Articulating the Obvious
How re-framing the limits of acceptable conversation could help break the destructive cycle of excessive consumption in the frum world
People who know me are already familiar with my reservations about the frum newspaper and magazine publishing industry. Consider these three facts:
Reading advertisements for commercial products and services is, as far as I can see, universally forbidden on Shabbos
It's known that the vast majority of frum magazines are read on Shabbos
Advertisers purchase ads on the assumption they'll be seen and read
I therefore find it curious that the core business model of one of the frum world's most visible and lucrative industries should be built on mass chillul Shabbos.
Nevertheless, the recent Pesach editions of some magazines provided particularly helpful illustrations of at least one aspect of the current state of the frum economy. A quick look through those editions required flipping through 100+ pages before finally reaching the first un-sponsored editorial content. In other words, full-page, full-color ads took up a nearly all of the overall content.
But it’s the ad content that (predictably) caught my attention. I saw appeals for familiar institutions and legacy manufacturers standing shoulder-to-shoulder with page after page promoting high-end jewelry and clothing, niche foods, exotic travel, and expensive college programs.
I’m not suggesting there’s anything wrong with a business catering to its market. But the fact that so many luxury markets exist and even thrive at such a scale tells us a lot about our community. Like, for instance, that while significant financial hardship impacts families at nearly every economic level (and more than one in five frum homes receives food stamps), an awful lot of money is being spent on what can only be described as excessive consumerism.
Groceries, rent/mortgages, tuition, and other basics aren’t optional. But what about all the silly stuff that is? Do $400 designer glasses work better than the prescriptions you fill online for $30? (Pro tip: industry insiders have told me that the frames all come from the same factories in Vietnam.) Do $400 shoes last ten times longer than their $40 Walmart doppelgangers? (Experience suggests that they often don’t.) Is a $30,000 stay at a Pesach hotel or a $100,000 chasuna worth the risk of bankruptcy and financial disaster?
We’ve all had private conversations where nearly everyone agrees we should be spending less. The wealthy are deeply concerned about having to support so many families collapsing under the weight of their debt. The middle class sees their hard-earned incomes swallowed whole by seminary, chasuna, and kollel-support expenses. And the less fortunate are being crushed by rising prices and the cost of finding suitable housing in frum neighborhoods.
So if (nearly) everyone agrees that change is necessary, why isn’t it happening? Why does the demand for ever more opulent lifestyle ornaments still seem to spiral steadily upwards?
Here's a thought. Lots of people I know want to get off the fancy consumer goods merry-go-round but feel powerless as long as "everyone else" still expects certain standards and behavior. Being social creatures, most people find it painful to feel different from the herd.
But people do tend to respond well to the right signals. And that’s where a phenomenon known as cascading preferences could come in. How does that work?
Up until the very end of the Soviet era, individual Russian citizens harbored intense personal distaste for communism and the authoritarian government that delivered it. But most assumed that their feelings weren’t widely shared. That was because social and legal restrictions on the free exchange of ideas made it nearly impossible - not to mention dangerous - to openly express ones thoughts.
Had you asked just about anyone living in the Eastern Bloc in those years, they would have assured you that the government still tightly controlled society and the odds against significant change weren’t worth calculating. But almost as soon as reforms permitted by Russian Secretary Gorbachev in the early 90s took hold, a torrent of previously pent up discourse was unleashed. Millions discovered that their hatred for their political system was, in fact, shared nearly universally. And opinions that had only recently been forbidden, were suddenly mainstream.
Change happened. The world experienced a cascading preference event.
I believe that it wouldn't take much for some publicly amplified signals to produce a similar change in the popular frum narrative which could, in turn, trigger a change in the way we talk about money. And in the way we spend it.
The trick is planting enough effective seeds in enough influential locations. Many public figures (like R’ Paysach Krohn and R’ Yissocher Frand) have been planting such seeds over recent years. Perhaps this article might be another one. Many more will be needed. But one day we might just wake up to a very different Jewish world.
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