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Thrift, thriving and liberal education

| Thursday, September 27, 2018

Last month’s column looked at some of the ways unconscious figurative language may shape our values, such as in the habit of implicitly equating growth and health, increase and improvement, “up” and “good.” So, for example, if quarterly numbers for production and consumption rise, the economy is declared strong and robust.

But today let’s depart from the secular religion of growth and contemplate thrift.

“Thrift” may not be a word that makes your heart sing. According to a rigorous scientific study of the Notre Dame student body (I polled 17 students in an English class), thrift’s current associations are all negative: frugality, deprivation, self-denial.

But thrift wasn’t always a negative concept and, more importantly, need not be.

In the place I spend a lot of time commuting to, 18th-century England and America, “thrift” was a much livelier word, closer to its verb, “thrive.” To notice your neighbors’ thrift was not to see their deprivation but their well-being, self-sufficiency, even prosperity.

It’s worth working to recapture this connection between thrift and thriving at a time when we are so overspent. The deepest overspending in rich countries is not the sort dominating most political rhetoric: trade balances, annual government deficits or national debts. Instead, it is our personal, social and ecological overspending that call for several kinds of thrift.

The first of these is personal thrift. Among the most valuable things a good liberal education can contribute to students’ long-term happiness is an instinct for personal thrift. Such an education means more than understanding compound interest and learning that paying only the minimum credit card balance is a good way to stay in debt for 15 years.

Rather, a good liberal education develops the ways of thinking, inner resources and motivations for living within your means. And a really first-rate liberal education can do even better, motivating you to live below your means.

Deep thrift is a desire to acquire knowledge before things. It is recognizing that, magnified by the imagination, a financial carrot quickly becomes a stick.

Deep thrift is not the only goal of liberal education, but it may be the most fundamental. It is a foundation for making education genuinely liberal — that is, liberating. It is what enables you to articulate high goals and make choices according with your ideals.

Much in our culture encourages us to confuse liberty with purchasing power, mistake consumer choices for freedom.  But choosing not to purchase is often a true liberal art. The liberating force of thrift animates Thoreau’s insight that “a man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone.”

Next is social thrift. We exercise social thrift as we think seriously about investing in our relationships and affiliations, choosing them well and keeping them in good repair. Social thrift builds on personal thrift but also helps build it up. The stronger and more rewarding our social connections, the weaker the lure of “retail therapy” or status symbols to affirm our identities.

A third way to think of thrift is environmentally, what I call ecological thrift. To practice ecological thrift is to reduce our impact on the environment, trying to become less “expensive” in our many demands on the natural world. These are mostly of two kinds: demands on nature’s resources to support our habits of consumption and demands on its capacity to absorb our wastes. Together they add up to our “ecological footprint.”

A sobering education can be had in five minutes by logging onto the Global Footprint Network, calculating one’s own footprint, and comparing averages by country. According to GFN’s estimates, it would take between four and five planet Earths to sustain the global population at the U.S. standard of living.

As it is, the global population is “costing” about 1.7 Earths annually. Led by the most expensive among us, we earthlings are using resources at a much faster rate than they can naturally replenish themselves. The resulting deficit shows up as scarcer supplies and more plentiful pollution. This debt is one that should be making headlines. And how — not whether — to address it should be the focus of political debate.

An interesting alternative or complement to ecological thrift is the concept of “entropic thrift.” The basic idea is that we have an obligation — for the sake of the rest of the world and future generations — to minimize our consumption of “low-entropy” (or high-energy) resources and production of “high entropy” (or low-energy) wastes. It’s a provocative formulation because it reminds us that not just our fuels but virtually everything we use comes down to energy. Whatever it is, it takes energy to grow, harvest, build, package and dispose of it. Thus, energy is (as environmental philosopher Peter G. Brown puts it) a “fundamental good that underlies all other goods.” It is a requisite for life, including the life of future generations.

Thrift can provide a unified way of thinking about decisions we make at home and in the public world. In our homes, these range from what we buy to how many children we decide to have. In public, these include how we invest our labor (professional and volunteer), our money and our civic energies.

Learning deep thrift will be good for each of us and for what Pope Francis has called “our common home.” Let us use our liberal educations to thrive, to live below our means and above our wants.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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