The case against thrift

The downturn is giving us new excuses for moral flagellation. But saving money won't save your soul.

By Judith Levine

Published February 25, 2009 11:58AM (EST)

Mildred in Minneapolis calls in to offer pointers on buying food in dented cans, along with homeopathic cures for botulism. Betsy in Boston says she boils and reuses her dental floss. Norbert, outside Nome, Alaska, reaches the radio station by solar-powered Web phone to boast that he’s been boiling his floss since 1977. Tran, a Buddhist in Aspen, Colo., warns of the dangers of attachment.

And then the host, who today is focusing on personal economies during the recession, turns to me: "Isn't this all a blessing in disguise, Judith? Haven't we lost our way, and aren't we now discovering new, and better, values?" I'm getting such questions regularly these days; my 2006 book, "Not Buying It: My Year Without Shopping," has unexpectedly made me an oracle.

Well, yes, sort of, I stammer. But, uh, actually, no. On one hand, who can argue that the grow-grow-growth consumer economy is outgrowing the limits not just of our bank accounts but also our finite Earth? Part of me is ecstatic to wave goodbye to the $20 martini and the 20,000-square-foot house.

And then there is the other hand. The downturn is giving us fresh excuses for moral flagellation, of ourselves and others. If yesterday's White House proselytized shopping, today's is shaming bankers for their greed.

The message: We sinned with profligacy, and now we repent in parsimony.

Thrift is the new abstinence.

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Type "recession is good" into Google and you get more than 35 million hits. Some of these are from unreconstructed bulls, explaining how the downturn can help entrepreneurs, supermarkets, something called "cloud computing" -- and, of course, thrift stores. Marketers are linking bad times with good selling. Trend hound Faith Popcorn -- who could find consumers among the residents of a Darfurian refugee camp -- identifies the next surefire ploy: empathy. She attributes Burger King's recent gains to its "we-feel-your-pain" ads rather than to the desperation of laid-off workers driven to subsisting on French fries.

NPR's Martin Caste notices another theme, "dignified deprivation." He plays an Allstate insurance ad: "People are getting back to the basics -- and the basics are good."

The basics -- unemployment, bankruptcy, foreclosure -- are allegedly good for community (increased donations to soup kitchens, at least from those who aren't eating at them); for family (playing Scrabble together aids both parent-child communication and spelling); for love (bonking is free; just forgo the platinum dildo); and good for health, thanks to more home cooking and less junk food consumption (except for McDonald’s).

A typical post from a personal-finance blogger at sums it up: "There is potential for personal growth, innovation, and kindness that doesn’t always appear when times are good." Caste calls it "the virtuous recession."

The religious Web sites are salivating over the soul-saving opportunities opening up. "Our nation has become defined by a total lack of discipline or temperance. That is a spiritual problem, not a financial one," preaches a blogger. She happily predicts the return of modest fashion, premarital chastity, parental patience and preferences for G-rated movies. The hellfire and damnation faction is also finding great material, as it always does, in signs of moral, economic and environmental decline. "So what caused this recession?" thunders Kent Brandenburg at a Web site called What Is Truth. "Greed. What caused the Great Depression? Greed.”

"Of course, it's very deep rooted," he avers. "Man is depraved and greed is part of it." There’s just one solution: Jesus Christ.

The cultural critic Ellen Willis called anti-consumerism "the Puritanism of the left." If she were alive, she'd see that it is now the Puritanism of the right and the middle as well. The operative word, though, is "Puritanism." Yes, Buddhists and Jews are seeking their own spiritual silver linings in the economy's black clouds. But thrift is a Christian virtue: Temperance, prudence and self-denial are good for the soul.

Primitive societies didn't have much use for saving. They hustled to get in food and fuel for the winter, then kicked back. If extra stuff was amassed, it was often for the express purpose of being squandered. Sacrifices, feasts, potlatches, bacchanalia -- these rites might inspire the gods to send status, rain or military victory. But there was religious value simply in going over the top. If frugality was practical, excess was sacred.

The religious orgies of their mystics notwithstanding, early Christians got pretty exercised about excess. In 1571 Martin Luther put it in writing: his 95 Theses condemning the Catholic Church for feeding Mammon with the indulgence fees of the faithful. "Money," he declared, "is the word of the Devil."

A century later, English and American Puritans were flogging the anti-wealth doctrine. Debt was wicked, as was conspicuous consumption: "'Tis a Sin ... for a man to Spend more than he Gets," said Cotton Mather. Profit was equally sinful: A Puritan could be jailed for charging the market price for his products. Still, the Puritans exalted labor, God's punishment of Adam and Eve for seeking knowledge (and sexual pleasure). "Let your Business Engross most of your time," wrote Mather in a treatise on Diligence. Mather prescribed diligence as a cure for masturbation, but also for something called "economic depression."

If it was hard to distinguish pious industry from sinful profit-seeking, one thing was clear: Early-Christian thrift fought the need of capitalism to accumulate wealth. By the 17th century, a new Protestant ethic would solve the problem. Now a person could be both godly and rich; indeed the latter was proof of the former. Thrift resumed its Old English meaning: a thriving condition, a means to prosperity. In the mid-18th century, Ben Franklin was recommending thrift as "the way to wealth."

Franklin was a secularist, prone to poking fun at religiosity, and his Poor Richard was an avatar of practical, if upright, self-interest. That hasn’t stopped anyone from mining the Almanacs for paeans to godly parsimony, however. Now pragmatic, now Dionysian, Americans always retain the Puritan gene.

That gene emerges even in today’s most pragmatic-seeming responses to Americans’ meager personal savings and high debt. A 2005 article in Education Policy Analysis Archives, proposing an "allowance and savings program" for poor students, begins with a moral assumption -- the poor stay poor because they "make impulsive choices ... driven by a tendency to overweight rewards and costs that are in close temporal or spatial proximity." This infantile instant gratification seeking, the authors suggest, also explains teen pregnancy among the poor.

The program would teach what wealthier families pass on to their offspring: the value of "delayed gratification through the accumulation, savings, and investment of regular allowances." And if the students learn thrift? They'll "move from poverty to middle class status as adults." With echoes of Victorian "child-saving" crusades, the article is titled "Child Savings Plans: Learning the Value of Self Control."

"For a New Thrift: Confronting the Debt Culture" -- a recent report from the politically diverse Commission on Thrift -- blames debt not on personal failings but on the influence of "anti-thrift institutions," such as payday lenders, predatory credit card issuers and state-funded lotteries. The report makes moral judgments only of institutional venality and dishonesty, and recommends policy, not personal, change.

Yet where it focuses on personal motivation, "New Thrift" becomes a Sunday school pamphlet. It proposes, for example, to "repurpose the lottery" to offer not just gambling tickets but also "savings tickets." The lottery’s public-relations "wizards” could concoct "jazzy new promotions" and slogans like "Every ticket wins!"

Say the authors: "It ought to be an easy sell."

Right. About as easy as abstinence-only education, and for the same reasons -- or rather, the same faulty reasoning. Teens don't have sex and babies just to gain status, love or welfare, as conservatives contend. They have sex because it feels good. Similarly, people buy lottery tickets not because they need money, even if they do. They enjoy the libidinal thrill of gambling. There is something sadly sober about a "savings ticket," no matter how jazzy the promo. Couldn’t those wizards come up with a gamble that's also a way to save? I've got it: the stock market!

From the 17th through the early 20th century, capitalism needed greed, and Christianity found ways to underwrite it. Late-20th-century consumer capitalism needed unending desire to keep the profits coming. Enter consumer credit and an ethos of gratification. Although that came mostly from secular sources, market-savvy evangelicals have proved enthusiastic boosters of consumerism, with their "gospels of wealth." After Sept. 11, shopping became an act of patriotism, another religion. And now we are asked to keep the faith, spending to save the free market from free fall, and us with it.

The injunction to gratify our desires when we're scared we can't meet our needs is like telling a woman with advanced breast cancer to enjoy sex because it's good for her marriage. In the 1930s, John Maynard Keynes coined an economic term for this recessionary quandary, in which the macro-economy needs consumers to spend confidently, even while self-interest might be better served by putting the pennies in the cookie jar. Keynes called it "the paradox of thrift."

Add to this a moral paradox: We are damned morally if we don’t save and damned economically if we do.

So is thrift a countercultural message from a chorus of Christians, environmentalists and socialists -- and bad for capitalism? Or is thrift, like the Protestant ethic, useful to the economy?

What’s bad for capitalism is surely good for contemporary Jeremiahs seeking evidence of man's downfall -- and thus for the wisdom of thrift. Here is Kent Brandenburg, naming the latest names in a catalog of history's economic evildoers: "Greedy home ownership painted like Grant Wood's American Gothic. Greedy mortgage lenders looking for a quick buck. Greedy illegal immigrants who think they're entitled. And then the greedy politicians who overspent in the time of plenty, instead of creating budget surpluses for the time of leanness."

But in inveighing against greedy immigrants and wasteful politicians, Brandenburg isn't dissing the free market. No, he’s singing the hymn of Reaganist Christianity, which figures each man -- or each family -- an island, and the state, with its handouts of welfare or food stamps, an intruder in the moral justice that rewards the good with prosperity and the wicked with poverty. This is American self-reliance with a punitive face, wielding thrift as its one economic ameliorator: "Young man, work hard while you are Young; you'l Reap the effects of it when you are Old," proclaimed Cotton Mather. And if you don’t work hard? Then you will reap the effects of that, too.

Thrift is not just a moral antidote to personal profligacy. It is a confederate to collective stinginess. Thrift is good for America’s free-market Puritan state.

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I'm thrifty by upbringing and environmentalist principle and, and as a writer, by necessity. For decades I've dutifully put money into my IRA. This year, like everyone else, I lost half of it. Did thrift reward me? I cannot say it gave me much spiritually, unless you count a sense of security. And that turns out to have been false.

So I have reflected on what else I might have done with that money. I could have spent six months in Paris drinking wine and perfecting my French, financed a small movie, or bought oceanfront property in Nova Scotia. What effects would I have reaped from my profligacy? Knowledge, adventure, pleasure: riches perhaps exceeding those of a fully funded retirement account.

You can’t take it with you. That's what St. Paul told Timothy before warning him that the love of money was the root of all evil: "For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out." What lesson does the recession teach? Live now. Be merry. For tomorrow we -- or the stock market bull -- may die.

Judith Levine

Judith Levine is a journalist and author of four books, most recently "Not Buying It: My Year Without Shopping."

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Abstinence Great Recession Religion U.s. Economy