Why do we seek to buy stuff, but not give money?

Posted on March 20, 2011 by


Strolling through the CSULB campus on a sunny Tuesday afternoon.

Up ahead of me as I think I’m headed for a meeting with a fellow classmate at a Starbucks.

I pass through two students, handing out flyers, backed by a table of 6 or 7  students.

To my right, as I’m walking, the dude hands me a flyer and makes me pause for a milli, a milli, a milli-second when he says “Would you like to donate to the [Japanese] Tsunami victims?”

Well, yeah.  I thought to myself.

Having spent some time watching videos of houses, cars, objects —  lifetimes of work, being swept away in a matter of minutes by tsunami waves, the least I could do is be grateful that I have whatever it is I have.  I could also drop whatever it is I do have to people who’d lost everything.

However, for the time being, I was just going to take the flyer and see where and how I could contribute.

Still walking towards my meeting at Starbucks, I looked down at the flyer, and noticed that it had no contact information.

I plopped down outside in a patio seating area.

Behind me in a quad area, I noticed that there was some kind of rummage, overstock sale.  This was for the clothing brand Stussy.  On this nice sunny afternoon, tons of people searching for the best deals on sweaters, shirts, pants.

This sequence and juxtaposition of events that sorta bothered me.  On one hand people asking money to donate to people who’d just lost their livelihoods.  Passersby can barely get people to stop for even a second.

On the other hand, people freely choosing to seek out their bundles of clothes on discount.  All the time and energy that people don’t have for Tsunami victims and use to get away from victims, they suddenly have when they go shopping for shoes.

It hit me that the Stussy people probably didn’t have to flyer for what they were selling.  Students by the dozens flocked on over to pick up sweaters, hold them out, put em back.

Far as I know, there weren’t Stussy representatives trying to hand anyone anything, just a bunch of cashiers ready to take their money.

Why do we seek to buy things?

I’m not blaming the people who flocked to Stussy.  I think it’s just the way “we” have been hardwired.  “We” meaning people who’ve lived in a city in America all their lives.

Myself, on that very Tuesday afternoon, I found the temptation to search and buy headphones that didn’t punish my ears.  I almost felt “hardwired” or “programmed” to going into the CSULB bookstore.  Instead, I felt I had to pull my own teeth in giving that money I would’ve spent on headphones to the table of students representing the Tsunami victims.

In my head after I’d made the conscious decision to donate  were a bunch of questions:  What is that I’m doing when I’m buying something?  Why did it feel like I was pulling teeth to make a donation to the Red Cross?

The easy answer has been explained by “rational choice”, meaning that almost always act on our “own individual interests.”

But were not all robots programmed when and where to give, we do have our altruistic moments and personally, from riding the Metro Blue Line, I know that my own giving is not really random, but I do have moments when I do give.

In the words of one of my favorite professsors, we should “unpack” when those altruistic moments happen.

What is it that I’m doing when I’m buying something?  What personal needs and desires are being satisfied?

I think the desire of buying stuff is gaining the ability to enable or enhance an experience.

Acquiring the object, the service, or getting rights to something is about imagining the possibilities with the new object in tow, at your command and “living up” that experience.

Use that Stussy sweater to keep you warm, to communicate your “hood identity” (ridiculouslystupidpuns.com), communicate to a potential sexual partner your prowess.  Or with your balling ass fixed up computer, finally download all that porn you’d wanted to get your um…hands on.

Enabling or enhancing experience.

We also buy stuff that is the experience itself.  We buy Disneyland and Universal season passes.  We don’t actually acquire anything other than “rights” to be taken on “trips” to Jurassic Park or through the rollercoaster loops of the Viper (provided you are “54 or taller)  We buy trips to Greece, trips to Cambodia, trips to Long Beach.

I think that perhaps if we made giving to the Tsunami victims, something experiential for individuals, then maybe we’d get somewhere.

Taking a cue from religion

The late George Carlin once lamented on religion’s ability to sustain itself economically based on steadfast donations from adherents.

I’d always wondered how people could donate to churches.

After 12 years going to Catholic schools in Los Angeles from a Catholic household, I am pretty adamantly agnostic/pantheist.  What I identify as is not a “soft atheism.” I actually accept people of any creed and I’m always down to learn more, which is pretty much why I’m used to letting campus ministry people ambush me.

This past weekend I was at a Baptist service.

I’d carried in my head that Baptists were some of the strictest and most Conservative Christians.  I was trying to understand how people could continue on with such a ritual.

What I noticed was a pretty good aesthetic feel.  There was a very enthusiastic singing that didn’t stop.  The pastor channeled stories that I related to way more than anything that I’d experienced at a Catholic school and/or church.  He really imbued even me with his message of hope and perserverance.

After one song without as much of a milli-second, the service set up a powerpoint business presentation about the need for a new library for the church.  They sold us on the need for parish children to have a safe space, and more room to sell bibles and other writings.

Without as much of a milli-second, we went on to the next song.  No chance to reflect, answer, pontificate.  It was something that needed to be done.

For the sake of an enhanced experience.

I don’t know how successful his efforts were, but looking at how large the church was and how fervent the congregation seemed to be, and how much food there was, I’m thinking there was probably “something” to what he was doing.

How do we create a culture of giving?

I think the way we are attracted to and spend money is based on some combination of experience, ritual, and addiction.

The way our society and cultures are structured, the way those businesses have developed their brands has been structured to create a magnetism around them that attracts and addicts people to what they have, almost regardless of circumstances.  A magnetism simply not present in simply donating money to the Red Cross or any other relief, nonprofit.

So I guess the question I’m interested in exploring,  engaging, dialoguing  “how do we create a magnetism for relief, nonprofits, and well just ordinary folk in general?”