Unconscious Consumption Unconscious Consumption
Issue 002

Unconscious Consumption

by Nancy French Joel Holland

December 14, 2006

Shopping at Wal-Mart isn't about making the world a better place, because that isn't what shopping is for.

Because we're raising little capitalists, my husband and I pay our children nominal fees to make their beds, wash their plates, and hopefully one day do our taxes. Every Saturday night, we gather at the kitchen table for "payday" and drop coins earned from daily chores into different jars labeled "God," "Save," and "Spend." The first ten percent goes into the God jar, which is noisily emptied onto the collection plate at church on Sunday mornings. The Save jar is placed back on the windowsill for the day they can afford, say, a PlayStation 2 game (though by that time, NASCAR 2007 will seem as outdated as Pong). But the glorious Spend jar is transported under chubby arms to the gleaming aisles of Wal-Mart, where the children try desperately to figure out if sales tax will place those plastic dinosaurs out of their financial grasp.My liberal friends hate Wal-Mart, feeling it has done less for its 1.3 million workers than, say, a rash of repetitive-stress injuries. When one friend heard I went to its Philadelphia location, she immediately said, "Don't go there again." And when I revealed that my husband's first job was as a gun salesman at a Wal-Mart in Kentucky, our friendship barely withstood the blow.In fact, Wal-Mart has become a political Rorschach test. Democrats run as "Wal-Mart Foes" criticizing what they perceive to be inadequate health care and low wages. (Wages that are lower than unionized labor's, but competitive enough to draw 25,000 job applicants for 325 openings at a new Chicago store.) Meanwhile, working-class whites turned off by Democrats' cultural secularism have been dubbed "Sam's Club Republicans"-after Wal-Mart's cheaper and even bigger box store. The ubiquitous retail giant vividly showcases the wildly disparate spending philosophies of Red and Blue Americans.For example, my children make about $6 per week, which leaves less than $3 to spend after the money is split among all the jars. And, frankly, that's just not enough to Make a Statement. You see, Blue Staters don't just want to buy a product, they want their product to Mean Something, whether it's African tribal art, a high-energy protein bar, or scented candles. Every product is manufactured, packaged, and marketed to feed the desire for significance.
Liberals believe evangelicals lack moral gravitas because we don't attach our beliefs to our purchases like an overpriced service plan.
Urban Outfitters, for example, reveals eclectic style; Williams-Sonoma illustrates a sophisticated domesticity, and IKEA (admittedly affordable, but 300 miles from my house) demonstrates the urban need for maximizing space. Everthing related to these stores exude hipness-their décor, products, and even shopping bags emit a certain je ne sais quoi which simply does not accompany translucent Wal-Mart bags with yellow happy faces on the front. Blue State shopping, you see, is more than just acquiring items. It Makes a Statement, it Reflects Personal Style, it Helps Save the Planet.Had I taken my kids and their Spend jars to a Nature boutique, the store's intercoms might have been playing a relaxing Sounds of the Sea CD. A toy shark would be packaged in recycled paper (with a discussion of the threat of off-shore fishing practices on the back) and the cashier wearing a hemp necklace could have advised us where to get a half-caf soy latte on our way out the door. The toy would have cost $8.Wal-Mart, far from hipness, exudes only cheapness. Its products -no longer nessecarily American made-have traveled great distances to ensure that Bob in Peoria can afford a good belt to wear to work. The fluorescent lights kill any ambience a store the size of Delaware might have achieved, and purchases mean nothing beyond the item's function. My son found his shark in a box next to the whoopee cushions, and it only cost $1.50. I bought a bowl to hold enough popcorn for the family, and the cashier certainly did not advise adding fruit to make a Stunning Centerpiece.And that's the thing about Wal-Mart shoppers. We don't want tips on how to live or entertain or save the sharks. We just want a popcorn bowl, the largest flat screen television we can afford, and a new Xbox 360. Oh, and we'll need laundry detergent and paper towels, too. Our shopping is nothing but the sheer accumulation of stuff-the cheaper the better.Those aisles of inexpensive merchandise make eating, exercising, and even wiping your butt more affordable-increasing the standard of living for millions of working class Americans.This sometimes causes liberal secularists to feel smug. A popular bumper sticker sums up the sentiment nicely: the religious right is neither. One of the reasons liberals believe evangelicals lack moral gravitas is because we don't attach our beliefs to our purchases like an overpriced service plan. Liberal secularists view themselves, after all, as changing the world one $6 organically grown free trade latte at a time. But, do they have the "save the world" market cornered? A closer examination of charitable giving and volunteering shows a shockingly telling discrepancy between the religious and the non-religious.According to Syracuse University's study, "Religious Faith and Charitable Giving," people who attend religious services regularly are 38 percent more likely to identify themselves as conservatives. They are also 25 percent more likely to donate money than those who don't (91 percent to 66 percent)-and this isn't just giving in the collection plate: the religious are more generous with nonreligious causes as well. They are also 23 percent more likely to volunteer time (67 percent to 44 percent).To put it bluntly, religious conservatives don't out-spend their secular liberal counterparts, they out-give them-donating a significantly higher percentage of their income to African AIDS victims, babies afflicted by inner-city poverty, and children enslaved by the global sex trade. In other words, they don't view consumer goods as a method of showcasing benevolence.They have a whole different jar for that.GOOD JAR All of GOOD's subscription money goes to charity. It also "Makes A Statement," if you're into that.
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Unconscious Consumption