Shopping is not your Civic Duty
The gospel of frugality has a lot of different branches. Some people are looking to survive paychecks that don’t go far enough. Others embrace minimalism in the hope of finding peace and simplicity. Some are working to ensure a secure, or even early, retirement. Many care about wastefulness and the health of the planet. I have my own mix of all of these motivations to varying degrees.
I’m not monastic about money. Sometimes I’m disciplined, other times I’m not. But one mainstream American idea that I totally reject is that shopping is somehow our civic duty. That we should all breathe a sigh of relief when people holding on to televisions for dear life get trampled at Target on Black Friday. I just don’t think that feeding the Wall Street profit machine should be our number one national priority.
Do I really win, if Walmart wins?
I try not to support businesses I disagree with, or that are so large, they have an outsize influence on our society. Our corporate overlords… their existence disturbs me. They are too big and too powerful. Their voices are too loud. But since I can’t re-write our bribery — er, pardon me –our campaign finance laws, my only small power is to avoid giving them my money. Unfortunately it is never an easy feat. I spend lots of energy researching this, only to succeed less than half the time.
For example, I pondered getting an artificial Christmas tree this year so I could put it up early and find the perfect shape and size for my small apartment. After much research, I realized my options were to spend way more money than I could afford, or to bring an enormous toxic PVC bomb into my home. Simple… abstinence.
But other things are not so easy.
Cereal, toothpaste, ketchup, sneakers, clothing… All these things are a minefield. But there’s no time to do comprehensive research on every single company that makes every single product I buy, try as I might. Shopping on Amazon alone is cause for constant grief and self-reproach. I try to avoid it and I’m willing to spend slightly more for something if I can get it from a company that is lower on my mental list of all-powerful evil corporations.
And forget about toys for Christmas. You can get away with those quaint hand-crafted non-toxic German toys when your kids are 2. But they mostly won’t fly now. My kids want Pokemon and Star Wars toys, Legos and video games. I’m not going to go full hippie on them at Christmas.
Like I said, I’m not a monk.
I have felt that ping of joy over a new treasure, including ill-advised attempts at self-soothing on a bad day. I’ve regretted many of these purchases, though they’re rarer since I paid off my debt. I do get pleasure from things that make my nest comfy and warm, or create the perception that the world is as I would like it to be. Basically, I spend money to create illusions sometimes. This is my weakness.
But elsewhere, I have obliterated the consumer porn, the worship of brands and the fantasy that a constant influx of new and more stuff equals happiness.
And I sure as hell do not care if Apple’s stock price goes up. Even when I look at my money. I just don’t. I’m invested in the market, of course, and my investments include companies whose influence over our lives I am not ok with. But I don’t believe that their rising stock prices should be the ultimate goal of civilization. If the valuations of companies that do not represent my values go down, even if they’re in one of my index funds, I’m more than fine with that. Actually, I’m thrilled when harmful companies perform poorly, even if my IRA takes a dip.
I think our planet and certainly our country, would be a better place if we focused more on the overall well-being of people than the well-being of the “economy.” That may seem like blasphemy because we are all hooked into the economy and we all need jobs to survive. But the well-being of ordinary people never seems to be what people are actually talking about when they fret over…
The “economy,” for the people who are most in charge of shaping it, means stock prices. Not jobs. (Except inasmuch as they influence stock prices.) Certainly not the general happiness, health, welfare or enlightenment of the vast majority of people. And the thing about stocks is that, to have any value whatsoever, their price needs to travel in a constant upward trajectory. If they are not going up, they are of exactly zero use.
And for stock prices to go up and up forever means companies need to always be making more and more money. “A fuckload” (pardon my French) is not enough. It needs to be more than yesterday. That means more sales, more shoes, more drugs, more toothpaste, more cereal, more toys, more phones, more houses, more calories, more credit default swaps, more people!
This “economy” is based on never having enough and always needing more.
By this logic, a person who is generally satisfied and has enough stuff most of the time, who has all their basic health, safety and education needs covered, and the freedom to enjoy life, is bad for the “economy.” And it is why the people who make a zillion dollars every year need more. Why companies that lavishly enrich shareholders, must still work So Hard to avoid paying a fair wage, or taxes. And why they must squelch regulations that are designed to protect people, our health and the environment.
“Business is business, and business must grow.” -The Onceler
More. More. More. The economy does not have to be weighted so heavily on this Wall Street-centric model. But it is. This philosophy governs everything, despite it having been clearly demonstrated that most Americans are left behind when we focus only on growth for investors. Everything we do is in the service of promoting stock prices. Which is all well and fine until everything else is ruined. What happiness will our monopoly money bring us when not one neighborhood restaurant or mom and pop can stay in business because only HSBC and Starbucks can afford a store front? Or when we’re all drinking Flint-inis every time we turn on our faucet?
I remember being implored to “go shopping” after September 11th, at that moment of great national tragedy and unity. We were not asked to volunteer, or help people. Or engage in a cause. Or inspire anyone. Nope, just shop. We don’t need citizens, was the subtext, just consumers. Shopping – our civic duty!
This is a deeply depressing worldview. I’m not buying it.
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