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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. Franko Lee/AFP/Getty Images

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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.

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