Consumerism and Cultural Decline: A Black Friday for Conservative Coherence

When the Soviet Union finally fell apart, the verdict handed down by many a smug commentator was that communism had collapsed under the weight of its own internal contradictions, aided by a push from Ronald Reagan’s massive defense spending. For Reagan’s admirers, among whom Republican propagandist Cal Thomas is a leading light, American conservatism is a presumptively superior political philosophy immune to such an ignominious end. Yet in his reaction to Black Friday Shoppingthe behavior of Thanksgiving shoppers – condemning runaway consumerism as evidence of American cultural decline –  Thomas unwittingly exposed the severity of the internal contradictions afflicting his own party. For how can a movement that continually emphasizes the sanctity of the economic forces of supply and demand possibly object when market participants feel those forces coursing through their bodies like a holy spirit? How can one simultaneously lionize the captains of industry who amass their profits by catering to consumer wants (whether real or manufactured by advertising), and encourage others to emulate their example of capitalistic success, while condemning the very materialism that makes their success possible? Is the cultural wing of the Republican Party, represented by Cal Thomas, about to tear itself away from the economic wing because market forces have corrupted American souls with an efficiency that Satan himself would admire?

Cause and Defect: Social Science for Plutocrats

Extrapolating from the more sensational incidents of recent consumer misbehavior to a general diagnosis of cultural decay, Thomas’s initial attempt at an explanation reminded us that the apparently broad Republican tent would never be erected at Zucotti Park.

Headlines… reflect a culture that is being trampled by the greed and me-only attitude of a growing number of us….

Once such stories seemed isolated, even bizarre. In the era of flash mobs and a growing entitlement mentality fueled by politicians and “income inequality” alarmists, these far too frequent instances now seem to be symptomatic of a decaying culture.

Like those with symptoms of illness who refuse to see a doctor, ignoring this pestilence that is destroying our foundations ensures it will get worse. These incidents are the result of a nation that has ceased to impose – yes, impose – the old values that served previous generations well.[…]

Previous generations had less and yet seemed to have more of what matters: more character; more virtue; more contentment, all of it reinforced by parents, clergy and, for the most part, culture. In our day, materialism has become a false god we worship in the vain hope it will bring peace. In our conspicuous consumption we are self-immolating and the fuel is materialism.[Emphasis added.]

In the season of goodwill to all men, a more profoundly cynical hypothesis could scarcely be imagined, and one has to wonder how many elderly evangelical Christians are going to entertain it (even if subconsciously). In Cal Thomas’s social science, the greed that leads American shoppers to trample one another to death in search of low prices was actually caused by Democratic welfare programs and people like Bernie Sanders complaining about the one-percent. If Americans didn’t think they were entitled to such luxuries as health care (really, where do they think they are – in a developed country?), they would understand that big-screen televisions were never intended to grace the living rooms of trailers and subsidized apartments. And if socialists didn’t fill their hearts with envy of those who have worked harder and invested smarter than they have, they would accept the fact that they do not deserve to have as much as their rightful masters. The great unwashed have become objectionably grasping because they have been led to believe – by instigators who do not understand what America is all about – that they can have more and that perhaps they should have more. When the little people get ideas above their station, the very fabric of society could be ripped apart.

There are, of course, other explanations for consumer hooliganism that merit far greater attention than Cal Thomas’s plutocratic incendiary, not the least of which is the small matter of the commercial brainwashing with which Americans are bombarded from cradle to grave. CommercialismOne must assume, given Cal Thomas’s complete failure to implicate this phenomenon in the decadence he professes to deplore, that since advertising is conducted by the blessed private sector, it could not possibly be involved in the corruption of traditional values. Sex may sell, but it is only government and a misplaced faith in its powers that is inimical to morality. The vast sums of money deliberately spent by profit-seeking corporations to inculcate consumer aspirations via our televisions, radios, computers, cell phones, newspapers, magazines, billboards, buses, subway station platforms, etc. have nothing to do with the country’s obsession with material goods. The psychologists employed by Madison Avenue are rank amateurs compared to the pols from Chicago: even though the Obama Administration can’t build a website, it can make an entire people forget how much happier they used to be when they had less.

This selective blindness is indicative of the ridiculous knots into which a cultural conservative must tie himself in order to find a modus vivendi with (or facilitate the agenda of) the economic forces that really matter in American politics and policy-making. And it underscores the viciousness – and the defensiveness – on display here. For Cal Thomas’s column has far less to do with the protection of American culture than with the defense of the American plutocracy. Thomas did not have to turn Thanksgiving into another front in the class war, and could have contented himself with scoring some easy points with his Bible-bashing constituency by confining himself to a “kids-these-days” lament. The fact that he couldn’t wait to deploy his patented, scornful air quotes around the phrase “income inequality” betrayed his real agenda with the lack of sophistication one expects from Star Parker.

Thanksgiving may just be the best time of the year to focus on economic inequality in America. Wal-Mart reported a record-breaking Black Friday and Cyber Monday. What they didn’t publicize is the fact that – thanks to the spending of consumers – the six heirs of its founder, Sam Walton, collectively own more wealth than 42% of their fellow Americans. Now, at what point is the average American allowed to mumble something about the promise of equality in the Declaration of Independence and say that this is a wholly unacceptable state of affairs? When the Waltons own half the country? (Add another 394 special people, many of whom also inherited their wealth and unequal opportunity, and we’re already there.) What about 75 per cent? When, for Cal Thomas, does inequality become a phenomenon that we are allowed to even discuss without being castigated as rabble-rousers? Obviously, the answer to that question – just like the closely related question of when human industrial activity could permanently damage our planet’s atmosphere – is never.

Thus, when Cal Thomas lectures America about the values of the good old days, no thinking American should be under any illusions about which values he’s really talking about. Nothing is more traditional in the United States than a few people owning the vast majority of the property.

The View from Within the Stampede

Former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich – regarded by Time Magazine as one of the most effective cabinet secretaries of the 20th century – offers a slightly less reactionary version of events:

The biggest reason holiday shopping is especially frenzied this season is so many Americans are already stretched to the breaking point that they’re more desperate than ever for bargains. Sixty-five percent of today’s shoppers are living paycheck-to-paycheck. That’s up from 61 percent last year, according to consumer research by Booz and Company.

Median household income in America continues to drop, adjusted for inflation, because low-wage jobs are the major ones available. Lower-wage occupations accounted for only 21 percent of job losses during the Great Recession. They’ve accounted for 58 percent of all job growth since then.

And for Reich, there is a bitter irony in Americans’ efforts to find a good deal. Online retailers like Amazon have been tremendously successful, but their success eliminates jobs in brick-and-mortar retail. And much of what they sell was not made in America. Whether consumerism bespeaks cultural decline or not, it may now be implicated in economic decline:

Technology and globalization are taking over more and more American jobs….  [T]he sobering reality is the United States has no national strategy for creating more good jobs in America. Until we do, more and more Americans will be chasing great deals that come largely at their own expense.

In other words, although Cal Thomas desperately wants to prevent us from thinking such ungodly, un-American thoughts, the average American is caught in a vicious circle of falling living standards. 95% of the gains from the post-2008 “recovery” have been captured by the top 1%, and the recovery has been anemic because the vast majority of people lack purchasing power. For a number of years, the decline in real incomes was masked by an extended credit binge that fueled a bubble economy with phony dollars. That party is officially over (though the Federal Reserve and Wall Street didn’t get the message). No wonder Cal Thomas doesn’t want us to talk about these dismal numbers: for a defender of those who are sucking the lifeblood out of our country, this cold light of day must be avoided at all costs.

The Greed Conservatives Do Not Condemn

Although Thomas appears to issue a broad condemnation of excessive materialism, treating us to a couple of obligatory scriptural passages and even taking a swipe at the investor class for seeking ever-higher stock prices, his choice of examples is as revealing as his loaded language. We are given eight bullet points demonstrating the naughtiness of shoppers, all of which are supposedly symptomatic of greed. But if one were serious about making a case that American values have been corrupted by the pursuit of worldly riches, then surely there are some elephants in the room that are far too large to remain in the shadows.

Shortly before American shoppers rampaged through their local Wal-Marts, JP Morgan Chase settled a civil suit brought by the Justice Department by agreeing to pay $13 billion in fines, the largest amount ever levied against a single company. The suit stemmed mostly from the fraudulent practices of JP Morgan Chase fined $13 billion for MBS fraudBear Stearns and Washington Mutual, both of which were acquired by JP Morgan in the midst of the financial crisis, and had engaged in systematic misrepresentation of their mortgage-backed securities. On the face of it, the penalty seems like a rare victory for economic justice, with even The Guardian 1  seeing the settlement as a big step in the right direction compared to the $1.9 billion fine against HSBC. But for a corporation as large as JP Morgan, the fine amounts to little more than a licensing fee. Even though the company’s legal problems contributed to its first quarterly loss in nine years, its profit for the year-to-date is still around $13 billion and the increase in its share price since the settlement was announced has returned almost as much again to its shareholders’ bottom lines. Most of the individuals who actually perpetrated these crimes (and that is what they were, even if the DOJ has preferred to keep things “civil”) are doing just fine elsewhere on Wall Street. These people won’t be rioting at Wal-Mart, but have done great violence to the lives of countless people in America and beyond. Curiously, Cal Thomas does not see their behavior as indicative of a decline in moral standards.

Shortly after Thanksgiving, European anti-trust regulators fined JP Morgan and a number of other major banks $2.3 billion for their collusion in manipulating LIBOR rates. By European standards, this was also a record-setting fine, but this, too, was a drop in the bucket. The share of the penalty to be paid by the American offenders – JP Morgan and Citigroup – is only about $200 million. The chief executive of Deutsche Bank explained (in the version of the story that made it to the Leesburg Daily Commercial) that “the fine wouldn’t hurt the bank’s profits as it has already made provisions for fines it deems likely from regulators.” In other words, these “penalties” are merely a cost of doing business – a cost that is well-worth paying given the massive rewards reaped from the behavior in question. Shares of Deutsche Bank fell a mere one percent, while those of JP Morgan and Citigroup were unaffected. The people got all the justice they were entitled to – which is to say, a mere token – and the profit machines continue humming.

While news of the European case broke a day after Cal Thomas handed down his verdict on American shoppers, it is abundantly clear that this further instance of corporate immorality will fail to register on his radar screen. For evidence of this, we need look no further than his thuggish vilification of the students who dared to protest against Wall Street’s daylight robberies. Occupy Wall Street presented Cal Thomas and other “values” conservatives with a perfect opportunity to put their money where their mouth is. The whole world bore witness to massive criminality, a complete shredding of business ethics, and the devastating consequences of greed run amok. But instead of calling for a comprehensive house-cleaning of the financial sector, America’s conservatives made apologies for Wall Street, attempted to blame the crash on government policies aimed at increasing lending to minorities,2 and eagerly participated in the evolution of a rival political force – the Tea Party – that focused popular resentments with laser-like precision on the public, not the private, sector. In other words, their mouth went where the money is.

The owners of America, therefore, need not worry that Cal Thomas might betray them. He will deploy as many double-standards as may be needed to defend the obscenity of their domination. He will project the certitude that impresses feeble minds in search of leadership. And when the depraved wealth-concentration machine of America finally collapses under the weight of its own contradictions, he will blame everyone and everything but himself.

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  1. The newspaper removed this link in September, 2016.
  2. An excuse brilliantly planned out by Robert Rubin when he sowed the seeds of the calamity to come by deregulating Wall Street.

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