A Consumer Society

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Ecclesiastes 1:2-14; 2:18-23
Psalm 49:1-11
Colossians 3:1-11
Luke 12:13-21

Jesus is not a very good capitalist. He makes many Christians anxious. With passages like the one in Luke today, he seems to be endorsing socialism. Let’s look at the economic side first.

Adam Smith wrote An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations in 1776. He was Scottish and had nothing to do with the rebels south of Canada. He wrote things like this; It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. In other words, the butcher, brewer, and baker will try to create products that we will want to buy so they can make money. They have selfish motives.

We buyers are also selfish and want the meat, beer, and bread for as little money as possible. The result is that producers and consumers negotiate the price until both agree (Law of Supply and Demand). Today, the process is so ingrained in our culture that we do not think of it as negotiating. P&G introduced the first disposable diaper in 1961, but not before testing the market to see if people would buy the product. It took about five years, but they found that 10¢ was acceptable to enough people to make it worth building a factory, and the rest is history. The price dropped to 6¢ in 1964. They are 20¢ and up today.

Why disposable diapers? Before 1961, all diapers were cloth and were washed, daily. In 1946, the ‘boater’ was introduced—a waterproof panty to cover the cloth. As you can imagine, with babies spoiling as many as 15 diapers a day, that’s a lot of nasty work.

Proctor and Gamble’s advertised Pampers as a way to avoid much of that work.

This is classic consumerism. There is no real need to give up cloth diapers. They worked very well, and the total cost—detergent, water, etc.—was under 6¢. But by the 1960s, Americans were used to looking for better and easier ways to do everything, so why not?

My mother sowed a patch over the holes in my jeans, so I didn’t have to be embarrassed to wear holy jeans to school. Then the iron-on patch was introduced, and life was good.

In Luke, we read; Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessionsNIV Is it greed to use disposable diapers? Is Jesus cautioning us about such a practical thing? Maybe, and yes.

It is greedy to buy a product just because it is easier. That is not a one-size-fits-all statement though. There are times and situations where disposables are the better choice. Stress the word, Greed. Ask yourself, why am I doing this?

We must also think about the bigger picture. Disposable diapers today add 3.5 billion tons of waste to landfills; waste that takes an average of 500 years to decompose. A ratty old cloth diaper can be used to clean the car—or a thousand and one other tasks—before going to the landfill where it will decompose in a year.

Many die-hard capitalists like to quote Adam Smith, but rarely this, No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable. Or, As soon as the land of any country has all become private property, the landlords, like all other men, love to reap where they never sowed, and demand a rent even for its natural produce. And most especially not, With the greater part of rich people, the chief enjoyment of riches consists in the parade of riches.

We live in a consumer society, but our Master warns us against the seduction of wealth. We live in a wealthy country, but Jesus encourages us to share that wealth. Instead of building bigger grain bins, give the bumper crop grain to the poor.

Americans officially give around 2% of our wealth to charities, but when we look closely, most of that money goes to a variety of institutions—universities, private lower schools, scouts, etc. Looking only at churches, less than 10% goes to the poor and needy, with the Catholic Church leading by a wide margin.

Understand that Jesus was a consumer. He ate food. He wore clothes. We don’t know what else he may have purchased, but he was involved in at least a basic way. What he did not do was buy in excess. He maintained a modest lifestyle. He concentrated on helping those in need. He encouraged all of us to do the same.

We each need to take a serious look at our own lifestyle and see our selfishness and greed. We need to work on accepting the real lack of need for all the latest gadgets and fads. At least 60% of Americans can cut back. That could put a kink in the Chinese markets.

Read my earlier comments on this theme here.

Be righteous and do good.

Mike Lawrence

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