Thursday, May 20, 2010

Consumed by Comfort?

In the Economics of Compassion class, Doug has asked students to prepare a consumption bundle for a single Mom working at a minimum wage job (but taking account of all of the appropriate government transfer programs). In the Sustainability class, we ask the question "Are We Consuming Too Much" from the point of view of an academic paper by Kenneth Arrow, et al. "Lifestyle" sustainability was a popular topic with the students. And at the Southern Economic Association Meetings this Fall Doug and I will be on a panel with, among others, Prof. Craig Blomberg of Denver Seminary, who studies issues of materialism.

These questions came to mind this morning from an unexpected place: one of my routine e-mails from automobile rating agencies and services (MyRide). In today's article, the reviewer drove for a week one of the least expensive cars available in the United States: the base-level Nissan Versa. Some of the discussions I expected: the car has a small engine, no radio, a small trunk, and the reviewer, Thom Blackett, wasn't even able to get a test car without air conditioning, so he ignored it in the early Spring Maine weather. But what really caught my eye was that Mr. Blackett particularly noticed a portfolio of creature comforts that middle class American didn't take as "standard" until, in my mind, the 1980s (he suggests the 1970s, but not on the cars I was driving then). The things he noted that he really missed include: power windows, power outside mirror adjusters, the inside latch that snaps your trunk open, rear cup holders, and remote key access. Again, I think that it was well into the 1980s or maybe even the 1990s before I owned a car that had all of these features. This raises the question, does our list of necessities change across time? What can we live without? This is important not only for issues of personal Christian discipleship, but also for public policy issues like "What constitutes poverty?" I think that the Reformers in Geneva were on the right track by emphasizing the Christian virtues of modesty in consumption. I think they got really off track by trying to define it: How many sets of dishes could a family own? How much jewelry could a woman wear? One of the virtues of a tithe is that it causes each person or family to live withing inside the envelope of their budget set, with different implications for different people.

(Disclosure: the car that I currently drive exhibits this paradox fully. It has all of the bells and whistles that Mr. Blackett misses, although as a Hyundai it pretty well defines "Reliable, Middle-Class, Basic +" transportation. And, for purely self-interested reasons I deliberately didn't seek out many of the "packaged" features that I had on my previous car: dual sun roof, multiple disk-CD changers, etc.. These tend to need [expensive] repair much earlier than the drive train.)

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