Tuesday, August 21, 2007

My Dogma Can Catch Your Karma

Doug and I have have extended discussions about the concept of conspicuous consumption over the past couple of weeks.

For the most part, standard economic theory does not provide for ethical evaluation of preferences. This does not mean that no economists have raised such questions: Thorsten Veblen and Robert Frank are two good examples of economists who study preferences. But, as a first approximation, economists say that preferences are what they are.

Of course, it is impossible to read either the Old or the New Testament and believe that the way we care about things is irrelevant to God. When I read about things like Princess Di's wedding ring, all I can think is that "this just does not compute." But the really tough choices for most of us don't come from unbelievably expensive royal jewelry, but rather from the mundane choices we make every day. I would like to toss out three concepts that I believe constitute markers for conspicuous consumption from a Christian perspective.

1 ) If a purchase is made to make a statement like "I am _____ than you" (richer, as powerful, a better judge of wine, trendier, etc. etc.) this is a marker of conspicuous consumption.

2 ) If your consumption violates the Decalogue prohibition against "having other Gods"... if you worship your car, your wine, your sports cards ... whatever, then this is a marker of conspicuous consumption. If you just have to have more of anything, this is conspicuous consumption.

3 ) If your consumption in any other way interferes with your life in the Kingdom of God, then this is a marker of conspicuous consumption. For example, if you can't go to sleep at night worrying about whether your house is safe from robbers, check out Jesus' words.

There are a couple of things to notice about what I've attempted here. I've tried not to be legalistic, nor produce lists of "good" and "bad" purchases. Under this approach, a super-deluxe kitchen mixer might be conspicuous consumption for one person but not another.

Oh, and one final thing, standard economic models make clear that one of the goods we consume is leisure. It is just as possible to conspicuously consume leisure as it is furs or jewelry. There's a reason why concepts such as "the idle rich" have a religious background.

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