Friday, December 2, 2011

Is Spending to Help the Economy Ethical? Hammerman on Ethics

Q: During the holiday season, I keep hearing how important it is for our fragile economy that we buy, buy, buy. If it is patriotic to buy impulsively and consume conspicuously, is it also good?

A: Patriotic: yes. Good…not so much.

Evidently, it worked, at least on Black Friday, when, lured by crafty retailers, shoppers bought much more than anyone anticipated. The stock market subsequently zoomed and people are feeling good. So, should we be troubled that all this good feeling is predicated on impulse buying? It’s conspicuous consumption that got us into this economic mess, so it’s hard to imagine that we can spend our way out of it.

Retailers have been trying to lure shoppers to buy on impulse since the snake gave away free samples in the Garden of Eden. Jewish law is protective of both the buyer and seller, understanding that some purchases need to be made in haste, like Abraham’s acquisition of a burial place for Sarah. What matters is less the speed of the transaction than that both parties are honest in their dealings.

There’s an argument to be made on behalf of impulse purchasing, as long as we live within our means. It’s as close as you can come to the thrill of the hunt without actually harming anyone or getting hurt – unless you happened to be standing in the way of that woman packing pepper spray at Walmarts last week. The stampede that she claims prompted her violent assault reminded me of scenes from my childhood in Boston, when my mom would take me to Filenes Basement on Black Friday, an experience not dissimilar from the running of the bulls in Pamplona.

The rabbis vilified Esau for dealing his birthright so impulsively for a bowl of lentil soup. His ruddy complexion and very name, a derivative of the Hebrew word for red, combined with the “red, red” pottage, speaks to his impulsiveness. Psychologist Max Luscher’s famous color test sees red as an indicator of uncontrolled craving.

Judaism assures us that those who have the willpower to control their impulses achieve long term success. In this week’s Torah portion, Jacob patiently works for seven years to marry Rachel, then he blows it by impulsively cohabiting with the wrong sister. But he learns from that experience, agreeing to work another seven for Rachel’s hand. He ends up with four wives, a baker’s dozen kids and countless sheep, ample rewards for the man who learned to wait.

Four decades ago, the landmark Marshmallow Test measured the self control of preschoolers, who were placed in a room and instructed not to eat the treats left there; if they held out for fifteen minutes, greater treats would be their reward. Tracked through the years, those who successfully delayed gratification have had greater success in life, outscoring the Esaus by 210 points on their S.A.Ts and far less likely to have problems with obesity, addiction and other challenges of young adult life. A recent article New Yorker piece delved into the diversionary strategies that can help Esaus become more Jacob-like.

The Talmud states, “Life is short, so we must move slowly.” It’s a good lesson to recall when confronted with that strategically placed candy at Shop Rite’s checkout counter or that plaid turtleneck sweater sale at Macy’s.

Yes, buy – but buyer beware. Impulse buying may be patriotic, but only on occasion is it good.

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