The lost culture of thrift

by Rob Horning

22 July 2008


David Brooks has been on a kick lately of denouncing consumers for their addiction to shopping and how they have lost touch with the “great bourgeois virtues.” In his most recent effort in this vein, he is responding to a Gretchen Morgenson piece about personal debt, and in particular one woman, Diane McLeod, who’s in way over her head. Who is to blame? Borrowers or lenders? Brooks says neither, and instead posits a “third way” of explaining how people get in over their head:

people are driven by the desire to earn the respect of their fellows. Individuals don’t build their lives from scratch. They absorb the patterns and norms of the world around them.
Decision-making—whether it’s taking out a loan or deciding whom to marry—isn’t a coldly rational, self-conscious act. Instead, decision-making is a long chain of processes, most of which happen beneath the level of awareness. We absorb a way of perceiving the world from parents and neighbors. We mimic the behavior around us. Only at the end of the process is there self-conscious oversight.
According to this view, what happened to McLeod, and the nation’s financial system, is part of a larger social story. America once had a culture of thrift. But over the past decades, that unspoken code has been silently eroded.

That sounds reasonable enough, but as Tanta at Calculated Risk points out, it’s always a little bogus to preach a return to a nonexistent golden age.

This nostalgia for the lost “culture of thrift” always gets on my nerves. America has always had both a “culture of thrift” and a “culture of conspicuous consumption.” We have had our Gilded Ages before the year 1992. The “BankAmericard” (which became the Visa) was invented back in the “thrify fifties,” about ten years after economist James Duesenberry first popularized the phrase “keeping up with the Joneses.” Collapsing the history of America into a lost golden age of thrift contrasted to a degenerate present of consumption excess is a reliable sign you’re in the presence of ideology.

Of course, that’s a given with Brooks that you are in the presence of ideology, though to be fair, it’s safe to say ideology is present in any sort of opinion piece. Brooks wants to pin our fall from thrifty grace on housing wealth and changing norms.

Some of the toxins were economic. Rising house prices gave people the impression that they could take on more risk. Some were cultural. We entered a period of mass luxury, in which people down the income scale expect to own designer goods. Some were moral. Schools and other institutions used to talk the language of sin and temptation to alert people to the seductions that could ruin their lives. They no longer do.
Norms changed and people began making jokes to make illicit things seem normal. Instead of condemning hyper-consumerism, they made quips about “retail therapy,” or repeated the line that Morgenson noted in her article: When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping.

Brooks probably wants to temper Morgenson’s thesis that lenders have deployed sophisticated marketing techniques to encourage more people to take on more debt and pin the blame those who some reactionaries have called “predatory borrowers”. But oddly enough, Brooks’s account roughly fits the leftist theory that Western countries entered into a late-capitalism phase after World War II, in which the economic emphasis shifted from producing to consuming. Since then, the theory goes, the populace of mass consuming sheep have perpetually had new needs induced in them to keep GDP growing for its own sake, regardless of whether or not that actually improves society’s living conditions. (Which is not far off from what I think—that consumerism in our society is the way to secure social approval and communicate our sense of self to others. Other routes to recognition have been systematically sealed off, so it’s harder to summon the wherewithal to derive esteem or even self-knowledge from any actions other than shopping. Hence, the ownership society—we are what we own. And this happens to nicely fit the lenders’ incentives. They profit through the myriad transactions required to keep the money needed for all these self-fashioning ownership projects circulating.) You’d think Brooks would adopt the conservative tack that consumer goods have democratized luxury, making income inequality irrelevant, but here he is, like a latter-day Carlyle, faulting “mass luxury” as a kind of moral failing.

So what’s his game? Retro-conservatism? He implies (somewhat risibly) that he’s a Burkean conservative in his op-ed. But I think Tanta has him pegged when she argues that he is trying to divert blame for our decadent social mores away from the media establishment he is a part of:

Brooks, writing in that influential arbiter of taste the New York Times, somehow fails to notice the role of the media in constructing popular standards for “risk” and “normal” consumption patterns. In Brooks’ weird little world, Americans responded to “rising home prices” that they apparently directly perceived, without media intervention. It was those house prices that “gave people the impression that they could take on more risk,” not the reporting on house prices or the columnists who solemnly opined that these prices meant that people weren’t taking on more risk by buying or refinancing. How incredibly convenient that line is.

Indeed. So when Brooks writes, “In a community, behavior sets off ripples. Every decision is a public contribution or a destructive act,” he ought to look in the mirror and think about what sort of contribution his own books celebrating bourgeois bohemia and living on “Paradise Drive” in suburbia have made.

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