Saturday, January 17, 2009

The War On Frugality

The present energy and economic crises in the world have caused the return of a long-forgotten culture of frugality in the United States and other First World nations. The return of this culture is due to a grassroots movement among ordinary, everyday citizens who don't have many resources and who are tired of being taken for everything they've got by large corporate masters. This culture of frugality is gaining such strength and spreading so rapidly that voices in the mainstream media are now starting to comment on it, as seen in the following articles:

It might seem to be a good sign that a movement toward sensibility and living within one's means is getting the attention of national media. Yet we must remember that the national media are owned, by and large, by powerful, rich corporatist masters with a vested interest in reviving and growing the “official” economy, which is first and foremost a consumer economy run by big business. Living within one's means, getting out of debt and turning one's back on consumerism is not good for business or for the official economy.

It is therefore no surprise that the masters of our economy have begun to attack this movement toward frugality and simple living. The attack has come in various forms, including media articles which talk about the damage done to the economy by people who refuse to rush out and buy things. Here are some samples:

  • Return to D.I.Y Ethic Erodes Service Businesses,” New York Times, 16 January 2009, The Times article contains this amazing quote: “All of these consumers could praise themselves for their newfound frugality in the midst of an economic downturn. But ever step they take toward self-reliance – each shrub they prune themselves, each cupcake they bake from scratch – hurts the people and small businesses that have long provided these services professionally.”

  • Hard-Hit Families Finally Start Saving, Aggravating Nation's Economic Woes,” Wall Street Journal, 6 January 2009, Again, here's an amazing quote: “Americans, fresh off a decadeslong (sic) buying spree, are finally saving more and spending less – just as the economy needs their dollars the most.”

  • For those who live in the United Kingdom, there's this: “This Recession Demands That We Employ Logic And Spend Our Way Out Of It,” UK Telegraph, 13 January 2009,

  • Don't Be Frugal To Follow Recession Chic,” Marketplace, 17 December 2008, This is an archived radio show featuring Will Wilkinson of the Cato Institute, a right-wing think tank. One more amazing quote, from the show's introduction: “It's natural to want to penny-pinch when in a recession, but if you're not at risk of financial struggle, you may not need to cut back. Commentator Will Wilkinson says if you can, you should keep on spending.”

Here is rich irony! We are suffering an ecological and economic disaster caused by the decision by the masters of the global economy to hoodwink ordinary citizens and their governments to live beyond their means for as long as possible. These masters created an economy that is built on debt and that runs on credit and that devours anyone who can't make his payments on time. That economy has begun to crash, leaving millions of bloodied victims in the aftermath of its fall. These victims have been turned into the prey of the rich masters of this economy. Now that we ordinary people are seeing all of these things come to pass, we are trying to protect ourselves from being jacked any further by getting out of debt, living within our means and learning to be self-reliant. And you mean to tell me that the spokesmen for the rich are trying to make us feel guilty for this?!

But it gets even better. Not only are the masters of our official economy trying to talk us common people out of frugality, but they are even enlisting the help of the government to punish and frustrate frugal living. Cases in point:

  • The Times of England recently published an editorial titled, “Punish Savers And Make Them Spend Money (,” full of policy recommendations for the governments of the United States and Great Britain. One such suggestion is as follows: “Instead of reducing taxes on interest payments, the Government could tax all bank deposits and other risk-free savings. This would create a negative risk-free interest rate, encouraging savers either to invest in property, shares and other productive assets – or simply to save less and consume more.”

  • The United States Government has passed a law, the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act, that will require all thrift stores to test all toys and clothes sold for children for contamination by lead or lead-based paint, starting in February 2009. (Source:,0,2083247.story) The testing is designed to be so expensive that thrift stores – thrift stores! – will be forced to stop selling secondhand children's clothes and toys because they will not be able to afford the tests. This law will also drive the makers of handcrafted toys and handmade clothes out of business, as well as shutting down other cottage industries. You'll just have to go to Mervyn's or Wal-Mart or Toys 'R' Us instead. After many people protested, the Consumer Product Safety Commission modified its proposed enforcement of the law to grant thrift stores a temporary reprieve, but the law is still on the books.

Note: This law is typical of recent legislation and executive orders passed or enacted by the Federal Government. Other examples include the National Animal Identification System, proposed ostensibly to “keep the nation's food supply safe from terrorists,” whose real effect is to drive small livestock farmers out of business. There are also the cumbersome FDA regulations recently enacted for small slaughterhouses, regulations that are so expensive to obey that only big agribusinesses can comply. The funny thing about these laws is that they don't protect us from contamination via products sold by big businesses with lots of money.

Make no mistake. Frugality is one tool by which ordinary, rank-and-file people can become self-reliant and can free themselves from exploitation by a corporatist system controlled by the rich. The rich masters of our present system understand this, and will do everything they can to wage war against the frugal and the self-reliant. But we're on to them. Do these things make you mad? Then let your congressman know that you've got his number.

I leave you with the following quote from the novel The Likeness, by Tana French. I read the quote for the first time on the Schneier on Security website. Here it is:

“Part of the debtor mentality is a constant, frantically suppressed undercurrent of terror. We have one of the highest debt-to-income ratios in the world, and apparently most of us are two paychecks from the street. Those in power -- governments, employers -- exploit this, to great effect. Frightened people are obedient -- not just physically, but intellectually and emotionally. If your employer tells you to work overtime, and you know that refusing could jeopardize everything you have, then not only do you work the overtime, but you convince yourself that you're doing it voluntarily, out of loyalty to the company; because the alternative is to acknowledge that you are living in terror. Before you know it, you've persuaded yourself that you have a profound emotional attachment to some vast multinational corporation: you've indentured not just your working hours, but your entire thought process. The only people who are capable of either unfettered action or unfettered thought are those who -- either because they're heroically brave, or because they're insane, or because they know themselves to be safe -- are free from fear.”


Stormchild said...


When the 'universal default' clause is repealed [the one that gives credit card companies the right to jack your rate through the roof if you're one day late paying the phone bill - even if that lateness is due to a major blizzard stopping all mail delivery in the nation]

then they can talk to me about spending.

I have ditched all my credit cards - gasoline, department store, discount club cards - with the exception of two that I pay directly online from my bank account via internal transfer of funds.

I pay all my other bills electronically two weeks before their due dates, or in person. I make certain to carry a small credit balance on each account - phone, power, etc. - "just in case".

I am paying off my car loan in full as soon as the balance drops to a specific amount, which will happen in a month.

My total indebtedness is going to be $0.00 by March 1, barring catastrophe or Act of God.

Watch this space: I'm willing to bet that my bank closes the credit card accounts by midyear, because I now pay them in full, every month. Wouldn't want to have some kind of problem trigger the Universal Default Clause, now would I?

PS, when ditching each credit card, I did it by phone, and told each company's rep that I was doing it specifically because of the universal default clause. I asked them to note this in my record. You'd be amazed at the lies I was told about this bit of legislation.

By the way, altho I pay bills electronically, I do NOT authorize direct deductions for payment. I set up and approve each transaction personally, each time. No way are any of these thugs putting a tap into my bank account.

[Sorry, TH. I have a rather low opinion of our captains of finance, and it shows in my, um, terminology.]

David said...

"The War on Frugality" is a very interesting and thoughtful post. The problem, though, is that the way the economy is structured, living according to one's actual need really does lead to recession and unemployment. There's something completely bonkers about the way the capitalist system works, but nobody knows a way out. Whether we go for frugality or indebtedness, somebody's screwed. No good can come of this.

TH in SoC said...

David, thank you for your comment. You are correct in stating that frugality is bad for the economy. But I would clarify that statement by saying that 'it's bad for the "official" economy"'.

This official, formal economy is based on large-scale, unregulated capitalism which leads to globalization, oligarchy and monopoly, and which requires growth. The growth can only come through the discovery and exploitation of an ever-expanding resource base. But we now live in an age of contracting resource availability, hence the present economic collapse.

We will all have to switch from an existence of dependence on the large corporate systems of the official economy to a more self-reliant existence where our dependencies and connections are much more localized. It will be a challenging transition.

Thanks for reading!

David said...

I completely agree with your diagnostics of the situation and the sense of how things might get restructured in more rationale and humane ways. Many years ago, I wrote a book called "Working Communally" that made the case for small groups working together and trading through networks of like-minded people, a kind of "communal anarchism". The devil is in the details, though, and whether any substantial part of the population could actually move in that direction is very uncertain. Keep pushing at it, though!