Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Consumer Sanity


Yeah. That's the way the headline ought to read, ain't it? Except, it really doesn't. Instead, what we read about is Wall Street shitting itself because consumer spending dropped for the sixth straight month. (God, that's hard to say out loud..."Sixth straight month." Try it three times, real fast!) And as always, I feel so intellectually inadequate when I try to wrap my mind around these gargantuan concepts. Like...how did we get here??

I'm told that consumer spending accounts for (take your pick) 70%/two-thirds of our economy. HOW?!? How did we get to that point? What accounted for the majority of our economy 100 years ago? 'Cause, I can't believe that it was consumer spending. Don't misunderstand: I'm not advocating a return to subsistence living, and I know that we're such a huger country now than we were then. I know we can't put the genie back in the bottle...I just want to understand. Like, does anyone have a book to recommend? Preferably titled "The Economy from 1900-2000: How We Got Here from There."

I know that we've cut back in our household. Oh, I don't mean on things we actually want; we're doing our best to keep the economy afloat, sometimes all by our lonesome! We recently bought a giant storage bench to keep The Rozzle's "downstairs toys" in. I still buy "necessary" items from Amazon (like gifts for upcoming occasions, movies with the Gene Krupa Orchestra that I recently discovered, etc.). No, our cutbacks have been at a basic level; things that, having cut back, I don't really see returning to previous spending levels. F'r instance: wine. We'd been gradually pushing our per-bottle limit up to the $9.99-$12.99 range...and that's for sale bottles, which originally started at $15.99 or more. (I blame most of that movement on our go-to wine friends Andy & Carmen, who, goddammit, simply drink wine that's too good. Now that we haven't seen them in months, I'm okay drinking corporate swill again.) I've pushed us back to bottles that top out at $7.99, and most of them come in a buck or two less than that. Organics are a similar story: I have deep convictions about buying organic when I can, but when the organic version of (fill in the blank) is $2.29, and the non-organic version is $1.19, well...I save a buck-ten on a dozen items, and that starts to make a real difference. I'm also using more coupons, and being really insistent about getting our bag credit.

Other cuts: I'm driving slower and less aggressively, which saves on gas. We're eating less meat - not abandoning it altogether, just reducing our input by, say, one or two meals a week. Veggies and beans and rice are cheaper than meat. When I buy clothes - which is far less often than "the norm" seems to be - I never pay full price, either buying cool vintage or drastically-reduced sale items. I've stopped my monthly comic pulls, and if I get into the mood to catch up on what the Fantastic Four or Hulk are doing, I'll buy a year's worth of issues from an online retailer, usually at 30-40% off the original cover price. I've stopped so-called "impulse" buys almost completely. I still buy what I want/need, but in general I think about most purchases first. "New bench to store Rozzle's toys in?" Check. "Cool vest that's been marked down 50%?" Check. "New shoes because I'm tired of the old ones that still fit fine and are totally comfortable" Ch--, er, wait a minute. Let's wander around the store, come back & look at 'em a few times. Ahh, nope. Don't need 'em. Walk away.

That makes sense, though, right? When did we become a country of impulse-buyers, a society so in need of instant gratification? Did someone convince us that that was either 1) necessary, or even 2) a good idea? If so, who? Maybe this comes out of the concept that each successive generation is supposed to "have it better" than the previous. What does that even mean? How am I supposed to "be better off" than the Boomers? Am I supposed to make more money? Should I buy more crap that I don't really need? Or, is it okay to make less money, to have fewer things, but still "be better off" by having a richer life, by knowing what's important? So many philosophical quandries....

Ultimately I think it's a good thing for Americans to discover that instant gratification is a spiritual dead-end, and that having, I don't know, 36" plasma-screen TVs in every room isn't necessary. But now that we've gotten to this point of propping up our economy with that kind of brash spending...what takes its place? What if we (gulp!) actually decide to save 10% of our annual income and think about what that'll mean for the comfort of our retirement years? Well, then, lots of those jobs that have been lost in the last few years...they ain't ever comin' back. Could we do that? Is it even possible to shrink our economy in that way? Or, would that put us in a permanent Depression? Have we become too big a society - in terms of literal numbers of people - to even think about that? What happens if 35 million people - 10% of our population - are just...out of work, permanently? We already don't make so much of the stuff we buy in this country; what if we just start buying less, and keep buying less? That seems like the most sensible solution...so why, if that happens, are we so fucked?

So many questions...so few answers. Big problems that seem insurmountable. A path that must lead forward, but is shrouded in mist. Where do we go from here?


Blogger Strangeite said...

Yeah. I have a couple of books to recommend that people have seem to have forgotten.

The first is "An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations" by Adam Smith. It is amazing how so many so-called "free market capitalists" have not read this book despite it being THE seminal work on the subject.

The second book that specifically deals with the changes to the economy after World War II is John Galbraith's "The Affluent Society". The book was written in 1958 but in my opinion clearly outlines the path we were own as an economy and he correctly predicts the concentration of wealth in the private sector at the expense of social programs.

12:16 PM  

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