the economics of idealism

Like most of you, I am poorer than I have been in a while; I’ve been forced to tighten my actually budget. This has created a dilemma for this young, white, liberal, socially conscious Portlander: How many of my ethics can I afford? This is an especially important question in light of the #occupy protests and my sympathies to their goals. I can’t be out there day in day out protesting and marching; most of us can’t. We can, however, protest in a different way by making strategic decisions about who we give our money to. Unfortunately those decisions are often more expensive, and there’s the dilemma again: how does one aspire toward ethical living on increasingly limited resources?

We can’t all shop at New Seasons, Whole Foods or whatever local, artisan, organic grocer you may or may not have. We can’t all afford a Leaf or a Prius. We can’t all afford to put solar panels on our homes (if we even own one). We can’t all afford Tom’s Shoes, or (I think I might throw up in my mouth) American Apparel. There’s a lot that most of us simply can not afford to do. And frankly, some of these things we shouldn’t do. The Tom’s Shoes, Whole Foods and Prius’s of the world are fashionable and often impotent purchases that mostly serve to console the consciences of wealthy white liberals. That doesn’t mean we’re forced to give over to conspicuous consumption. The fact that we aren’t able to fully able to realize our ideals doesn’t speak to their lack of utility, but to the fact that they are ideals. We live in a broken world, and it won’t change overnight.

Ethics and Austerity can coexist. Here are some ways:


There is a lot that can be said about being, or at least attempting to be financially ethically responsible. Recently, Citibank had twenty three of its customers arrested for attempting to close their bank accounts. Oh wait, no, they were arrested for being loud about it. Whatever. If you believe, as I do, that financial organizations like Citibank, Bank of America, Goldman Sachs, et cetera are responsible for (what should be) criminal economic activity, you have a responsibility to take your money out of these institutions. Long before recent regulations prohibited predatory practices like forcing customers to opt in to overdraft “protection” and biggest check first, Credit Unions protected their members by treating them as shareholders, because that’s exactly what they are. You won’t find five dollar “debit card usage” theft, double ATM fees, or often times even any ATM fees at most local credit unions. Find a credit union and move your money, transfer your credit card balance, and if you can, refinance your mortgage. You can do no greater harm, or make no greater statement to our financial system than this.


  • Learn to cook! This is my number on suggestion for ethical eating. You will not only save a ton of money by not eating out, but you have control of your diet and what goes in your body. Protip: When inspecting veggies, 4 digit item codes are conventionally (pesticides, chemical fertilizer) grown, 5 digit codes are either GMO (start with the number 9) or industrial organic/organic (start with the number 8). Get a cook book and start with a few, simple recipes and experiment from there. It is not nearly as hard as you think.
  • I shop at a few different places. Farmers Markets are best, but not always available. I also go to grocery outlet stores. These are nearly expired or dented items. This may not be New Seasons, but it cuts down on staggering amount of food that is wasted in this country.
  • In the meat department of most grocery stores there is a section for nearly expired meats that will be marked down significantly. This meat is not bad, nor is it about to go bad. It is only nearing its FDA expiration date. Buy it. Freeze it. Eat it later. Stop the waste. If you’re adventurous and not willing to hold me legally responsible because I’m not condoning it: dumpster dive.
  • Buy in bulk. Find the bulk section at your supermarket and buy beans, rice, oats, gains and flour at a steep discount from prepacked varieties. Even New Seasons is affordable in this regard.
  • Save your scraps. I have a plastic bag in my freezer full of chicken bones that I am saving to make chicken stock with. I have veggie scraps for vegetable stock, and a healthy compost going for my garden.


  • Aside from underwear, I haven’t bought a new piece of clothing in three years. You can save money by shopping at used clothing retailers, or you can help a cause by going to Goodwill, Salvation Army and other charity thrift stores. The things I’ve found are quality, often name brand and a fraction of the price. Enough said.


  • I work at the airport. It would take me 45 minutes to drive in to work, park, and then take the employee shuttle in. I would spend approximately $4-5 on fuel. Instead, I ride my bike to the train station (~15 minutes), and $2.40 and exactly twenty-six minutes later I’m at work. Bonus: I can read a book and drink coffee.
  • Do you only occasionally need a car? Services like zipcar are making this a very affordable possibility.
  • The obvious old standby for those who can’t bike, bus or train: carpooling. Saves money and greenhouse gases.

I’ve got it easier than most people. I live in a city that has great local and public infrastructure built in. We grow almost everything in Oregon, so most of the food I buy hasn’t come far. We’re one of the most bikeable cities in the world, and have an excellent public transportation system, so I don’t have to worry about whether or not I’ll get to work on time. Buying and wearing used clothing is hip, so everyone does it. We think and act local, and we’re proud of it. The sound of the other shoe dropping is the fact that it’s this way because we made it this way. There isn’t some magical (or nefarious, for you doubters out there) government program that created all of this infrastructure for us. We have our values and ideals, and we reach for them. After all, they are ideals. It starts with one person; it starts with you. Live life with your ethics, ideals and values in mind, and shape your environment with them.


2 thoughts on “the economics of idealism

  1. Great post. “Ethics and austerity can coexist.” It says a lot about the dominant culture that we have to even make assertions like that (in some ways, I think the Amish got it right…).

    • Thanks Jasmin –

      I actually had the amish in mind when writing this. I recently read an article (which I now can’t find) about how the amish weren’t hit nearly as hard during this recession because of how they treat debt.

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