Against Thrift


James Livingston, Against Thrift: Why Consumer Culture is Good for the Economy, the Environment, and Your Soul

James Livingston has published a timely and provocative book in Against Thrift. He is not an economist but teaches history at Rutgers, and his argument is basically that everything you think you know about economic growth is wrong.

Both Democrats and Republicans believe business is the engine of economic growth. They only differ on how many tax breaks to give it. Livingston argues that this fundamental axiom of all modern economic policy is dead wrong! Technological advances grow with the economy, so companies do not have to reinvest to grow because they are able to squeeze more productivity out of fewer workers. The tax breaks we give large corporations contribute to huge profits that companies then invest in increasingly speculative and risky financial instruments – sliced and dices chimeras like those that contributed to the Great Recession in late 2008.

He goes on to argue that history shows the real driver of economic growth to be consumption. Just our tax policy contributed to the economic crash, it is the solution to our recovery, but only if we break with the “wisdom” of Washington. We need to rejigger the tax code so that corporations have smaller profits and average citizens have more income to take home and thus spend.

After concluding his economic argument, Livingston closes the book in a couple of chapters that argue for the ethics of consumption. Our parents and grandparents told us to save for a rainy day. Why? The author does not exactly say we should have no savings, but he does make a case that there is nothing wrong with products that contribute to our enjoyment of life. We should take joy in giving gifts and receiving them, learn to truly enjoy food, and in short become consumers of refined palettes and voracious appetites. Though some might say consumerism is the cause of our current environmental and health crisis, in a rather oddly-situated chapter on the obesity epidemic, Livingston tries to show that learning to truly enjoy the rituals consumer culture affords us – the act of preparing a fine meal and eating it with friends – makes us less inclined toward the kind of junk that is killing us. Our expanding waistlines are the most visible effects critics of consumer culture point to, by dispelling their arguments about fat, Livingston hopes to show that the assumptions of critics do not necessarily hold up in other areas.

On the whole, I think this book is worth reading, but maybe borrow it from a library or get a used copy. This book is useful because the author has gathered evidence to support and somewhat update Keynesian economics. Nonetheless, much of Livingston’s argument is not original, and the original parts of his argument are not very convincing.

As a Christian theologian who thinks a lot about the economy, Livingston’s defense of consumer culture is a helpful reminder that this world and all that is in it, including what we produce, is good. Christian economics are not all asceticism all the time. On the other hand, Livingston’s defense of consumerism at times becomes a defense of hedonism. His claim, for instance, that more consumerism is the cure to the obesity epidemic, or impending environmental catastrophe, is just not very convincing. As a result, I do not see how he cannot fall into the same trap that ensnares investment bankers and business tycoons. We Americans seem to assume that wealth = money because money = stuff. I do not see Livingston rise above this stupid math.

I think theology can help him. When he does talk about the consumer ritual of preparing and eating a meal, he hits upon the Christian belief in the goodness of matter and our eschatological hope. Eating can be an immensely holy act. All feasts in the name of Christ anticipate the joy of the life to come, but feasting is always bordered by a time of fasting. Fasting serves as a reminder that this world is not as good as it could be, and that we are the cause of its fall. It helps keep us from confusing the means of consumption with its ends: Joy is not the things we consume but in the lives, loves, and friendships those things enrich.

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