dont even bother going down to NYC anymore. Really...am i missing something in Northampton and Connecticut that is in NYC? Increasingly...no, and its not worth the hassle anymore.

odile said...

Long time lurker, first time commenter. Terrific post - very eye-opening. I'm sharing the link with friends.

Anonymous said...

Ahhh. Northampton, Mass. Home of deregulated mental institutions. Gotta love it.

Anonymous said...

It appears my generation wasn't raised to entertain itself, and thus we can only get our kicks through the temporary elation of spending. We're overpaid, selfish, and unmotivated, nursing our paychecks like pacifiers and plagued by impersonal, fleeting relationships because of our inability to love anyone nearly as much as ourselves. Determined to be original and creative despite our persisting blandness, an irreverence of the past and general preference for the psychologically pleasing shine of newness and change are at the root of our present decline. We bury trauma and guilt in the foundations of the next generation's inheritance...

The Sale Rack said...

AMEN!

By the way, Love your blog. Found it while I was checking out curbed.

Gaziano said...

“It’s called the American Dream because you have to be asleep to believe it.” George Carlin

NYCIC said...

I bounced back here to re-read this. Can we give this a bump? Jeremiah, I'm glad you're out there making these posts. G'luck to you, sir.

rsl said...

here it is 3 years later. &its getting sicker & sicker. people will buy anything they are told too. true story: they built a walmart near me. it was empty. so they raised prices 30%. read that in the newspaper. i had never been inside a WM before. so i visited & looked around. i looked @products i am familiar with. sure enough they were quite pricey. the chocolates were as expensive as the gourmet stores. also to make matters worse, you had to ask someone to open the plastic cans which held the cosmetics. like they dont even unpack when its delieved from the factories. the same face creme was $6.00 dollars less @ the small private owned pharmacy. but yet the place was packed w/the nations poor & lower classes. the envirement was repulsive inhuman, w/loud speakers in front. the place smelt of toxic plastic. the parking lot was like one square block. i dont drive so it was a walk thru gasoline. SO, this is marketing to the working people! i got it. make it ugly, inconvenient, insulting, & its mobbed. how can people be thrifty if they just obey? make it "look" cheap & it IS cheap?? walmart is a lifestyle. people go there on sundays as a family outing. all you see is obese people roaming around. buying shit is a sport world wide. OK thats the other side of vulgar spending!!

Anonymous said...

Just discovered this post today. Agree with almost everything in it. Well said. Being against gratuitous consumption does not mean being an ascetic. It's also about valuing time over possessions. Being in debt for one's possessions makes one a slave to income. Learning to live with less is liberating.

- East Villager

Anonymous said...

Do you believe more people have adopted this attitude since the Depression of 2007-present?

- EVillager

Anonymous said...

I just wanted to point out that there is an off button on the taxi TV touch screens, and volume controls. You're not being forced to watch it against your will.

rsl/laura r said...

"rsl 2:32" (thats me & im adding to my comment WALMART). here it is several yrs later. the consummerism has grown into a monster amoung the working classes of central america. they now have busses taking mexicans (from the villages) to walmart for the day. the majority have maybe a 3rd to 6th grade education, you get the picture. they save their $$ to buy junk from china. they sit outside on plastic chairs (in parking lot) eating fried dough w/32 once sodas, surrounded w/grey plastic bags filled w/stuff. (clothes, baby toys, what ever). i have wondered to my self: why not buy fabric like your grandma did, & make your own clothes? whats up w/the baseball cap & fake CK tee shirt? do you know what CK is? (im not a old liberal who thinks i know whats best for everyone. no i dont think they should "weave" baskets for my entertainment). i wonder, why eat deep fried dough (or fried chicken) when you have fresh bread & chicken@home? (now they have grown from 200lbs to 300lbs). my point is that this comsumption is not only for the rich or middle class, in NYC. but it is a world wide mentality crossing all social lines. people obey, whether they are newly rich, or newly lower middle class. they buy "labels" but dont know value. when these folks get back to the village, they can brag to the neighbors.