Black Friday Bargains

Sermon given by guest preacher Rev. Dawn Fortune, November 26, 2017.

It is the weekend of Black Friday: American Consumerism’s Retail High Holiday. It is that special time of year when good people are willing to beat one another senseless or trample the poor shopping mall security guard who unlocks the door at the start of the holiday gift-purchasing season to get to the sale items first.

I remember a time not so long ago when I would spend at least some part of Thanksgiving day poring over the sale flyers from the newspaper, plotting out a day-long plan of attack: We’d get to this store when it opened at 6, and that one had an item going on sale at 7:30, and this other one had discounts that ran until noon. Considerations were made for travel time and where to have lunch, but still, I remember arriving home after a long day on the road, having waged valiant battle against the shopping hordes to secure the most popular or important holiday gifts.

Those were the days when I was willing to sacrifice sleep and sanity in order to purchase the things I wanted. Today, I hold a much higher value on sleep and sanity, and stay home if at all possible on Black Friday.

Which is the larger question I offer for consideration this morning: how do we assign value to things in our lives, and what price are we willing to pay for the things we want?

The congregation I serve in New Jersey held our annual services auction earlier this month. I know this congregation has a similar auction, as do many congregations. 

Auctions are a curious thing. They take the most raw bits of capitalism and democracy and mash them together in an event that is part public, part private, part shouted, part written, and flavored with a bit of strategy and subterfuge. It’s part town meeting, and part economic free-for-all. Imagine a financial mixed martial arts cage match – among congregation members and friends.

And the results are sometimes goofy and unexpected. A sermon on a topic chosen by the winning bidder might go for $5 or it might go for $500. Antique glass sometimes goes for pennies on the dollar of its actual worth, and sometimes competing bidders will drive up the price of a beat-up item of questionable value in their effort to cause grief to each other.

It is an interesting study in human behavior – the psychology of people in groups, the sociology in action. 

In a logical world, the items worth the most money would draw the highest bids. But that’s not what happens in an auction. People develop emotions – sometimes strong emotions – about the purchase of a particular item, causing them to spend truly out-sized amounts of money to get it.

Sometimes, if an item does not have a lot of sparkle or pizzazz, a bidder who acts calm and relatively disinterested can walk off with a real bargain.

Richard Thaler recently won the Nobel Prize in Economics for his work integrating human psychology with economic behavior.

Thaler made his legacy by comparing how people’s emotional attachment – how we assign value – to a thing as having significantly more influence than simple reason when it comes to making economic decisions, even to the point where we will make economic choices that are directly in our own worst interest because of the emotions we have and judgments we make around that decision.

In fact, if we are applying “the fairness principle,” Thaler says we are likely to exhibit one (or more) of three preferences in our interactions:

  1. “Some individuals will behave fairly towards others even in anonymous settings without reputational concerns;
  2. Some individuals are willing to forego resources to punish individual that behaved unfairly toward them;
  3. Some individual are willing to forego resources to punish unfair behavior and norm violations even if the unfair behavior was directed toward someone else.”

I think that final point can be extrapolated to include the notion that people will endure pain and suffering for themselves in order to make a statement about how they dislike someone or something.

I read an article by Michael Kruse in the online magazine Politico a couple weeks ago that offered a curious application of this phenomenon in the field of politics instead of economics:

“Johnstown, [Pennsylvania] voters do not intend to hold the president accountable for the nonnegotiable pledges he made to them. It’s not that the people who made Trump president have generously moved the goalposts for him. It’s that they have eliminated the goalposts altogether.”

The people he interviewed were willing to vote against their own interests in order to express their disdain for the way things are done in Washington, DC. They were willing to pay a high price – their access to health care, veterans’ benefits, AFDC, and a host of other programs that serve those who are struggling at the margins of our economy. They were willing to put all that on the chopping block to send a message. That’s a high price indeed.

I bought some furniture recently in an estate sale auction. I got a very nice Sealy loveseat for around 35 dollars. I paid the same price for a matching armchair. And then I paid similar amounts for the end tables and lamps that went with the set. The coffee table ran me around 30, and the sofa was just under 150. Oh, and I got a nice set of six high-backed, upholstered seat, dining room chairs for fifteen bucks. I’m not sure I needed another set of dining room chairs, but FIFTEEN DOLLARS!!! And once I put the leaves in my table, they’ll fit nicely.

So here’s the weird thing: as I assembled my list of things I wanted, my devotion to having the entire set grew, as did my willingness to pay for them. The price for the couch stayed pretty steady in the last hours of the auction, but the loveseat and chair both bounced around a little bit. I find it curious that I was willing to pay as much for a chair that one person could sit in as I was for the loveseat, which holds two. And proportionately, the sofa went for a larger than appropriate figure.

With the coffee table set, it was the same. The coffee table – the big piece – did not draw a lot of attention, but those little end tables drew as much as the chair and loveseat. Each. That bothered me – that I just paid in the neighborhood of $75 for two little tables with not quite attractive lamps on them, when I paid less than $40 for the large coffee table. Just in the value of the materials alone, that makes no sense.

But when our emotions get engaged, our logic takes a hit. 

With my adventure in furniture shopping, I bought (mostly) stuff I needed to furnish my new home. But as I was bidding, in the final minutes of the auction, I was aware of the feeling of anxiety and excitement in my body, and my impulse to keep raising my bid to “win.” I confess that I got almost all the things I decided I wanted, but I did not go over my pre-set limit, so that’s good. On the other hand, I wonder how rational I was when I set that limit.

For centuries, nay, for millennia, humans have bargained and traded for goods and services. The value of goods depends on many things, including standard market forces of supply and demand. Demand is the wild card here – demand hinges upon the value we place upon something.

Our nation, like much of western civilization, has been wrestling with the falsely competing values of security and freedom. 

Benjamin Franklin famously said “Those who give up freedom for security deserve neither.”

We hold very dear our constitutional rights and freedoms. Our general understanding of the limits of individual rights is that my rights end at the point where they infringe upon yours.

And yet, we have proven time and again that we value the second amendment rights of gun owners to stockpile weapons of mass killing potential over the lives of children in schools, customers in movie theaters, kids in high school cafeterias, little children in classrooms, and worshippers in a tiny little Baptist church in Sutherland Springs, Texas.

I wonder what would happen if we took stock of what we have – I mean *really* took stock of all our assets – our health, our bodies, time with our families, our minds, our comfort, our security, our educations, our freedoms, our independence. What would happen if we deeply considered all of those things, and then considered what we are willing to give up to have them.

OR consider which of them we would sacrifice in pursuit of something else.

Are we willing to give up our health for our comfort? Think of people who work in coal mines, or in jobs that are physically punishing to their bodies… what would we do to get an education? Or so our kids could get an education? Would we mortgage the house? Would we take on a second job? Change how we eat and shop and spend money?

What would we pay for our freedom? And what does freedom look like? Does freedom mean a lack of all rules and laws? Is it anarchy? Or is freedom living in a covenanted community, freely gathered, but where there are rules – or at least expectations – around our behavior? Do speed limits encroach upon our freedom? 

What are we willing to pay for security? In our homes, we shell out money to security firms who put little magnetic devices or cameras all over. Cameras mean we lose some of our privacy in order to feel safe.

Regionally, we sacrifice our tax dollars for things that make us safe, like guardrails on the road, and airplane safety equipment.

Nationally, we are willing to sacrifice the lives of our young (and some not so young) soldiers to keep America safe, or at least to support our political and economic interests at home and abroad.

For a young person graduating high school without a scholarship and no way to pay for college, they are sometimes willing to give up four years of their lives in the armed services to get access to a college education or advances skill training programs. They literally are willing to pay with their lives in order to get access to an education. That’s how much they value that education. 

On the international stage, the united states is willing to use our resources, including out soldiers, to engage in programs knowing we will lose significant numbers of people, in order to thwart the plans of our adversaries. In that case, we are paying a high price indeed to punish another’s behavior. Perhaps they were unfair to us, or to our allies.

We decide, individually, and as a larger community, what price we are willing to pay for what thing we value.

As a nation, we have decided that regular reports of dozens of dead children is the price we are willing to pay for unrestricted access to firearms. Nine people studying their bible shot down at Mother Emanuel church, 50 dead in a gay club in Orlando, 60 at a country music concert in Las Vegas, 26 this month at a little Baptist church in Texas, thousands every month. 33,000 on average each year, killed by gun violence.

As a nation we have decided that we are willing to let some police behave badly in exchange for something we choose to call peace. Over 1,000 people have been killed by police in the US so far this year. 

We have decided that we’d rather have shiny and powerful machines of war than pay for the care of veterans who fight those wars.

Reinhold Niebuhr talked about human morality as behaving differently depending upon whether we are alone or in groups. “Moral Man in Immoral Society,” the title of his book, really says it all. We who consider ourselves moral beings, will sometimes fail to act when we are in a group if nobody else is acting. We are able to engage a sort of mental filter that removes troublesome stuff from our area of concern. “Oh, someone will get that.” “It seems like a problem, but I’m a stranger. Maybe this is how things are here.” “Nobody else is complaining, it must be the accepted way of things…”

Sometimes we decide that tranquility is worth more than speaking out against injustice. Speaking out is to take a chance, to risk being unpopular, going against the grain, drawing attention to an embarrassing thing – perhaps the emperor has no clothes. Sometimes, seeing injustice is the price we pay for our own emotional comfort.

I attended a workshop one time on conflict management in congregations, and the presenter offered this observation: if there is a thing – a disruptive thing, perhaps – that happens in your annual congregational meeting, or each year during the holiday fair, or whatever it is – if there is this disruptive or inappropriate thing that happens and it has happened for three years or more, the congregation has decided – as a collective body – even though it may never have been spoken aloud, that this thing is acceptable in this space and at this time.

So, considering what we bought – or not – in this weekend’s economic mosh pit, what does that bring up for us?

What is it we want, but perhaps cannot afford to pay what is required to get it?

What is it that we are willing to pay – in resources or ethics or virtue – to maintain our own comfort?

We are living in trying times. These are the kinds of times that require us to make decisions based upon what we value, and how much we value it. 

This week, I invite you to examine that balance sheet and consider if it represents what you want in yourself. Am I willing to be uncomfortable in order to have this thing? To do that is to risk vulnerability – is the benefit worth the risk? And factor in all the surrounding feelings as well – if I do this thing, my risks are a, b, c. If I don’t do it, what are my risks? Will I regret my actions? Will I regret my failure to act?

As you go through your week, I invite you to consider these questions when you are faced with a choice that challenges you. Be mindful of your feelings, your emotions, and what role your reason plays in your decision. How does your decision-making reflect your professed values? Does it?

May such mindfulness ever be our practice and our prayer.

Blessed be.