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.
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.
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.