Saturday, March 1, 2008

Cutting Back with the Joneses

As our financial fortunes fall, a new form of American competitiveness is arising: the race to be the most austere. While I don't think we're in danger of sackcloths anytime soon, the growing sense of looming economic catastrophe is fostering behavior among our upwardly mobile classes that can only be called a kind of bobo thrift. They are evincing a recognition of the difference between necessity and luxury by cutting back on Starbucks coffees, designer bottled water, and yet another clothing combination made in China. And, in typical bobo style, they're trying to cut back more than their neighbors. Call it "conspicuous deprivation."

According to this article, cutting back "is cool." "The murky financial outlook and recession fears are factors. Another driver: fear of being out of step with a cultural mind-set that increasingly says less is more. If your best friend and next-door neighbors are cutting back on little luxuries, shouldn't you be, too?" And it continues: "'For years, we had the opposite. It was all about keeping up with the Joneses. Now, the Joneses are starting to cut back,' says Ellie Kay, author of 12 personal finance books."

Predictably, the article frets about the impact of such a mindset on our growth economy, stating that "small cuts can also have a big effect on the economy. If cutting back becomes a cultural mind-set, it can be very hard to turn around." Such a form of enforced, even competitive austerity would be very bad for the bottom line.

The point of this article brings us back to a set of questions that were raised by commentators to this posting. A number asked - quite rightly - whether enforced virtue could be thought to be virtue at all. In the most proper sense, perhaps not: virtue, after all, must be something chosen. Yet, Aristotle argues that virtue begins through habituation, that is, a pattern of practices that are enacted without thought or even awareness of their reasons. In the main, such habituation takes place in childhood, and as we come to maturity are already embedded in our daily lives, such that, when we can make our own choices, good habits are firmly in place and we are more likely to "choose" the virtuous path, even as we should recognize that such a choice will not take place in a vacuum such as that imagined by liberal theorists like Kant or Rawls. For example, our mature "choice" to be confirmed in the faith of the Catholic Church presumably follows a long upbringing within the Church including the practice of the sacraments of communion and reconciliation, daily or weekly mass, and catechism. So, too, the Amish practice of sending forth their young to live among "the English" for a time isn't done with the assumption that they'll find the option of leaving attractive - and indeed, the vast majority return to the farm.

It may be that this period through which we lived - our fifty year petroleum party - will force us out of a kind of fanciful childhood through a new kind of habituation in austerity. The practice of virtue does not take place in a vacuum, but in the recognition that the world is not so ordered for our self-indulgence, and that we, and our children and theirs, suffer as a result. Thus, some come to the realization: "It's not just leaner times. [Says one respondent], 'I won't go back to my old ways when the economy improves. It's hard for friends to understand, but I'm working on becoming more of a minimalist. It's a relief to have less.'

Perhaps it is through a kind of chastening of our indulgences that a new habituation in virtue can begin. Or, perhaps it's just another cultural "trend" that will be lining the garbage bins today to make room for the next trend. I suspect the latter. At least in the short to medium term.


Speaking of indulgence, it's Spring Break. See you next week.


Russell Arben Fox said...

Wow, you guys have an early spring break there at Georgetown. Ours doesn't come for another two weeks. Have a good break, Patrick.

The possibility that some will discover the "coolness"--the satisfaction, the virtue--of a little bit of discipline and austerity is, I think at least, at least part of what Laura was getting at her post praising "green hippies." There is a style, a sense of place and appropriateness, which goes along with instinctively limiting yourself, and cutting back where you can. (More here.)

Anonymous said...

Dr. Deneen,

An excellent week on you blog. Thank you kindly.

During the past decade and a half, a subfield called "experimental economics" has been developed. Among its more important findings is to confirm empirically the old wisdom that the value of a good to a person tends to depend on the set of goods that others have. A new Toyota is likely to be worth more to someone if everyone else drives Volkswagens than if everyone else drives Mercedes Benzes. Material goods seem to be in large part inputs into a competition for status -- even for people long past any biological imperative to attract mates.

So if everyone else's material consumption is declining, a decline in one's own consumption tends to be less unpleasant than it might otherwise be.

This does not go far down the road toward addressing the underlying moral issues, but it's a start.