Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Is Consumerism Bad? No.

In the spirit of being a contrarian, but also because I really, really believe this. Christmas is a wonderful time of the year because of the consumerism not despite it. Gifts are wonderful, both to get and to give. Really is this controversial? But it is... It's more hip to be cynical about Christmas, or more righteous, or in these economically troubled times, more responsible. But is it really better to give than receive as they say? Or is it better not to give at all and just share the warmth of our love with each other?

Sure, but if all we ever do is give and not receive, than someone out there is receiving an awful lot to make up for our lack of receiving. Obviously for every giver you need a receiver, and sometimes the best gift is to receive graciously and gratefully.

As you know, I've been a little obsessed by this downturn, all of this cutting back is giving me the blues. Christmas is the time to be generous, the one time of the year to splurge on somebody else. We skimp all year knowing that there are two times a year where we can indulge our urges to spoil our kids. And Christmas is even easier because you can use Santa Claus as cover...

One of the troubles with our economy is that we are experiencing a massive correction (over-correction really) in so many different facets of it. One of those is that we are finally beginning to save after so many years of spending beyond our limits. This kind of correction is good, a long time coming, and very necessary, as long as the the correction is not too drastic we're all fine. The problem is if we pull back too much, we literally pull money out of the economy, the decreased cash flow is literally felt by producers of goods and services who now have no buyers for what they produce. So they cut back, and a downward spiral begins and we're al poorer.

Depending largely on what we buy (some things are better than others), the act of making a purchase is an incredible statement of trust in both the seller, ourselves and our ability to give up some of our future purchasing power, and in the economy itself. We connect ourselves in a small way to a larger community. Building up a savings account is good and necessary, but we can save too much.

If you hoard what you have, you are literally making both you and other people poorer. It's almost akin to the Biblical parable of the talents, and burying yours in the ground (or in a savings account if you will).

But buying things is a great opportunity, and there are some very powerful ways to give well, here are my own personal examples:

1) We bought our parents ticket to a local play in town. Buying tickets to a concert or a play has many wonderful benefits. You do not add to the clutter of the recipient. In my parent's case, we are giving them a gift they would never buy on their own. Its a splurge for them to get to the theater, they hardly go to the movies, and they are just not used to indulging themselves. In a small way, I hope this enriches their life a little, to experience art. It also benefits the community, allowing actors, directors and stage hands to perform and to share a singular talent and to get paid to do just that. A win/win if you ask me.

2) My wife bought me an iPod a few years ago, and I love, love, love it. It is my most favorite possession. The iPod helps me focus (sometimes music at work really helps). At the time I received it, I had heard of podcasts, but didn't see the benefit, now I'm addicted to them. I love them. It was a big purchase, but my wife went ahead and did it for me, and I'm glad she did. I can think of so many things we have that we may not have had if we didn't have the excuse of a birthday or Christmas to indulge. We have our bose sound system was a birthday splurge, but we love it. We now are regular subscribers to the New Yorker, and that was started by a gift some years back (a generous one at that) from my sister. These gifts have enriched my life and I would be much poorer without them.

3) We give books to your children as gifts. I heard a podcast recently about how to encourage your children to read. One suggestion was to give your children books as gifts from an early age. So they enjoy books as possessions and as treats. Books should never be drudgery, but reading for pleasure should and can be an important aspect of everyone's life. I can't tell you how much I love to read. Reading books is an experience that cannot be duplicated in any other way. Internet reading, even, doesn't compare. An author has a chance to take you a long into another world, a world you can come back to for many, many days (if the book is long enough). And its almost as if you're in the mind and literally in the shoes of the character of the book in ways that is never possible in a movie. Give your children books. This is literally an investment that will pay you back many times over.

4) Education can be a gift. We don't really give school as gifts, but we sure spend enough money on our children's minds, and I don't mind one bit. I'll sacrifice almost anything except food, clothing, and shelter to make sure my children get as much quality education as I can muster. This past year, we have paid (and will continue to pay for) violin lessons, gymnastics, and drama classes. Next year we have our eyes on a class on animals at the zoo, a few city of Tempe classes, etc. But paying for education is a literal no-brainer. There's only a few things we're going to take with us after we die, our experiences and our minds. What we learn here comes with us when we go there. Our memories and our experiences are also powerful opportunities to learn. Don't be afraid to spend money on them.

So, I definitely want you to save, but you should also consume. To me, buying well is a gift. You are showing confidence in yourself, in the community, in the economy. You are also showing that you value the work of another person which in and of itself is a way of connecting.

So have a Merry Christmas, and so sure, Americans do need to save more, but we also need to keep shopping. I hope we continue to.


H said...

These are some good thoughts Scott. I likes some of the suggestions, especially since we have always enjoyed when people give us tickets... and we often do that as our gift for an anniversary.

I will say this though, watching my 4 year old draw picture after picture, spending hours making items for friends and family over this last month has really renewed my drive for a homemade Christmas. It was delightful to watch her wrap and label each gift in her own little way. Wrapping the storebought basketball was fun too, just not as personal. And the hand drawings were a HUGE hit! (especially for people that you want to acknowledge but giving a 'gift' to is too is awkward)

H said...

Apparently I 'likes' me too many s's when I type!