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Against Thrift: Why Consumer Culture is Good for the Economy, the Environment, and Your Soul Hardcover – November 22, 2011

2.8 out of 5 stars 24 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


Benjamin Kunkel, author of Indecision and founding editor of n +1
“While madmen in authority declare a new age of austerity, James Livingston has—in the best American tradition—written a radically commonsensical and scandalously good-natured ode to abundance. Against Thrift seems to me easily the most original and potentially the most important book yet to emerge from the ongoing economic crisis.”

Jeff Madrick, author of Age of Greed and editor of Challenge
“I can't say that I agree with every word in James Livingston's  Against Thrift.  But to say it is original and intelligent are understatements.  It is a joy to welcome so refreshing a set of arguments to the public discourse. He has the audacity to make a case for consumption. He takes on one piece of conventional wisdom after another. And it is all so darned readable. I disagree, I kept saying to myself, but sometimes I agreed that I disagreed, and I always kept reading.  I even occasionally changed my mind, and that's too rare an event for any of us.”
David Levering Lewis, Professor of History, New York University and Pulitzer-Prize winning biographer
“As a historian of large social systems, I find James Livingston's Against Thrift interpretively stunning. If the book's thesis is correct, the American future is hostage to a demonstrably outmoded growth paradigm of gross maldistribution of wealth and avoidable cyclical market chaos…The timely publication of Against Thrift is virtually a public service.”
Marc Chandler, Chief Global Currency Strategist, Brown Brothers Harriman
“Against Thrift is the first fully articulated alternative to the conventional thinking that created the financial crisis and inhibits the recovery. Livingston has written a masterpiece—an interdisciplinary narrative, rooted in American tradition. It should be read and studied by investors and policy makers alike. It is both revolutionary and conservative at the same time, so it is a useful antidote to the poison that is all too often offered as a cure by both the Left and Right. If Wall Street and Washington took Livingston's views to heart, the crisis would end, and America's role as the ‘indispensable nation’ would be restored.”
Justin Fox, author, The Myth of the Rational Market
“Karl Marx wants you to go shopping. To save capitalism. With this mind-bendingly provocative book, Jim Livingston is out to convince you that almost everything mainstream economists say about the Great Recession is wrong. He might just succeed.”
Publisher’s Weekly
“[Livingston] makes a persuasive case for consumer culture: why it’s actually good for the economy, the environment, and our souls….His research and reasoning is remarkable.”

About the Author

James Livingston is a Professor of History at Rutgers University. He is the author of four previous books and a regular contributor to the History News Network. He lives in New York City.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books (November 22, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0465021867
  • ISBN-13: 978-0465021864
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1.1 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 2.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (24 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,527,402 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By S. Dunne on March 17, 2012
Format: Hardcover
I bought this book because I heard a little bit about it and liked how contrarian it sounded. People on the right in this country probably won't like the first half of the book, and people on the left (where I reside) probably won't like the second. Of course, I breezed through the first seventy pages, which challenged very few of my original assumptions, and found the second half to be a complete slog. Ultimately, Livingston's basic argument -that a redistribution of wealth to a larger swath of society is necessary for economic growth, and that the consumer society this would support isn't pure evil- is defensible. But I don't think Livingston does a very good job of defending it.

First, I'm surprised to see how little attention the writing in this book has received. I graduated from college, had pretty good grades, and read (and wrote) a lot of stuff on political economy, and there were still dozens of paragraphs in this book that I had to re-read and comb for any trace of actual meaning. This is postmodern academic writing at its worst. Livingston throws in five-dollar words every chance he can get, and seems to have trouble simplifying or summarizing anything. He makes frequent use of the device of ending every other paragraph with a string of rhetorical questions. He answers some of these questions, but his solutions are never clear or concise, and at times it felt like his arguments were vague and verbose because they'd be so easily dismissed if they were anything else.

To address some of the arguments he's making: is advertising good for society?
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
While I give the author 4* for a well-written and thought-provoking work, I have to give 0* for the basic economic premise.

I do agree with Professor Livingston that "the financial sector... has become the receptacle, and then the manager, of... surplus capital," to paraphrase the claim he makes on p. 25. But I have to wonder about his claim that this capital truly represents a "savings glut." Productivity increases in the 1920s (and more recently) DID result in corporate profit increases, and DID feed financial speculation. Yet the levels of business-sector debt remained around 100% of GDP throughout the 20s, even as GDP increased at an average of over 4% per year. Those levels in the 1983-2009 period, while much lower, also rose over that time span.

So when Professor Livingston speaks of these "surpluses in corporate coffers" that represented savings gluts, and he maintains this capital had no productive or useful place to go and thus went into speculative markets, one has to wonder: why was none of this abundant wealth used to pay down debt? If debt is actually growing, rather than being paid down, is there truly a glut of savings?

On p. 156, Professor Livingston refers to the savings glut of 1983-2009. During this period, government debt increased from around 50% to around 60% of GDP; household debt doubled from around 50% to around 100% of GDP; non-financial business debt increased from around 50% to around 75% of GDP; and financial sector debt increased fivefold from around 25% to around 125% of GDP. So total debt more than doubled, from a sustained 1943-1983 ballpark average of around 150% of GDP to over 350% of GDP! This is a savings glut?

To the extent that foreign savings pour into speculative markets, what do these savings really represent?
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Format: Hardcover
Now that reading books before talking and writing about them is no longer fashionable, I feel out of place offering my own opinion on Livingston's latest. Still, I think some kind of clarification is in order before this page is overrun by either our keeper's-of-the-faith in rational/instrumental/universal economic theory, or worse, just plain (patriotic) insanity. I have read the book, by the way, and it's a terrific achievement. It's not only the best available on the current economic dilemmas of our time, it considers these crises as moral and cultural revolutions of the long 20th century; they are still in the making, whose meanings and outcomes haven't been decided. This kind of formidable task requires, among other things, an intricate understanding of the history, thoughtful and nuanced arguments, and clarity. All of which, to be sure, Livingston possesses in abundance. As such, this book can be put into any number of categories, and this is its strength. The author's command of the subject is staggering as he moves easily among Left and Right arguments against an economy based on consumer culture (treating all with respect-"fair and balanced"), and navigates a passage of his own that locates an optimistic based on the democratizing and socializing possibilities consumer spending/culture.

Let's correct something: The author DOES NOT say that if you're under a mountain of debt you should keep swiping that card of yours. He DOES NOT say we need a giant state apparatus to direct all our economic decisions. And he IS NOT anti-capitalist. In fact, he says that markets and functioning democracy are conditions of each other. Look, individuals already "redistribute" their wealth in this country through taxes.
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