Spending heroically

by Rob Horning

13 September 2005


As America’s national savings rate approached zero percent, commentators pinned the blame on consumers and their frivolous desires, their insatiable appetites for goods. But this appetite doesn’t come from nowhere of course, it’s scientifically stoked by the various tentacles of the media through advertising and entertainment that sings the pleasures of novelty and consumption, and reinforced by fiscal policy and interest rates that discourage saving. While savings is assocated with miserliness, and dangerous hoarding that could be economically harmful, spending is typically framed as an opportunity to demonstrate one’s savvy, through timely investments, perhaps, or through successful negotiation of a complex market to achieve the best deal. Spending provides the playing field on which one can rank oneself in terms of the criteria our society values: do you own the right things? have you spent wisely? Even reckless spending is seen as a kin dof daredevil courage, a laudable willingness to take chances, to forge ahead, to shake off the nebbishy timidity of thriftiness and make bold new purchases of consumer goods that have not yet proved their essentialness. Sure, anyone can buy an iPod now, but were you there five years ago? Everytime we celebrate ourselves or envy someone else for being into something or aware of something before someone else, we play into this notion of heroic consumption, into a notion that spending is a kind of doing that’s equal if not superior to making things, and we condone the idea that we discover things about ourselves by discovering things in the store, things left there for us to find.

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