BOOK REVIEW/Seth Sandronsky

Livingston Flips the Script

James Livingston flips the script, culturally and economically. In Against Thrift: Why Consumer Culture is Good for the Economy the Environment and Your Soul (Basic Books, 2011), he urges readers to question the conventional wisdom about life at work and away. You may not always agree with him. I don’t. But he does, I suggest, alter a debate about our lives, past, present and future.

Livingston’s case unfolds in two parts. First, he argues that a trend of under consuming is the main problem of the national economy. The under-consuming view flies in the face of the dominant view, a tired and tiring rehash of supply-side economics, or Say’s Law, which holds that supply creates demand.

Proponents argue for tax cuts for the top one percent to spur the investment that brings jobs. On top of that, we need to save more and spend less.

Alternatively, Livingston writes that surplus capital, the gap between earnings and investment, rules the roost. Reviewing the historical record, he writes how this economic critique was central to the pro-capitalist side of the debate around the turn of the 20th century. Anti-capitalist critics preferred other criticisms centering around: mistakes, monopoly, money (supply) and morality.

An historian, Livingston explains how from about 1840 to 1920, a rise in private investment in new equipment and plant drove growth. Since 1919, however, a climbing share of national income flowing to consumption has been the motor of growth, and not private investment in new plant and equipment, citing data in the National Income and Product Accounts from the Great Depression to the Great Recession in the text and an appendix.

We can thank capitalism for its labor productivity and technology increases. With a nod to the usefulness of reading Marx and Keynes, Livingston calls for socializing investment, while shifting income from profits to wages. He does not provide a blueprint of how to redistribute income downward, but sets up the case for such a sea-change.

The last part of his book looks at the “morality of spending.” This is a bit thornier than part one, especially for left-leaning readers. For instance, advertising from the 1960s channeled popular culture and pointed to better living via leisure. Against that backdrop, Livingston disentangles the causes and consequences of the Protestant ethic in the US, particularly its haunting shadow on social cohesion.

Further, he examines this “politics of more” in the writing of Samuel Gompers and W.E.B. Du Bois. The latter’s concept of “double consciousness,” or seeing one as others do, as part of the black aesthetic for civil and human rights, looms large. An expression of this trend is African American music, which people of many backgrounds enjoyed.

In brief, Livingston’s case for policies of stable growth would empower consumers with more, not less, time and money. In this way, we can avoid the formation of more surplus capital fueling new speculative bubbles.

What’s not to like? Some critics say his scant attention to environmental matters. But Livingston suggests that with more income and time, consumers can save less and spend more and treat Mother Nature better. One way would be using less fossil fuel driving to and from work.

Further, the aim of a politics of more is not to expand the quantity of profits. This is a key point. Consumers don’t buy to accumulate capital in the form of commodities. Rather, Livingston writes, we consume commodities for other reasons.

Take the food revolution in growing, cooking and eating. Here, non-industrial grown and prepared good food points to what consumers’ preferences for quality (use) over quantity (prices) can bring to the economy and society, like giving pleasure to family and friends.

With an overhang of surplus of capital, Livingston explores the assumptions and conclusions of our material abundance hidden in plain sight as a political narrative of cutting government spending advances like a tsunami towards land and people. Alternatively, Livingston, focusing more on history than theory, posits a post-capitalist future of producing and consuming without profits. His utopian vision “to reexamine the premises, the practices, and the promises of economic growth and development” foreshadows a society past necessity. Accordingly, Against Thrift is required reading.

Seth Sandronsky lives and writes in Sacramento, Calif. Email

From The Progressive Populist, August 1, 2012

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