Friday, November 7, 2008

Era of consumer excess finally over?

The New York Times this morning says "sales at the nation's largest retailers fell off a cliff in October." Of course, the economy is the immediate cause, but it's seemed for a while that the 40-year orgy of spending beyond our means for more and cheaper stuff, financed by home equity and more work hours, has to end and now maybe it really will.

I know modern consumption really got going in the 1920s with the expanded use of credit, and so it's already survived one global economic depression. And I know any permanent declines in the level of consumption will bring real hardship and wrenching change given how much of our economy it drives.

Consumption in the 30s needed a boost, but ours is still over the top, even in its current contracting state. It's not that we buy stuff - it's that we buy more than we need and worse, we throw away perfectly good stuff when we're tired of it and buy more. It's bad for our wallets, bad for our environment, and is only so important for our economy because we're addicted.

So let's kick the addiction, we can all help: I'll buy less, and try to buy clothes I need from the consignment store. I'll encourage my government to spend MORE - not wastefully, but on infrastructure and clean-up. Fixing bridges and razing dilapidated buildings does more for me and creates more worthwhile jobs than giving me tax rebates to buy more TVs and fashionable shoes I don't really need. And the people who get those jobs DO need to consume more, though I'd like my government to figure out how to encourage them to spend the extra money on health and education.

I realize this is simplistic and there are a lot of issues. I fundamentally believe it's time to consign the Consumer Era to the history books. I've no idea how to do it, but will start with Gandhi's admonition to "become the change we seek."

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