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The Mighty Dollar

A wealth of worthless observations about money.

Dec 12, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 13 • By P.J. O'ROURKE
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Dr. James Roberts, professor of marketing at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, exhorts us to curtail our consumer spending. Here’s a place to start. Don’t buy this book.

Photo of consumers

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Let’s be charitable and presume that Roberts’s aversion to what’s named in his title is the result of living in Waco where, in the local shops, one is rarely tempted by gleaming Patek Philippe wristwatches, glossy custom-made Lobb shoes, lustrous Hermès neckties, and baubles from Cartier for the significant other. Or let’s not be charitable and call the dim tome what it is: partly a left-wing screed, partly a self-help manual for compulsive shoppers, and mostly an idiocy.

I will concede that Roberts delivers his buncombe with great economy. It’s all there in the first paragraph of the first chapter: “Americans currently spend $48 billion a year on their pets. That’s .  .  . more than the gross domestic product (GDP) of all but sixty-four countries.” Upon which fallacious comparison and self-sanctimony my bird dog lifts his leg.

The number of countries in the world (depending on who’s counting what Palestinians where and so forth) is about 195. Thus there are 131 countries not economically productive enough to breed, train, groom, and feed a decent pointer. This is why foreigners are such lousy shots, allowing us to win wars; but I digress. I’ve been to some 50 of those countries and, believe me, my Kibbles ’n Bits bill is not what’s the matter in Somalia.

Forty-eight billion dollars sounds extravagant, but if American pet spending is divided by Americans, the individual outlay on wagging tails, soothing purrs, and the happy squeak of gerbil wheels is an unappalling $153.85. In and around my house we have three dogs, half a dozen chickens (who, never eaten and rarely laying, must be counted as animal companions), and a fluctuating number of tropical fish, hamsters, and mice. (Admittedly, some of the mice are free-range.) My Boston Bull Terrier tried to eat a porcupine yesterday. If the vet bill is less than $153.85, I will assume my veterinarian just gave up after getting bitten by the bull terrier even more times than I did last night while I was trying to yank quills with a pair of pliers. Furthermore, I’ll bet the Vietnamese spend more per dog than we Americans do, if tips to the waitress are included.

Since we aren’t supposed to be buying rhinestone collars for our guinea pigs, what are we supposed to be doing? Roberts says, “spending time with loved ones, reaching our full potential as human beings, and participating actively in our world.” I’m 64. I’ve reached my full potential as a human being. It isn’t pretty. As for spending time with loved ones, Roberts is welcome to come spend time with three of mine, ages 13 and under, especially when they have to be pried away from the Wii for dinner, want to be escorted to a Justin Bieber concert, or desire a cheering section for soccer games in the pouring rain. And I don’t know how to play the bongo drums so I can’t participate actively in our world by Occupying Wall Street. I’m going to the mall.

Roberts abhors a life of luxury. “The emergence of a worldwide consumer culture,” he says, “has potentially severe consequences for everyone.” Such as too many nice places to live, work, and shop and not enough room for the birds that mess on our cars and the raccoons that get into our garbage cans. He is aghast that we buy things “for non-utilitarian reasons such as status, envy, provocation, and pleasure-seeking.” Somebody tweet Thorstein Veblen. And Roberts is very opposed to “materialism,” which he defines as “a mind-set, an interest in getting and spending, the worship of things, the overriding importance that someone attaches to worldly possessions.”

It’s the old commie conundrum: If you practice economic leveling, the economy gets leveled. So you wind up with a materialist philosophy that’s necessarily antimaterialist. The pinkos have never figured out that their politics are a kind of Vatican City chapter of Planned Parenthood.

Roberts excuses it with a pair of graphs. One shows a happy rise in U.S. per capita GDP from 1972 to the present. The other shows polling data indicating that the number of Americans who say they are “pretty happy” has held steady at about 50 percent over the same period. Well, yeah. Anybody who is “pretty happy” more than half the time is on better drugs than I am. (And come to think of it, the drugs were better in 1972.) Yet think what that happiness graph would look like if per capita GDP had been in steep decline since Richard Nixon’s first term.

Further bungling numbers, Roberts cites UCLA’s annual survey of freshmen. In 2010, 77 percent of the college kids said they thought it was important to be “very well-off financially.” In 1980, 62.5 percent thought so. And in 1966, 42 percent were of that opinion. To Roberts, this proves that everything in America is getting worse; to a parent, this proves that kids are getting smarter.

Roberts is no kid. What his Ph.D. is in, I don’t know; but if it’s economics, he skipped some required reading: The Wealth of Nations, Book IV, Chapter 8, “Consumption is the sole end and purpose of all production.”

The argument of Shiny Objects (such as it is) is complete by page 12. The text in the remaining 300-odd pages alternates between the stupidly obvious—“The 1920s were a time of great upheaval”—and the stupid—“.  .  . the federal budget rose from $9 billion in 1939 to $100 billion by 1945, and much of this money fell into the hands of the American people.” Pray tell, from whose hands had it risen? There is also much larding with quizzes you can take to find out if you’re a naughty spendthrift with crap values. (You are.) 

Roberts concludes with an exercise in secular piety patronizing enough to cause any feeling undergraduate to stink-bomb the social science department:

Psychologist Clayton Tucker-Ladd has asked hundreds of college students the question below, which I would now like to ask you:

Is it morally just and fair to be free to have plenty to eat, nice clothes, luxuries, time and money for fun, TV, and comforts, while others in the world are starving, uneducated, and in poor health?

CIRCLE ONE   Yes   No

Oh, chain me to the garden gate, dump the fridge, the breadbox, and the canned goods down at the end of the driveway, lay out my Casual Friday duds, pour the Chivas in the sink, throw my cash to the winds, waste my waking hours in idle gloom, rip the satellite dish from the rooftop, put a pea under every mattress and everything will be okey-dokey for Zimbabweans.

It was, as you can well imagine, with glad relief that I turned to Against Thrift by James Livingston. “Less work, less thrift, more leisure, and more spending are the cures for what ails us,” says Livingston. I’m all ears. Then, just two paragraphs later, comes, “.  .  . a redistribution of national income away from profits, which don’t always get invested, toward wages, which almost always get spent.” You’re losing me, Jim. And a couple of sentences along, “.  .  . higher profits almost never lead to more investment, more jobs, and more growth [italics his] .  .  . so cutting taxes on corporate profits is pointless at best and destructive at worst.”

Forget you.

Against Thrift is ladled out of the same reeking pot of leftover, reheated socialist bean stew as Shiny Objects, though better written. Not that you’d want to read it: Begin with a glance and a groan at the phrase “alienated labor” on page xi of the introduction and go straight to the spectacularly predictable conclusion on page 210: “If we want to prevent another economic disaster, and to promise balanced, sustainable growth, we must create .  .  . a more equal, more democratic America—by redistributing income and socializing investment.” You’ll miss a lot of erudition in between, but it only raises the question of why so much study of Hegel, Nietzsche, Freud, Marx, and Keynes is needed to be plain wrong.

Livingston seems to be one of those people who actually read Herbert Marcuse while the rest of us were rolling joints and saying we had. (Ours was the wiser choice.) He also read Georges Bataille, the French sometime-poet, surrealist, and pornographer, admirer of de Sade, author of an essay on mysticism in economics, and philosopher so flaky that he was considered a flake by Jean-Paul Sartre. There’s a coda at the end of Against Thrift about how reading Bataille convinced Livingston, a vegetarian, to eat a hamburger.

I don’t know what this has to do with economics, but, then again, I don’t know what anything in either of these books has to do with economics. They do, however, send a strong message. But the message is not to the reading public, government policymakers, or financial titans. The message is to the authors.

Shut up.

P.J. O’Rourke, a Weekly Standard contributing editor, is the author, most recently, of Holidays in Heck.