Christmas shopping: when did spending become a civic duty?

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Let’s make more sacrifices but this time for the right reasons – to build a fairer society

Shortly after becoming Minister for Finance in 2011, Michael Noonan made headlines by urging people to go shopping as a way to lift us “out of the crisis”.

It was funny at the time. Noonan was our Kitchener pointing a finger in our direction and proclaiming that “Dundrum Town Centre needs you”.

Or, as he said himself, “what we really need is for people to go into the shops and start buying again”.

Noonan wasn’t joking, and the idea that our consumerism is going save Ireland is a credo of the current administration.

Explaining this year’s budget in media interviews, Noonan said the “two main purposes of the budget” were to increase consumer confidence and to increase consumer spending.

But are these sensible goals in the long run?

The power of consumerism to skew societal values is no better demonstrated than in the run-up to Christmas. The Advent calendar now starts with “Black Friday” or “Cyber Monday” and, whether or not you’re bothered by such secularisation the monetisation of everything is a real cause for concern.

Just how consumerism threatens western civilisation is expertly documented by Robert and Edward Skidelsky in their book How Much is Enough? Money and the Good Life. Noting how the economic collapse of 2008 offers “a unique opportunity for thinking about the long-term future of capitalism”, they argue that instead of mere “short-term policies for recovery” we need “long-term policies for realising the good life”.

Crisis mode

As we start to move beyond “crisis mode” surely it’s time to reflect on these longer term goals, including whether we should consume less or else consume differently.

What good is it if I use the extra €10 in my pocket to buy a book from Amazon when the below-cost sales company has been shown to destroy more jobs than it creates?

What good is it if our extra spending, and the economic activity that goes with it, leads to more pollution and even greater breaches of CO2 emissions targets?

In arguing for concessions on the latest EU climate change deal, Enda Kenny said “we’re different – genuinely different – than any other country in Europe on this particular issue”. While the Government highlighted Ireland’s disproportionate levels of output in agriculture, it also seems to harbour the view that our economic woes justify a degree of exceptionalism.

The same short-term thinking permeates national politics. Noonan is a decent fellow, but success in his world is measured by raising as much money as possible to spend on goodies ahead of March 2016 and help his party get re-elected.

Luxury cars

Of course, the Government wants to create jobs and invest in public services too, but increasing our consumption in everything from luxury cars to fossil fuels is necessary to make it all happen.

In short, the Government’s interests are both time-limited and strictly material. Its remit does not extent to what might be called repairing the national soul.

As we emerge from the austerity era, shopping – and not public service – has become our primary civic duty. But if any good is to come out of the boom-bust trauma of recent years it must be that we set new norms for society.

Norms that say we should shop locally and sustainably, and live relatively frugally and authentically; norms that say we won’t take a tax cut until every sick child is treated with dignity by the health service; norms that reject an individualistic lifestyle and celebrate instead such values as community and solidarity.

Here’s an unpopular idea: let’s continue to make sacrifices. But this time let’s do it for the right reasons – to build a fairer society.

In asking “now much is enough?” the Skidelskys urge us to look beyond the next shopping outing or the next general election. Tackling long-term problems, such as the growing imbalance in the distribution of labour, start with changing the way we consume, they say.

They make a number of recommendations, including restricting advertising to help lower consumer expectations, and limiting working hours so the opportunity to earn is spread more evenly in society.

This isn’t an argument for continued recession. It’s an argument for better managing economic development so individually and collectively we can really be proud of what we’re doing.

Joe Humphreys; Irish Times: 8 December 2014