Saturday, September 26, 2009

Moral Scrip

The New York Times -- and not even the Style Section -- has started reporting on coupon-clippers, a subject formerly the domain of Wife Swap and USA Today. These articles always have a strongly moralistic tone, and never more than in a recession. We hear about Heather Hernandez, who bought $160 worth of groceries for $30, and the implication is obvious: Why aren't you doing this?

"Coupons were not in vogue during our period of gluttonous consumption," but now that our GDP has fallen, the Times is suggesting that this boom in the coupon sector will ease the downturn. Later on, a spokesman for a coupon company suggests that "folks are going back to the basics, trying to live simpler lives," and are expressing this Arcadian simplicity by redeeming coupons.

At no point does the article note that using coupons is not real thrift. Reusing pickle jars, or starting a compost heap is thrifty. Coupons are just loss-leaders, mere marketing devices that stores use to get you inside their doors, where you will hopefully buy merchandise with a higher profit margin. Yes, some people game the system, piling coupon on coupon and cheating the stores out of their profits. And yes, the stores put up with it because the cost of people taking unfair advantage of coupons is outweighed by the customers who use them as intended. But the use of coupons doesn't add anything to the economy, doesn't save anything, and doesn't constitute a decline in "gluttonous consumption". Praising extreme coupon-clippers is exalting people who -- by unfair means -- are making things more expensive for you and me.

Articles about coupon freaks, like the concomitant articles about people who root through the gutters for pennies, manage to channel the normal human desire for thrift into a gigantic free rider problem. The obvious answer to the question of "why don't you do this?" is that if we all did it, the stores wouldn't issue so many coupons, and the mint wouldn't issue so many pennies. Rather than urge us not to be free riders on merchants' goodwill, the Times is pretending coupons are so much moral scrip, redeemable for prudence, diligence, conscientiousness, and ample smugness.


Blogger mac01021 said...

unfair means?

9:21 AM  
Blogger apk01004 said...

It's not fair to use so many coupons that the retailer loses money on your transaction. As I said, they let you get away with it (if only to avoid angering their good customers), but the elements of trickery, avarice and inequitability are all present, and I call that unfairness.

1:30 PM  
Blogger mac01021 said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

7:12 PM  
Blogger mac01021 said...

I do agree with you regarding the Times' take on the habits of coupon collectors but, if I were you, I would not be so opposed to their activity.

If enough people behave in such a fashion, the retailers will be less able to use such mechanisms to lure us into their stores.

It might lead to a general decline in the amount of deception that average shoppers like you and me need to endure.

7:43 PM  
Blogger pjkobulnicky said...

You said that composting was "thrifty". My son!

Just for that, I will send you a box of used pickle jars.


9:10 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home