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!