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    Keep Your Money Close

    What do we lose when we click that “buy now” button?

    By Jane Clark Scharl

    January 17, 2024
    • Fred Davie

      While I appreciate the richness and depth of this reflection, as a dark skinned African American man, who is rarely treated with courtesy by vendors and salespeople in any setting, regardless of their race or ethnicity, I’m grateful for Amazon and other online shopping platforms. It just makes my life a lot easier.

    I hate online shopping. It feels artificial and mechanistic. There isn’t even the tactile experience of swiping a card or tapping it before receiving a bag to heft as I walk out of the store. It’s also overwhelming: there’s always another slightly different option that might be slightly better than the option I have in my virtual cart. At the same time, it’s uninspiring, like walking through the world’s largest dollar store: tons of options but very few things I actually want to own.

    I hate in-person shopping even more. It’s inconvenient. When I need notebooks or underwear or shoes, I find myself torn between shuffling work assignments so I can go during the day or hauling my kids to the store after work, when everyone is tired. It’s also irritating: stores carry fewer items than they used to, meaning that after visiting a brick-and-mortar building I often end up ordering online anyway.

    I know some people like to shop. I’m not one of them (except for books). For me, the pull to online shopping was already strong, and then the Covid pandemic hit. Now, I find myself tempted to order everything from hand soap to coloring books to a new couch on Amazon and get it delivered right to my door.

    boxes on in the back of a delivery van

    Photograph by Claudio Schwarz.

    But more and more, I find myself wondering what giving in to that temptation is really costing me. What am I giving up when I hand my money over to Amazon in exchange for fast delivery and a wide range of mediocre goods? And why do I feel a stab of guilt when I hit that “buy now” button, even when the purchase is a responsible one, meaning it is built into my budget and is something my family needs?

    It’s not just me; I’ve talked with a number of people who admit to feeling anything from sheepish to downright ashamed about their reliance on Amazon. There’s a reason for that: this isn’t the way buying and selling is supposed to be. What have we lost?

    Some criticisms of online shopping focus on how it feeds our materialism, the excessive accumulation of unnecessary goods. That’s certainly an element of it. It’s also true that far too many junky things are being traded cheaply while genuine skills such as woodworking, metalworking, and appliance repair are disappearing. But that’s not all. When we acquire so many of our goods through one or two massive suppliers via the internet, we’re losing the experience of a basic human interaction: the tie of trade.

    Trade is more than a transaction. Selling is more than supplying. And money is more than a ticket to getting stuff. Scripture spends a seemingly inordinate amount of time on economic issues. Money and trade permeate even the teachings of Christ, who uses basic economics – trade, price, investments, etc. – in eleven of his parables to help his listeners understand the kingdom of heaven.

    Money and trade permeate the teachings of Christ, who uses basic economics in eleven of his parables to help his listeners understand the kingdom of heaven.

    Economics – the science of resources – is one of the main systems that mediate human relationships (taking its place among art, politics, religion, education, and justice.) This does not mean that humans are primarily economic beings; obviously we’re not. But we rely on economics to help us navigate a world governed by scarcity. So how do we bring that reality into alignment with the kingdom of God? I found the start of an answer in the concept of subsidiarity.

    Subsidiarity is part of Catholic social teaching, though many other groups ascribe to this idea as well. It is the principle that problems, whether social or political, should be addressed at the lowest possible level. For example, a dispute between neighbors should be dealt with by the immediate neighborhood; a citywide issue should be resolved at the municipal level, and only issues that truly need to be escalated to the state or federal level should be.

    If we apply subsidiarity to economic issues, I believe the problem with Amazon, online shopping, and other conglomerates becomes clear.

    C. S. Lewis hits on the problem in The Screwtape Letters, where he has the devil Screwtape urge his nephew Wormwood to mislead his human subject by directing his love as far away from “the real world” as possible. He urges Wormwood to push the human to love abstractions, like the far-off Germans, while treating his neighbors with disdain. This kind of “love,” which affects only our minds but does not push through to our actions, is no love at all.

    Keeping our economic power at the most local level possible can allow our economic interactions to express love. That’s right: not only our gifts but even our economic exchanges at stores and coffee shops or with contractors and repairmen can be loving, if they are conducted in the context of a personal relationship at the local level.

    It’s easy to bewail the rise of Amazon, but Amazon only perfected a process that started long ago. Sears Roebuck did it, but so did the Dutch East India Trading Company. This is the process of drawing commerce away from small local providers and centralizing it around huge suppliers, and more importantly, of pulling money away from local communities and dumping it into the coffers of massive conglomerates. Money is power, and companies like Amazon suck this economic power out of local communities and concentrate it far away. They violate the principle of subsidiarity in a profound way.

    It’s certainly true that Amazon has made it possible for us to obtain many goods that would otherwise be unavailable to us. But think about what else has happened because of this: local businesses have shut down, and even where they haven’t, the person-to-person interactions that happen when you go to a physical store are becoming less frequent. We truly do live a world of scarcity – a scarcity of basic human interaction.

    So what should we do? It may seem like Amazon is here to stay, or that the only thing capable of replacing it would be an even more intense economic concentrator (just as Amazon replaced Sears). And we have to live in the present. With that in mind, here are a few ideas about how we can keep our economic power at the local level, sharing it among our neighbors and friends.

    1. Remember bartering? One way that we can bring economic power back into our local communities is by rejecting the idea that trade requires money, choosing instead to exchange things we produce ourselves, whether it’s cage-free eggs, firewood, or knitted hats.
    2. Share what we already have. Our society tries to tell us that the newest things have the most value and that old or used things are worth less. That is not always true. Look through your closets and play rooms; there are probably toys or books or clothes that your children have outgrown or just didn’t love. Instead of leaving them there to take up space, organize an exchange with friends. Those items, wrapped up beautifully, will make excellent birthday gifts – with no economic power drained away to feed massive corporations.
    3. You can trade services too. If you (unlike me) are good at keeping your home clean of unnecessary items, consider trading services instead of goods, or even offering to help a friend or neighbor as a gift. The truth is that cleaning someone else’s house is never as odious as cleaning your own! Instead of buying a friend more things she may not need, consider how you can offer her a truly invaluable gift: a little time and leisure.
    4. Rely on community resources. Thrift stores abound in the United States, and they are often jammed with good-quality, lightly used items. And online marketplaces list used items for sale nearby at reasonable prices. There is also a proliferation of online Buy Nothing groups, in which neighbors share resources among themselves at no cost, from tools to baking ingredients to surplus garden produce. These are wonderful ways to find items that we otherwise might turn to Amazon to buy, and to meet neighbors who might even become friends.

    The reality is that most of us will have to buy some things online. But we don’t have to buy everything online, and we don’t have to completely sever our economic interaction from real, physical human exchanges. This year, I’ll be looking for more ways to keep my money in my local community – to apply the principle of subsidiary to my purchasing – and not just because I don’t like Amazon. It’s because love often looks much less polished and much more homemade than our culture would have us believe.

    Contributed By JaneClarkScharl2 Jane Clark Scharl

    Jane Clark Scharl is a poet and critic. Her poetry has appeared in many American and European outlets, including the BBC, the Hopkins Review, the New Ohio Review, the American Journal of Poetry, the Lamp, Measure Review, and others.

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