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The Ethics of Expenditure.

24 May 2013

A couple of conversations about money have interested me lately. The first was a twitter conversation I had with @sciliz, and the second is going on in the comments over at Doc Becca’s place.  Essentially, both conversations were about the ethics of spending more money than is required on things like food and clothing. It’s not something I’ve ever put an extraordinary amount of thought into. But it will surprise no one who knows me that I am one of the people who spends more than is necessary on clothes and food.

I come from privilege. There’s no question about that. And from more privilege than is already inherent in being a white, male American. My family is one of reasonable means, which allowed me to graduate from school without debt. I have had just about every advantage in life that one can have. I try to be conscious about that. I try to be magnanimous. I try to be aware of how my fortunes have colored my perceptions. And I’ve traveled to some of the poorest places on earth, to gain perspective. Recognizing and doing those things, I hope, allows me to understand the world better than isolating myself in the gilded ivory tower.

But I cannot agree with the attitude that spending more than is necessary on staples is unethical. In fact, I think it many cases it may be preferable to spending money on cheaply made, mass-produced goods. Yes, it represents privilege. But it also represents redistribution. When a  person buys a $1,000 suit jacket (as was the example in my conversation on twitter), that money doesn’t evaporate. The salespeople are usually commissioned. The clothes are generally made by artisans with good jobs. When a person buys a $45 suit jacket from Walmart, it’s probably made in a sweatshop in China or Bangladesh. The salespeople make minimum wage, usually without benefits, certainly without commission.

Many people truly benefit from the sale of a high-end product. Cheaply-made, mass-produced products support a system of exploitation and extraction that primarily benefits people like the Waltons.

Now, there’s a lot of real estate between those extremes. And $1,000 suit jacket doesn’t even represent an extreme! And yes, there’s certainly a bit of justification. But I don’t believe that people need to apologize for spending the money they earn. The idea that the only ethical things to do with money are to subsist, prepare for emergencies, and give it away is absurd I think. There is nothing wrong with accepting what people will pay to do your job, even if it is a lot. There is nothing wrong with spending your income so long as you are prudent with your reserves.

And I do believe a bit in noblesse oblige. People who’ve been fortunate enough to find themselves with high incomes and large pots of wealth certainly do have an obligation to be charitable. The great charitable foundations set up by famous families are important, but more important is that individuals are charitable with the people in their lives. We all need to be generous with time and treasure as we can.

But the ethics of how we choose to spend our money is far more complex than “expensive things are bad and cheap things are good.” Ideally, we could know how the products we buy are made, and support those that make reasonable profits while paying their workers well. That have good corporate consciences and do good in their communities. But there’s often no way to tell what those things are. I propose we are guided by our own consciences. And that we recognize that how others choose to comport themselves financially may not be malicious or thoughtless, but the result of a calculus that is simply different from our own, not less moral.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Syd permalink
    24 May 2013 20:28

    I can’t imagine spending $1000 on a jacket but when it comes to my house or boat, that is a trivial amount. What people spend their money on is none of my business. I do see more division between the haves and have nots though.

  2. sciencegeeka permalink
    25 May 2013 07:24

    I’d like to make a couple of other points. First off, I’m on the minimalist end of the spending spectrum. I’m really not a ‘stuff’ person. That being said:

    1. When you spend money, you are voting with your money. So buy not purchasing something at Wal-mart, you are saying that you don’t agree with their practices. I could, hypothetically, buy a book at wally world that costs less than the same book at B&N, but because I want B&N to succeed, I’ll purchase there.

    2. Sometimes spending less is going to end up costing you more. I’m a firm believer that there are appropriate tools for the job. I don’t like to spend a lot of money on clothing because I work in a lab, so there is a chance that the first time I wear something I’ll ruin it. Also, my weigh fluctuates, so there’s a chance that the first time I wear something is the only time that thing will fit. (both of these I consider throwing good money after bad) I don’t see the point of spending a lot of money on these things. I do, occasionally, buy things from a thrift shop. But it’s hard for me to find things that fit in normal shops, let alone secondhand. So, because I’m also concerned about the working conditions in the places where these cheap clothes are made, I try to by as little as possible. I have a closet of clothes, no dresser. I have maybe 50 pieces of things to wear (not including underwear/socks). That’s my middle ground.

    However, I’ll spend a couple of hundred dollars on a pot for cooking. Why? Because I’m going to have it for the rest of my life, and that couple of hundred dollars is cheaper than buying a new ‘cheap’ pan every 2 years for the rest of my life.

    3. As someone who has lived on the ‘not-haves’ more than the ‘haves’, I do have odd behavior when it comes to buying things. There are things that I buy multiples of because I never could as a kid (I have a bad habit of buying a new winter coat every year).

    4. I spend more grocery shopping now that I don’t really eat meat, cook more things myself, and steer myself away from ‘convenience foods’. This translates into health, which I hope translates to more life and less money on health related problems later. Yes, there are times when I’ll spend more money than reasonable for an elegantly prepared meal, but I’m paying for that experience too.

  3. 28 May 2013 16:03

    Being generous with the people in your life sounds fine as an individual choice, but it’s a pretty ineffective strategy for addressing big problems. I think a lot of people actually abide by it- which is why we live in a country where the poor give away a much greater percent than the wealthy (http://www.mcclatchydc.com/2009/05/19/68456/americas-poor-are-its-most-generous.html#.UaUPzbWThjg). Given that our social classes are so stratified, it’s easy to ignore needy people who aren’t around you.

    Also, I’m not stating categorically that spending more than necessary is unethical. However, I *will* state categorically that there is no correct rationalization process through which can view a $1000 suit jacket as a “staple”. That level of spending on clothing moves it very obviously from a “need” to a “want”. It’s ethically on par with chocolate truffles, gold plated ipads, or a tropical vacation. Well, ok, the gold plated ipad probably involves both exploitative mining and trading, as well as a terrible factory. But if you get the fair trade chocolate and purchase some carbon credits for the airfare, the other options are probably morally on par with your jacket. It’s hedonisitic consumption. And a certain amount of hedonism can actually be justified as “it makes me a happier, more productive person”- but most of us are capable of post-hoc rationalization of a completely superfluous level of hedonistic consumption (actually, I think a lot of us are fully capable of post-hoc rationalization of a rather counter-productive level of hedonistic consumption, where we’ve gone well past the point of maxing out our dopamine and are just consuming because we’re in a very weird and sick culture of consumption- which I wonder about in particular with $1000 suit jackets, because, well, it’s just not my thing, so I have trouble imagining getting $1000 worth of utility out of it).

    Also, as a secondary issue, I *personally* find the idea of $1000 suit jackets to be… less than respectable. “Icky” probably sums it up best- it’s not about ethics per se, but taste. Part of that is flat out contrariness- I find the people who believe one is MORE respectable in fancy clothes to be illogical, inconsistent, and often petty and cruel, so I want to find people LESS respectable just to counteract that. It’s *stupid* to think better of people for wearing $1000 suit jackets, and a bit evil to think worse of people for wearing the Walmart one (particularly if one doesn’t know their financial circumstances).

    And yeah, I feel better about myself when I buy a fair trade chocolate bar compared to a Hershey bar. But I recognize that it’s mostly self-deception. In practice, I’d probably do more good if I bought a $1 bar of chocolate and sent the other $2 straight to microfinance in a tropical chocolate growing region (via kiva or the like) then if I buy a $3 of fair-trade chocolate that is lining the pockets of some multinational corporation that can get people to buy more junk food if they use the halo effect.

    I also recognize that if I have a *need* to feel better about myself that is so strong that I try to get other people’s esteem from looking pretty, or boost my self-esteem via consumption of high end goods, that something is probably a little off in my life. I need a better avenue for meaningful contribution than I’ve got available, most likely. Whether that extends to anyone but me, I’m not sure.

    (To get a better idea about how I *aspire* to treat money than that, see this blogger who I admire http://miser-mom.blogspot.com/2012/11/why-bother-to-save-money.html)

    • 29 May 2013 07:05

      When I say “staple” I mean “clothing” or “food” or “shelter”. A suit jacket of ANY kind might not qualify as a “need”, but it is clearly an element of of the set {clothing}.

      And since clothing is a staple, i.e., something everyone needs to participate in society, I’m filing the $1,000 suit jacket under “spending more than one needs to on a staple”.

      • 30 May 2013 13:48

        Language has an impact, though, and simply referring to it as a staple can be used to rationalize a luxury purchase as a “necessity” (which it clearly is not, anymore than chocolate bon-bons). People convince themselves they “need” things that they really simply want all the time.

  4. 4 June 2013 21:29

    I spend a lot of money on clothes. I generally don’t keep them for a very long time, but I give them to charity when there is still a good bit of wear in them. I think of it as a hand-up to someone else.

    Recently, I discovered that my boss shops at one of the places I donate to. Between she and her husband, their household income is over twice mine. She thinks it is perfectly fine to shop in places that I think are meant for people who need help.

    She also thinks it is smart to shop at Wal-Mart. I would rather pay a little bit more to shop locally, and I refuse to purchase anything at Wal-Mart and encourage their horrible, horrible behavior. Whenever I have a choice, I will shop at a local store and try to buy local food, etc. If we all did that, our economy and ecology would be much different.

    I don’t have a whole lot of money to spend, but I like to think I still have some choices, and that I can be responsible about them.

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