Outside the Asylum
I have lots of things I want to write about, but I’m a bit constrained by the fact that I don’t want to get too negative in this space. I’ve set my OT aside as a relatively positive and calming place for people to chill—though of course, people commenting are more than welcome to write about whatever they want. That limits my choice of topic somewhat, at least for these weekly threads.
In order to achieve a compromise between my head, which is full of thoughts which are no fun, and my heart, which wants to have a nice, calm space here, I thought it might be good to talk about our culture in a more general way. I’d like feedback about whether or not this kind of discussion is too much of a downer. Hopefully, it won’t be.
So one of the many things I’ve been thinking about is thrift.
My spending is your earning. I can’t remember who first said it. I think it was one of the sane capitalists who still survive out there, bravely waving their tattered flags like the advocates of non-evangelical Christianity. It remains one of the truest things I’ve ever heard. It’s rare that you get a social fact that’s almost as immune to debate as the speed of light, but if you grant capitalism its fundamental premise, that one must pay for everything, it follows inescapably that my spending must be your earning, and vice versa. Even if you don’t grant capitalism that premise, which admittedly ignores housework (most of the time), child-rearing (most of the time), and the care of the sick and elderly (much of the time), meaning that capitalism and its No Free Lunch philosophy is actually riding on the back of a steady stream of unpaid labor,
the truth of the statement remains. My spending is always somebody else’s earning; any earning I do has to involve somebody else spending.
Keynesian economic theory, as I understand it, shifts the ground of these assumptions a bit by saying that the state can become “the purchaser of last resort.” In other words, when few people are able to afford to spend, the government can keep the economy going by spending on behalf of its populace, deficit spending if necessary to generate economic activity. MMT goes further by acknowledging that a government can invent money for the purpose whenever it deems it necessary. These ideas open up the field of spending and earning so that one is not confined to the concept of a bunch of people passing around a static amount of value (a vision much beloved of some capitalists that to my mind’s eye always resembles a game of musical chairs).
But wherever the spending comes from, spending is necessary for earning.
This fact complicates the moral story of capitalism, in which spending is generally seen as bad and earning as good. To be good, within the confines of the capitalist story, one should earn and save often and spend rarely. The more you make and the less you spend, the more meritorious you are and the more successful you become, until at last you reach the peak of merit and become rich. Rich people are presumed to have made this difficult journey up the mountain somewhere off camera.
But if my spending is your earning, doesn’t my refusal to spend make it more difficult for you to earn? In fact, if my goal is to maximize my earnings and savings while minimizing my spending, doesn’t that essentially mean that I want others to spend on me while I don’t spend on them? In which case, well…
What is the difference between hoarding and thrift?
I looked up the etymology of the word “thrift.”
Oxford Languages provides Google with its dictionary function, and they said the following:
---Google result for “thrift etymology”
Now, though this is the first result I got, so far I can’t confirm it with another source. This is a more common result, and I got it from the Wiktionary:
If anybody out there knows enough about Old Norse to speak to this, please let me know in the comments.
If the word “thrift” did begin as a Norse word meaning “to grasp or get hold of” and then became a Middle English word meaning “prosperity, success, acquired wealth,” then it makes sense that our modern word, with its modest evocation of good stewardship, has a rather barbaric underbelly. Your spending is my earning, and that’s great; it enables me to “grasp or get hold of” wealth, which enables me to have “prosperity, acquired wealth, success.” But my spending would be your earning; it would enable you to “get hold of” your own “acquired wealth, prosperity, success.” If I am thrifty, then I continue to hold on to what I’ve got, and refuse to contribute to others’ efforts to “grasp or get hold of” anything much. I am acquiring wealth at your expense. All this is fairly straightforward, if you take it as a mere depiction of capitalistic behavior.
But what does it have to do with morality?
I had a lot of hope when I saw this book from Oxford University Press:
but if its introduction is any indication, the authors have little interest in questioning the assumption that thrift is a virtue, or in whose interest the concept has been put forward. Instead, they assume that thrift is a Good Thing (tm). They say its etymology comes from the Old Norse word for thriving, and seem not to acknowledge the etymological origin claimed by Oxford Languages, though I will have to read the whole book before being sure of that.
They say in their abstract that their work expands the notion of thrift beyond penny-pinching, and, looking through their table of contents, I do see some gestures made at sustainability (though is thrift really the best conceptual road to take to the Emerald City of green practices?) They seem to spend most of their critical thinking resources on the questions of why, and whether, Americans are sufficiently thrifty. In the context of this discussion, they also suggest that the concept of thrift became less popular from the 1950s to the 2008 financial crisis, I guess because Americans started spending so much and getting into so much debt. This implies that they don't know the difference between what people *do* and what they *believe*, because it's far too simple to assert that the concept of thrift, particularly as a moral imperative, sharply declined in American culture from 1950 to 2008. In fact, there hasn't been a decade of my life in which some political faction or other hasn't traded on the concept of thrift, often with extreme prejudice. I also note with some discomfort the fact that the 2008 crisis is being seen as a vector for increasing Americans' economic morality. Hmmmm.
I wonder if my library has reinstituted its inter-library loan yet? I don't really want to buy the book on Amazon so that I can read it, but obviously, if I want to keep talking about it, I need to read it.
How are you all today?