Free Box Economics
On my way home from selling some magazines at Powell's, I happened upon a whole street's worth of free piles. First one, then another, then another. The second one was the jackpot, though. I saw the chair, a tall swiveling kitchen chair; it was just what I've been looking for, meant for my youngest son. He loves to swivel and has been asking me for a chair like that. “We'll keep our eyes out!” I've said, meaning exactly this.
I began the delicate process of affixing it to my bike (thankfully achievable, as I had no children with me and the long-tail cargo bike) and, as I tightened the straps, a couple of guys pulled up to load the couch a few feet away. “Great find on the chair!” one of them said. “I wanted it. But you earned it by coming with your bike.” He paused, then launching into a rave about the wonders of free piles, and we compared housefuls of free stuff.
“But that's not the only reason to do it,” he said. “Getting free stuff means creating less demand for crappy furniture.”
“Totally!” I said, riding away with my chair and my over-the-top Portlandia score — an Oregon Kickball Club jersey — and I contemplated.
Having demand for crappy furniture: Isn't that patriotic?
Last Sunday, I listened to a radio show which was mostly concerned with the financial crisis, and whether “we get the banks we deserve.” One of the theories was that the crisis occurred not because of a problem in the housing market but because we just wanted to buy so much stuff. Bethany MacLean, author of a book called All the Devils Are Here, said, “One of the great myths about the crisis is that it was a [crisis] of homeownership,” Maclean said. “Everybody says this is what happens when you put people into homes and they can't afford to pay them back. This was never about homeownership. Most risky loans that were made were so-called cash-out refinancing so the people could withdraw equity from their homes in order to spend it.”
I found myself remembering the times presidents (especially George W. Bush, but this is definitely a bi-partisan campaign) have encouraged us to go out and shop to stimulate the economy. A phenomenon occurred here in Portland, Oregon, the hometown to which I moved back shortly after 9/11: organized flights sent to New York City to shop. They were called “Flights to Freedom” and the message since then has been very much, “it's patriotic to consume.”
But here was MacLean, saying that it's our fault that the banking crisis occurred, and not for any other reason than we wanted to buy more stuff. Using that logic, patriotic consumption could be blamed for the crash in our economy and the dip in our GDP. But even typing this statement has me feeling radical and daring. How could it be?
Consumerism has longer-term costs
It's easy to see what the benefits are of buying things, of taking part in what some call the “cult of growth”: as more people buy things, GDP increases, businesses get all hot and heavy about the future, they borrow money to make new factories and employ new people to make more things to buy. Then those people have money to buy more things. Then Emma, who owns a house, sees all the great things Lauren has bought with her new job, and she goes out and applies for a credit card (that she can get because of the equity in her home) so she can buy things. And the business owners jump up and down, clapping their hands in glee, while the credit card issuer's CEO pays cash for a new top-of-the-line luxury sedan. And the cycle continues.
But don't these things come with costs? Of course they do, but we're often conditioned to ignore the systemic costs of growth. When we think of our economy growing, we don't typically ask, “but how much carbon will be emitted as those people go to those new jobs and drive to those new shopping malls and how much will that cost us?” When we think of a new housing development, while we may mourn the pretty, wild spaces that are being paved over and the developers may have to pay to have the little red-tailed frogs moved to another wetland, we still do not ask if the disruption to the ecosystems will cost us money in two or three decades. We think of the immediate costs and benefits and we abstractly mourn the immediate loss of pretty, old buildings and swampland. But we don't look very far down the road.
And consumerism has its personal costs, too.
Consumerism has been called an addiction, one that “saps our financial resources, well-being, and hope.” In my home, the years we have been more consumptive than creative; when I have spent more of my time acquiring things than making them, and when I have made and spent the most disposable income on stuff; are the ones I regret most. My husband and I still argue over the money spent on our wedding and honeymoon, money we really shouldn't have spent, and we've talked here before about how arguments over money break up a lot of marriages.
That's really only a start. In my family, buying stuff doesn't only lead to arguments over money, but arguments over stuff. We argue a lot about how to store our stuff, who has too much stuff, whether we should throw stuff away, whose fault it was stuff was ruined/stolen/lost, and most importantly, what the purchases say about our values. So far, our marriage has managed to stay together, but I know plenty of families who break up largely because of differing consumer values; this has a huge cost on the system, from the environmental costs of keeping two separate households, to the increased likelihood the family members (especially the mother and children) will end up in poverty and creating a drain on the system, to the costs of the judicial system to deal with all those divorces.
The more we want, the more hours we must work, taking time away from family and decreasing both well-being and health. I'm sure you could work with me to enumerate the personal costs of consumerism. They're almost unlimited.
This chair is a huge deal. Do I dare sit in it?
When I think about it back at home, this chair — and the others at my kitchen table — are pretty radical. I'm rejecting the idea that I must buy a new chair from IKEA or a furniture store, one that's made in a factory by workers who earn a wage (living or no), and purchased at a retail store whose workers are also paid. I brought it home on my bike, oil companies and American car manufacturers be damned. I did not create any new demand for new things.
But I saved an inestimable amount of future costs, from the disposal of the old chair to the environmental costs of manufacturing and shipping, to the health costs of workers who manufacture and ship these products, right down to my own feelings of well-being and not-argument. I don't have to ask my husband for money to buy a new chair; we won't argue about money, today.
I set my five-year-old up in “his” “new” chair, and ask him what he thinks, and as the smile breaks over his face, I think, “I'm raising a radical kid. Poor thing,” and I have to admit I'm pretty proud of his delight.