A report from Wells Fargo Securities shows a “record drop” in consumer credit this summer. “Despite the cash-for-clunkers program starting in the last week of July, nonrevolving credit fell at a staggering 11.7 percent annualized pace,” analyst Yasmine Kamaruddin wrote. Indeed, much of the decline was attributed to a spike in charge offs, which points to the ongoing, widespread distress in economic life.
But here’s the thing, and it’s very simple. The reason that major sectors of the economy such as autos and housing have suffered historic declines — indeed in some cases been on the verge of collapse — is that consumers suddenly stopped buying what companies were selling. Certainly, much of this pull back can be explained by growing joblessness and fear about the future. But I suspect that there’s also a cultural shift going on, which may continue long after the economy bounces back. In the future, we may see less consumption, especially for things like the McMansions and oversized SUVs, because people are learning about what they really need. Now in fact, you may have a large family and good reason to live in a large house. Or you may be a rancher or a tradesman have a perfectly suitable need for a large truck. But too much of what the American consumer was buying in recent years was inexplicably “super sized.” So, if we are indeed undergoing a shift in priorities, learning to live within or below our means, that can only be a good thing in the long run.
This cultural shift is in the hands of consumers and is vastly more powerful than if “nanny state” government officials had attempted to manage it from the top down through legal mechanisms such as luxury taxes or excise taxes, which often have a moral rationale. Whether you agree on the moral justification or not. So, why not a “sin tax” on soda pop, as President Obama is suggesting.
At any rate, the people who are running government in Washington right now aren’t the sort of tutors we need for learning how to live within our means.
The Church has a role here. By teaching us that asceticism can be practiced not just on a mountain top, but in every day life, we can learn shed those material things that threaten to enslave us. And we do this freely and powerfully — without demonizing and scapegoating abstract impersonal forces like “the market” or “globalization” as the sources of materialism.
A good exposition of the power of every day ascetism is found in Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew’s 2008 book, Encountering the Mystery, in the chapter on “The Way of Ascesis.”
When we think of ascetism or discipline, we imagine such things as fasting, vigils, and rigorous practices. In the words of Abba Isaac the Syrian (ca. 700): “No one ascends to heaven with comfort.” There can be no ascent without ascesis. That is indeed part of what is involved; but it is not the whole story. Ascesis involves a display of what in The Philokalia and other classics of the Orthodox spiritual life is called frugality or self-restraint (enkrateia). We are to exercise a form of voluntary self-limitation in order to overcome self-sufficiency in our lifestyle, making the crucial distinction between what we want and we we in fact need.
Only through self-denial, through a willingness to forgo and say “no” or “enough,” will we be able to rediscover what it means to be truly human. Ultimately, the spirit of ascesis is less a judgment on the material goods of the world than a way of liberation from the stress and anguish that result from the desire to “have more.” It is the key to freedom from the gridlock of consumerism (cf. 1 Tim. 6:9-10)