Save Jobs. Buy Something

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An international group holds an event every holiday season called Buy Nothing Day, in which members protest our consumer culture by urging shoppers to restrain for at least one day from shopping. This year, not surprisingly, the event was reportedly a smashing success. Although I imagine many shoppers took part unwillingly, having lost their jobs or witnessed the value of their assets plummet, others said they were buying nothing, or at least buying considerably less this year, in sympathy with those who were struggling.

“Even though we can afford to spend more, we're not going to,” someone identified as Mary from Brenham, Texas told CNN. “It just doesn't seem right to spend lots of money when so many are hurting.” Bart, the head of a nonprofit in Springfield, Missouri, told a local newspaper that with so many people struggling, “It just doesn't feel right to go out and spend a bunch of money on Christmas gifts." The sentiment seemed pretty much the same across the pond, where a columnist for the London Times observed that rich friends “have all cancelled their customary Christmas holidays. Sure, they could afford Tobago as usual, but this year it just doesn't feel right.”

Not once during the dozens of stories I saw about Buy Nothing Day or about consumers’ general holiday abnegation did anyone, including the reporter or TV producer constructing these accounts, seem to consider that it might actually be counterproductive for those who can afford to spend as much or more this year on gifts to instead spend less. Indeed, many of these stories ran virtually side-by-side with gloomy reports of layoffs, retail bankruptcies, companies cutting wages and eliminating bonuses, and factories going on furloughs because of the difficult holiday shopping environment. Yet it is as if the two stories were virtually unconnected.

Why is it that in tough times it seems rational and even noble to deny oneself, even when doing so only spreads the pain? Much of the reason for this may be that we humans have been living in the modern, consumer-driven economy for just a few hundred years—since the great leap forward of the Industrial Revolution, when technological advances greatly expanded humans’ productive capabilities, vastly increasing standards of living in the process. By contrast, we spent a hundred thousand years or so living in tribes and roving bands where existence was day-to-day and tribal members shared resources to survive. We’re still not always comfortable reconciling the consumerism that’s at the center of our economy since the Industrial Revolution with the egalitarianism of what anthropologists call our deep history.

That’s why during times of economic stress some of us still preach sacrifice and restraint because it appears unseemly to have and consume too much when others are going wanting. Doing otherwise is politically unacceptable. When President Bush, for instance, urged Americans after 9-11 to shop enthusiastically during the 2001 holiday season, critics derided him for emphasizing something as frivolous as consumerism at a time of deep national pain and introspection.

Maybe it’s best that our leaders simply lead by example rather than words. Our President-elect, for instance, is now vacationing with his family in Hawaii after spending nearly two years running a grueling campaign for office. With a hefty bank account thanks to two-best selling books, President-elect Obama isn’t about to deny his family or himself the way those British rich folks are denying themselves their Tobago vacations this year, and our citizens of Hawaii are no doubt grateful to him for his business.

Still, our press and cultural commentators have it in for anyone who spends lavishly during times like this, even if it is a business investing generously in its future. At Major League Baseball’s winter meetings in early December, a number of teams made whopping contract offers to star players who were free agents. The press subsequently roasted these free-spending teams for heaping riches on guys whose only contribution to our society is to hit a fastball at 95 miles per hour, or throw one that fast. What a strange reaction to businesses that are investing to improve their product during a downturn—a perfectly sensible strategy if you have money to spend, talent is available and your competitors are being cautious.

The winter baseball meetings were Christmas come early for a few players, and one hopes they celebrated appropriately by spending some of their new-found wealth and in the process boosting the economy. As one of the 20th Century’s most notable non-believers, Ayn Rand, observed about Christmas, “The gift buying…stimulates an outpouring of ingenuity in the creation of products devoted to a single purpose: to give men pleasure.”

And to give them jobs. There’s still time, though just a little, to renounce your vow of moderation and buy liberally. It’s the least you can do for your fellow man.

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