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Wishing For Frugality: Is It Just an Enabling Fiction?

Frugality is one of those traits we piously praise in others because we secretly believe that takes us off the hook for exhibiting it ourselves.

In the New Yorker, James Surowiecki writes about his skepticism of the much-ballyhooed new frugality. (He expands the column on his blog here.) After some zigging and zagging, he concludes:

But the evidence for a radical shift in the way we consume seems more like the product of wishful thinking (there’s a palpable longing among pundits for Americans to become more frugal) than anything else. In many categories, spending has dropped only slightly, if at all. And, while these are very tough times for retailers who believed that spending could only go up, retail sales rose briskly in August. Before we go proclaiming this the age of the American tightwad, a little perspective is in order. Even after the worst recession of the past seventy years, retail sales this year will be about where they were in 2005. Does anyone really think that four years ago Americans were misers?

His point about wishful thinking extends beyond pundits; it seems as though we all would like to see some more frugality from everyone else -- this would ease the pressure on us to spend more to keep up, and make what we purchase more distinctive. I suspect that many Americans carry around an idea of how much the U.S. should be saving, and that we would like to see as much as that as possible done by other people. Frugality is one of those traits we piously praise in others because we secretly believe that takes us off the hook for exhibiting it ourselves.

An Economist blogger makes a related point in this Free Exchange post. The credit bubble led consumers to bid up the price of desirable goods; the absence of credit will deflate those goods: "The end of the bubble years has meant an implosion in the market for many positional consumer goods." But the desire and appeal of these goods has not been lessened by our alleged moral soul-searching about the meaning of thrift.

At the same time, conspicuous consumption hasn't been driving the increase in consumption in recent years -- the housing bubble and great risk shift has. Surowiecki cites Elizabeth Warren, who made the case a few years ago that, in Surowiecki's summary, "a hefty chunk of the increase in consumption in recent decades has been the result of higher housing prices, the rising cost of medical care, more spending on education, and childcare." So it seems less likely that the sudden increase in the savings rate can be pinned to the disappearance of Veblenesque consumption. Surowiecki cites this CAP article by Amanda Logan and Christian E. Weller that attributes almost all of the savings rate jump to consumers cutting back spending on autos and gasoline. "Consumers have not altered the share of their total disposable income that they are spending on most goods and services very drastically," they conclude.

The point is that the level of general consumer frivolity cannot be extracted by simply looking at relative spending levels or broad savings rate data -- a lesson I have reluctantly absorbed in the past few years, having often attempted to make that case. I keep reminding myself that consumerism and consumption are not the same thing. The former is more a matter of marketing saturation, and of how people in a society orient their thinking, conceive of goals and their own identity. The consumer society can entrench itself deeper even in periods when consumer spending is dropping and savings is increasing. The mainstream media is responding to an apparent social need in pushing the "new frugality" narrative, perhaps to make us feel better about being unable to spend like we want to or perhaps to make us feel like there has been a moral consolation prize in the rising unemployment -- we've learned to be tough and economical and to surrender unnecessary vanities.

Frugality is a pleasing idea in the abstract, but what it means in practice is pretty flexible. In Rob Walker's most recent column, he notes how "habits of thrift and frugality have taken on the cast of virtue" recently before exploring the ways retailers are trying to take advantage of this through conspicuous discounting. But what attracts people is less the virtue of saving but rather the idea that they have gotten one over on the chumps who pay full price. That feeling is amplified by online retailers' creating members-only clubs for discounts. From Walker's column:

The members-only notion is an old one, notes Ellen Ruppel Shell, author of the recent book Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture, and pairs up well with the always-appealing bargain idea. “Once you become a member of a club,” she observes, “it makes you feel special, and it lowers your guard a little bit.” Discounting sparks similar feelings, she continues. “You often think you’re the only one in the world that could have found this. Which is why you brag about it to your friends.” There’s a trade-off on these sites, of course: the air of clock-ticking excitement isn’t exactly conducive to considered decisions. “You have to be a very savvy consumer to do your shopping this way,” Shell cautions.

But in the midst of thinking everyone else is a sucker for missing out on the bargains we've found, we become the actual suckers:

To reverse Shell’s formulation, it’s easy to conclude that if you’re shopping this way, you must be pretty savvy — and maybe that virtuously thrifty feeling gives you license. “You may think, Oh, I’m going to get a great pair of shoes today,” suggests Stacey Santo, a vice president of RueLaLa, “and then surprise yourself by walking away with a spa treatment.”

A climate of frugality may be nothing more than an enabling fiction, the necessary pretense of this particular moment to allow us to fulfill retailers' wishes and mistake them for our own.

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