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Karen Heller: The urge to buy turns on ethics

Say you're an optimist. Embracing two of the loveliest words in the English language - October baseball - you're ready to upgrade your viewing pleasure into the flat-screen, hi-def LCD world.

Say you're an optimist. Embracing two of the loveliest words in the English language -

October baseball

- you're ready to upgrade your viewing pleasure into the flat-screen, hi-def LCD world.

Welcome to the quagmire of contemporary consumption.

We now have greater knowledge of the socio-economic consequences of our purchases, but we also have less money, resulting in conflicting goals.

Right off the bat, it's virtually impossible to buy American-made electronics. Supporting a local business, though, keeps additional revenue in the community, though it can cost more.

Saving money by patronizing a big-box store means additional driving, a heftier carbon footprint. Yet national stores employ more people, often the young and less educated whom unemployment hits hardest. And some chains offer health benefits, stock options, and career advancement unavailable at small establishments.

Purchases in Philadelphia will soon be taxed two cents more on the dollar than in surrounding counties. Delaware levies no sales tax, but unless you live there, you have to drive there: more gas, more traffic. Shopping in Philadelphia helps where the revenue is sorely needed and where more independent businesses operate.

"Shopping is more complicated. It's an ethical decision as well, not just as a consumptive one, that always involves some kind of a trade-off," says Swarthmore College professor Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice.

"What seems trivial and completely inconsequential, the tyranny of small decisions, can ultimately contribute to the larger ethical story and make a difference."

If one person decides to buy a television from a chain, no problem. If everyone does, the local appliance shop closes, jobs are lost and, especially in this economy, a commercial corridor is diminished.

"I think a way out of this maze is to have rules," Schwartz says. He made a commitment long ago to shop locally, in the city, supporting independent shops.

Except that he uses Amazon, which is cheaper and easier. Netflix, too.

Increased awareness of our purchasing consequences isn't confined to one socio-economic group or political ideology. Buying green and supporting local businesses over chains seem like causes of the liberal educated elite, but they can overlap with core conservative values of maintaining jobs and buying domestic. Organized labor champions them as well.

In a rough economy, Americans are saving more and spending less. Consumer concerns become acute when every dollar means more, every action feels like a moral decision.

"There's conflict in choice, but people are happier when they feel that they are able to act in accordance with the identity they want to have," says Wharton School associate marketing professor Patti Williams. "All these grassroots decisions, if we can come together as a community, can make a collective difference at the local level."

Believe purchasing choices don't matter? At Wharton, Williams says, "we must have 40 people studying decision-making."

Consumer spending constitutes 70 percent of the national economy. In better times, consumption was driven by identity - buying Nikes, driving a Lexus, as a way of personal branding. "For most consumers, consumption is now more laden with negative emotions," Williams says. Increasingly, we're mindful of how we shop, our actions defining us as much as our acquisitions.

"Anything that encourages people to save, and buy less stuff, is a good thing while showing our responsibility to support issues that extend far outside the narrow confines of this transaction," says Schwartz. "It's fabulous to have a wise consumer, an ethical one, who is shrewd and discerning."

Even if it results in a full-blown existential consumer crisis that began with a notion as splendid as October baseball.