Saturday, February 4, 2012

The Diane Rehm Show: “Holiday Shopping and the Economy”

As the holidays approached at the end of last year, I was at home in late November and doing some cooking for our family.  I like to have the radio on when I do housework and so I ended up catching a really fascinating episode of The Diane Rehm Show.  It was broadcast the day before Thanksgiving.  It had been a hectic semester and I was really happy to have some time at home with my family.  I had a lovely time working in the kitchen for an extended time and listening to some interesting radio—two things I don’t always have time for.

As I began to get ready to celebrate Thanksgiving and our family was about to kick off our observation of Advent, The Diane Rehm Show that day focused on the retail sector at that time of year.  The show is accessible at the following link:

I really encourage you to take a listen.  Alternatively, the link has an option where you can read (or just skim) the transcript.  The show was an hour long.  There were several guests with differing perspectives.  Many fascinating themes were discussed.

Author James Roberts was a guest of the show that day.  He apparently had a new book that sounded intriguing:  Shiny Objects: Why We Spend Money We Don’t Have In Search of Happiness We Can’t Buy. 

In the radio program, Mr. Roberts talked about how the advertising industry is so skilled at convincing us we need or want things we could or should do without.  Interesting point. 

I never really thought about the role of advertising until I became a parent.  Our family rarely watches TV with commercials, and when we do, we talk with our kids about what the producers of the commercials are trying to do.  My kids don’t even like commercials.  And when we watch TV programming with commercials, they get annoyed at all the interruptions.  Nonetheless, I’ve been horrified for years at the impact these commercials have on children.  Other parents have shared similar experiences with me.

First of all, some of the commercials are just inappropriate.  They have violent or sexual images that scare kids or attempt to sexualize them. 

Second, even with some parental education about what advertisements are doing, I’ve been appalled at how effective they are.  My first experience with this was when my older daughter, who is a real tomboy and hates dolls, was just a toddler.  As a treat, we turned on a Christmas special on one of the networks.  During one commercial for a Barbie product, she was staring with wide, almost unblinking eyes at the television and announced loudly that she wanted the Barbie on the screen.  She had always been repulsed by Barbies in the past, but now she was entranced because of the commercial.  The way she was just staring hard at the screen was spooky—like some sort of science fiction movie!

In The Diane Rehm Show that day, Mr. Roberts spoke of the concept of the “materialism-happiness disconnect.”  He noted that Americans now spend a lot more money than we did in the 1970s, but we’re no happier than we were at that time past.  Statistics indicate we are in fact actually more depressed, stressed and anxious about our lives than we were 40 years ago when we spent a lot less. 

As a Christian, this point rings particularly true.  Our Lord warned us about this a lot during his brief ministry on this Earth.  It is a type of slavery to be so focused on the accumulation of material things.  Those things cannot bring us happiness, but actually do quite the opposite.  We fear losing our material stuff, which is a significant type of stress. 

My husband and I have known a number of adults who were raised in upper middle class, fairly wealthy households, and their adult lives have been consumed by making money, accumulating assets and otherwise keeping up with the Joneses.  Our sense is that when you are raised in that context, it is hard to unload, pare down and do with less.  It becomes unthinkable.  Having a lot of stuff becomes a necessity.

To be clear, I’m not saying that we should all aim to be destitute and live in abject poverty.  My husband and I have also known people raised in such conditions who in adulthood are similarly consumed with the acquisition of material things.  Want and deprivation can do horrible things to people and blind them to true riches.  If you’ve experienced miserable, grinding poverty, it is understandable that you would possibly be desperate to avoid that experience again and fight hard to keep your children from going through it.

Nonetheless, in The Diane Rehm Show, Mr. Roberts made good points about understanding what our true needs are and being mindful to not go too far beyond our actual needs with our purchases.  That is hard in our culture.  It requires us to go against the grain.  We have to be willing to not keep up with the Joneses, and accept that some may actually think poorly of us as a result.  But such things are ultimately not important anyhow.

Matthew 19: 16-22

A man approached him and said, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to have eternal life?”

Jesus said, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There’s only one who is good. If you want to enter eternal life, keep the commandments.”

The man said, “Which ones?”

Then Jesus said, “Don’t commit murder. Don’t commit adultery. Don’t steal. Don’t give false testimony. 19 Honor your father and mother, and love your neighbor as you love yourself.”

The young man replied, “I’ve kept all these. What am I still missing?”

Jesus said, “If you want to be complete, go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor. Then you will have treasure in heaven. And come follow me.”

But when the young man heard this, he went away saddened, because he had many possessions.

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