Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Good Boots and a Good Bed: Thoughts on Consumption

The idea of conspicuous consumption has been at a persistent down pour the last couple of weeks. It started with my roommate asking me what I thought about the fair tax, another roommate telling me about books by Peter Singer she read last summer and all coinciding with my reading of The Irresistible Revolution by Shane Claiborne. Just so you know how serious some people take the idea of conspicuous consumption, there were many Presbyterians that thought that conspicuous consumption was a sign that you had lost your election (meaning that you were no longer one of God’s chosen ones).

Conspicuous (as defined by Merriam Webster online) - 1. obvious to the eye 2. attracting attention 3. marked by noticeable violation of good taste.

Now for a little background: Peter Singer is a Bioethics professor at Princeton University that teaches applied philosophy. The work that my roommate told me about, that interests me, is his formation of a definition of conspicuous consumption. He poses a situation where someone has saved a lot of money for their “dream car” and parks it next to the railroad tracks (without insurance) to go for a run. Upon returning a train is rumbling toward their ride. They could switch the track but there is a little boy playing on that alternate track and worse yet, he gets his pants caught. His conclusion is that this is exactly like our consumption. We hopefully wouldn’t switch the tracks and kill the child but according to Singer that’s exactly what we do whenever we spend money on anything.

There is truth in a statement about the opportunity cost (That every time we spend money on something over what we needed to survive that same money could be used to save lives that would have otherwise been lost) though I wonder about this as a consumption ethic. Maybe it’s just me but I would feel very burdened and legalistic about such an ethic. Would this seem to violate Paul’s ideas about not giving out of compulsion? Even the people who live “On a dollar a day” spend 20 cents of that dollar on entertainment, or non survival purposes. The non survival stuff makes us feel like humans.

I was walking through the mall the other day with my girlfriend to buy a gift for our friend’s wedding when we walked by a nice set of cookware. It was expensive and because we’ve talked about the future and living well below our income level she said something that was kind of like, “We can’t buy that nice cookware.” Simultaneously that weekend on the other side of town Mark’s wife had purchased a frying pan from Publix that became warped after only a couple of uses. Then the wheels continued to turn in my head.

I remembered my Mom telling me stories about her grandparents when she was a little girl. They were farmers up in northern West Virginia and had this advice to offer on consumption, “Spend your money on two things: good boots and a good bed. You’ll need both when you get older, good rest and you’ll work harder during the day, good shoes and you won’t be as sore the next day.” Generally if you want good quality you pay more upfront but then you don’t have to replace the items as quickly. Is that horrible? Because I pay more for Red Wing Boots and don’t buy a generic brand from a big box store does that say that I don’t care about all the people that died in the world today? Please comment. I’ll conclude the post early next week.

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