I have a confession: I love my huge television. A couple of years ago, thanks to a very large Amazon.com
gift certificate and a very poor grasp of measurements, I adopted a
50-inch plasma. It utterly dominated my tiny living room until I
finally moved, yet even then I loved it. The vivid colors and enormous
crystal-clear picture were a worthy substitute for the cinema. Video
games were even better -- and "Blade Runner" on Blu-ray was sublime. It
ended up being a very costly purchase, what with shipping and the
pricey stand required to hold its weight. But I have never regretted it.
So I'm probably not the natural audience for Lauren Weber's new
book, "In Cheap We Trust." The book is a combination of personal
memoir, social history and political manifesto for extreme frugality.
Don't get me wrong: I like to save money. But I also like to spend it.
Weber, on the other hand, is fervently . . . well, cheap.
Still, there's a lot to like about the book. Weber presents an
engaging, if slightly overextended, history of America's complicated
relationship with spending. Though one often hears calls for a "return
to thrift," our history of overexuberant consumption stretches back to
colonial days, when the founders fretted that the colonists' attraction
to imported luxuries would undermine democratic self-rule. Ben Franklin
and Henry David Thoreau may have embodied the American virtues of economy and simplicity, but figures from Thomas Jefferson
(who ran up huge bills on fine living and died in debt) to Michael
Jackson embody equally well our tradition of wretched overindulgence.
The best parts of Weber's book are her personal stories of living
cheap. She recounts childhood winters spent doing homework near the
oven as it cooled, because her father insisted on keeping the house at
50 degrees. She chronicles her inner monologue over a pair of $99
shoes, the vast distances she will go out of her way in order to avoid
minor expenses. In one chapter, she goes Dumpster diving with
"freegans," who bring cheapness close to transcendence. Weber, clearly
among kindred spirits, praises their resourcefulness and "radical
generosity." "They are creating alternatives," she tells us, "to a
culture that thrives on store-bought pleasures and disposable dreams,
and building worlds based on imagination and durability."
If it was ever possible to discuss personal thrift without elevating
it to a public quarrel, those days are long gone. Weber sees a refusal
to consume as the consummation of a progressive environmental agenda.
She seems almost unaware that the right also claims thrift as a virtue.
The popular evangelical finance guru Dave Ramsey has long told his
followers to slash their lifestyles so they can become entirely
debt-free, give 10 percent of their income to charity and save huge
chunks of the rest. Weber could probably pick up a few tips from his
Web site's forums, where people who spend more than $100 a month on
groceries are righteously scolded.
This idea of thrift as a moral virtue, rather than a prudent one,
has some problems. Some Catholics see anorexia as a form of gluttony,
because stuffing and starving yourself both elevate food to an
inappropriate importance in your life. The freegans and many of
Ramsey's followers are gorging themselves on parsimony. Overspending
can, of course, be disastrous. But how healthy is it to agonize over
every tiny purchase? Walking half an hour to save $1.50 on an A.T.M.
fee means you put a ludicrously low value on your time. And if you have
the means to heat the house, your children should not have to do their
homework with fingers made clumsy by cold. While Weber says she still
hasn't totally forgiven her father for that, by the end of the book she
lauds him for reducing his carbon footprint. But this is no more
reasonable as a way to lower your environmental impact than it is as a
way to lower your gas bill.
Nor can this obsessive refusal to spend be translated into any sort
of a workable social system, as Weber sometimes seems to hope. The
freegans survive only because they are few and American society is so
joyously, wastefully rich. If we didn't throw away so much food, they'd
have to get jobs. Weber celebrates the thrifty way that housewives used
to turn animal fat into candles and old clothes into quilts. She
doesn't really explore the obvious corollary: extreme frugality implies
someone, probably a woman, staying home and spending all their time on
Besides, these calls to trim consumption voluntarily rarely work
outside of wartime. True, barring huge advances in energy technology,
the current American lifestyle is unsustainable. But it doesn't really
follow that we should therefore turn into a nation of Dumpster divers.
Rather, it suggests that we've got the prices wrong. We should be
taxing carbon, pesticide overuse and other excesses that push the costs
of our consumption onto others. But once things are priced properly,
there's nothing particularly admirable in refusing to spend money you
can spare. If you're already financially secure and we've priced in the
negative externalities of activities like driving and eating meat, then
walking to work, lowering the thermostat and eating lower on the food
chain isn't virtuous. It's just a lifestyle choice.
In the end, someone like Dave Ramsey probably has more effect on
American consumption than ascetics like Weber because he offers
listeners more than just a lifetime of stinting. When Ramsey demands
that you live on beans and rice, the idea is not to spend the rest of
your life counting every penny. Rather, his followers budget and save
now, so that in the future they can stop worrying about money. That's worth aspiring to, even for lovers of high-end televisions. But it's not cheap.