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The argument against thrift

A man swipes his credit card. In a new book, author James Livingston argues that consumer culture is good for the economy, the environment, and your soul.

James Livingston has taught history at Rutgers since 1988. He's the author of five books.

Image of Against Thrift: Why Consumer Culture is Good for the Economy, the Environment, and Your Soul
Author: James Livingston
Publisher: Basic Books (2011)
Binding: Hardcover, 288 pages

Tess Vigeland: For all the handwringing over our culture of consumption, the fact is our economy depends on us spending money. And a lot of it. In that sense, indulging your desire to buy a new pair of shoes or that cool smartphone you have been eyeing could be seen as downright patriotic. And that is the thesis of another book by another James.

We turn now to James Livingston to talk with us about the other side of the consumer equation. His book is "Against Thrift: Why Consumer Culture is Good for the Economy, the Environment, and Your Soul." James, welcome to the program.

James Livingston: Thanks for having me.

Vigeland: I've got to say, you know, this seems to cut against pretty much everything we hear, which is the importance of saving, the value of thriftiness. So give us your argument against thrift.

Livingston: I'm suggesting that saving and private investment does not drive growth. What does drive growth is consumer spending, the supplement to that has been government spending. We don't want another crisis driven by surplus capital, so we shouldn't cut corporate taxes. We do know that consumer spending does drive growth, so why don't we learn to accept, embrace, consumer culture?

Vigeland: Well we certainly have embraced consumer culture over the years. I mean, it is arguable that it is what got us into this problem in the first place. People were spending so profligately that they were in way over their heads, putting so much of this on their credit cards. So how can you argue that more spending would actually benefit our economy?

Livingston: I think what drove us into this crisis is not consumer debt, what drove us into this crisis is the enormous piles of surplus capital that went into bubbles. If net private investment is declining and growth is happening, what do you do with all these profits? Well, you look for the highest rate or return. And the highest rate of return is typically in risky, speculative markets that turn into bubbles. That's the origin of the crisis.

Vigeland: The phrase "consumer culture" I think really has come to have a very negative connotation. You think of hyper-marketing and overspending. How do you think we should view it?

Livingston: When we're cooking a meal, for example, or buying a gift, or even rewarding ourselves, say, on Black Friday -- those are moments when we understand that it's our generosity to be nice to others and to be nice to ourselves. It's not very complicated to me.

Vigeland: So you're saying we are actually our better selves when we are spending, which is the complete opposite of what you think of as the spendthrift American.

Livingston: Consumers, they know that what they buy immediately depreciates. But for the time being, it's valuable to people. Think of how you treat, say, a Hallmark card. It can be a sing of a loving relationship if you make it particular to this relationship.

Vigeland: We just heard from another author, James Roberts, about how we spend money to basically buy our happiness -- and why that doesn't work. But of course, your book argues that not only is spending good for the economy, but it's good for the soul. Explain that one for us.

Livingston: We, the human species, discover ourselves through objects, through things, through materials. None of us are really very good at being metaphysicians, so we embody our desires. We embody ourselves in the world with objects. Now bettering ourselves, making our souls larger, seems to me that buying things doesn't diminish those possibilities -- in fact, it magnifies them.

Vigeland: James Livingston is the author of "Against Thrift: Why Consumer Culture is Good for the Economy, the Environment, and Your Soul." Thanks so much for joining us on this Black Friday.

Livingston: Thanks for having me.

About the author

Tess Vigeland is the host of Marketplace Money, where she takes a deep dive into why we do what we do with our money.

James Livingston has taught history at Rutgers since 1988. He's the author of five books.

Image of Against Thrift: Why Consumer Culture is Good for the Economy, the Environment, and Your Soul
Author: James Livingston
Publisher: Basic Books (2011)
Binding: Hardcover, 288 pages
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"When we're cooking a meal, for example, or buying a gift, or even rewarding ourselves, say, on Black Friday -- those are moments when we understand that it's our generosity to be nice to others and to be nice to ourselves. It's not very complicated to me."

That is a very nice, altruistic way to explain away the behavior at the recent Black Friday. The nice lady with the pepper spray, she completely understood using pepper spray on others was just a nice way for her to be nice to herself.
And then go on to justify the action by saying,

"None of us are really very good at being metaphysicians, so we embody our desires. We embody ourselves in the world with objects. Now bettering ourselves, making our souls larger, seems to me that buying things doesn't diminish those possibilities -- in fact, it magnifies them."

So, instead of stopping for a moment and internalizing whether or not we really need a $14 waffle iron, or $80 video game? Does it really make us a better person? Does it really help our soul?

Interesting interview. While the author may be correct in a economic sense that 70% of our GDP is consumer spending, there are solid economic arguments for savings. The high and increasing costs of medical care and college educations, retirements and the ability of company's to lay off employees and cut their benefits first creates a longer term dilemma to support the authors premise of short term spending on stuff no matter what.

Hm. Although I think his view is a bit too simplistic for me, I can see the merit in his ideas. Also, thanks for presenting this as you did "live". It was refreshing to hear a piece that represents the two different sides and viewpoints of consumer culture.

Tess - always this interview left my mouth hanging open! I found I had to sign up just so I could comment. "Embodying ourselves in the world with objects...makes our souls larger."?! Are you kidding me? I understand very clearly what he was saying but all I could think was "How pathetic." For HIM, as well as those that also believe their life is defined by 'things'. I remember clearly George Bush suggesting the best thing we could do for the country after 911 was to 'go shopping'. This line of thinking astounds me. It may be good for the economy, but as far as the environment and our souls go I beg to differ. I think we start teaching our children at about the age of 3 that it's not important who has the most toys. I suggest Mr. Livingston find a teacher or tradition that he might learn the same from. His soul may thank him.

Thank you for your work. Always great for conversation!.

Ammma -- I agree with your assessment completely. Mr. Livingston does not distinguish between "objects" and "totems" having no appreciation for the anthropological roots of his argument. A $14 waffle maker from a big box retailer is certainly not the sort of thing we should be killing ourselves over on "Black Friday."

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