A Frugal Capitalism

As a 60 year-old teacher, I am different from most of my students in many ways. One way is that I am able to remember a time when things were significantly different from the way they are today. The decade of the fifties, which began when I was eight and ended when I was eighteen, is of all the decades of my life the one that was probably the most formative, the one that is most clearly my decade. I know its music and TV, its mores and manners, its cars, its dress, and its slang. And like the generations that came of age in the sixties, seventies, and eighties, I have a tendency to defend the culture and habits of my decade and view them as better, more wholesome and more normative than the characteristics of later decades. In my head, of course, I know that often this is just nostalgia masquerading as wisdom or common sense. After all, mine was the decade that gave the world Rock and Roll. Mine was a decade that kept women in the kitchen and was largely indifferent to the pervasive racial injustice in the land. Nevertheless, in some respects life in the fifties was better, more wholesome and normative, than it is today.

Today is, specifically, December 31, 2002. We are standing at the end of a year, having glutted ourselves once again on all kinds of consumer products, some of us spending ourselves into debt, others buying luxury items that will seldom if ever be used, all of us filling our houses and garages and storage spaces with stuff we don’t really need, and that will, with few exceptions, fail to give us contentment. But surely the merchants are content. Not necessarily. Even though sales may have been up a few percentage points over last year, we hear experts lamenting that the percentage of increase was not larger. As a culture, we have somehow grabbed on to the belief that a constant increase in consumption of manufactured products is a good thing. The old virtue of frugality, that quality of being content with enough, has been transformed into a vice. How odd, almost un-American it is to wear the out-of-fashion, to operate the old car or computer or stereo, to be content with what one needs. We must buy, buy, buy, for when we do the economy flourishes and when the economy flourishes, God is in his heaven and all’s right with the world.

But it was not always so. It was not so in the fifties, though it was gradually beginning to be so. At least among middle-class folk it was not yet so. The gift-buying behavior of most small town folk in the fifties was quite different. And so was the behavior of small town merchants. Let me tell you about Charlie and Ap.Charlie and Ap both ran grocery stores in a mid-western town with a population of a thousand. Ap was my father, and Charlie was the father of my good friend. Charlie and Ap went to the same church. Yet they were competitors with each other and with a third grocer, Bill, who was Ap’s brother-in-law. In late November, Charlie and Ap would get in Ap’s ’47 Chevy and drive to St. Peter, Minnesota, where there was a wholesale house. They would each buy a number of gift items to display and sell in their stores: vases, brass candle holders, cut glass dishes, toys and games; a few impractical items for a world that was largely practical. Then they would load them up in the ’47 Chevy, and drive back down Highway 16, often, as I remember it, through a blizzard. When I was a boy, the return of my dad from St. Peter was nearly as exciting as Christmas Day itself. For he not only had a harrowing tale of driving the last fifty miles with the window rolled open to see the road in the blizzard whiteout, but he brought gifts for me and my brother and sisters and my mother.

The rest of the items would be displayed in the store and local folk would buy them as Christmas gifts. Oh, I’m sure people went out of town to shop for Christmas also. But it wasn’t as it is today. People didn’t greet each other by asking if they had their Christmas shopping done. Christmas shopping wasn’t this huge task that loomed over their lives for several weeks. Life was enough of a struggle. There were real tasks to do. Besides, there was not a lot of extra cash for extravagant gift-buying.

It is possible that some families of that time were guilty of the vice that frugality becomes when it is pushed to the extreme, namely, stinginess. But today we have forgotten the virtue of frugality, going instead to the extremes of greed and extravagance. The moderate kind of consumption practiced by most folks in the fifties–even if it was motivated in many cases by the lack of extra money with which to buy consumer goods–seems to me more wholesome, more normative, more virtuous, than the modern method of buying.

I have little respect for the modern method of Christmas shopping as it has been engineered by Madison Avenue, and very little regard for the modern corporate methods of doing business. I don’t think it is capitalism itself that I dislike so much as it is the kind of capitalism that is practiced in the world today. So much of it is cutthroat, bottom line oriented and has little concern for people or the abuse of creation that almost always accompanies it. Charlie and Ap and Bill were capitalists, but they did business in a way that modern corporate capitalists would find absurd. Before Christmas they would clear off one shelf to display a few gift items. And throughout the year these competitors helped each other out. If Ap had a special on 10 pound sacks of sugar and if he ran out of sugar before the special expired, he would simply call Charlie or Bill or both and ask if they had some extra 10 pound sacks of sugar. They usually did and they not only let Ap buy the sugar from them, but offered to drop it off. Isn’t that ridiculous? Helping your competitor out like that? But they all did. Such behavior makes no sense if you judge things by the bottom line, but it makes all kinds of sense if you want to live in a community together.

The direction that capitalism has gone in the last forty years with its elevation of excessive consumption to the status of virtue, its disregard for the environment, its relentless drive for more and for ever increasing volume, and its glorification of cutthroat competition is destructive to creation, community, contentment and the practice of virtue. I don’t know if it can be stopped or if we can only hang around and wait for it to self-destruct. But I do think we can learn a thing or two by listening to the wisdom of the past. Fifties’ wisdom, like fifties’ music, may sound a bit simplistic to our ears. But the timeless wisdom of the one whose birth we just celebrated can’t be dismissed as simplistic. From him we learn, “Lay not up for yourselves treasures on earth,” and “A person’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.”

David Schelhaas teaches English at Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa. He is a member of the editoral board of Perspectives.