Monday, November 17, 2008

Shop 'til You Drop . . . or Until the Economy Collapses

Who knew that George W. Bush was right? After 9/11, he instructed the citizenry to go out and shop. Shop because that's what real Americans do. Shop or the terrorists win.

Well, he was only partly right to tell us to shop; he missed the boat by not giving us the most important reason to keep on spending, even in the face of a national disaster of epic proportions:

Americans have to shop or our economy collapses and when that happens, the world's economy collapses, too.

Easy to get, sub-prime mortgages were a boon to shoppers looking for homes. The fact that our country became an importer reliant on schlocky, cheap, Third World-manufactured products was a gift to shoppers looking for bargain prices. The stock market was a fabulous windfall for shoppers looking for a secure retirement. So shop, fellow Americans, and keep the machinery of consumerism chugging along!

Until everything falls apart.

Turns out the entire financial system of our country (and much of the world) was being run like a shameless scam maybe one notch better than a Ponzi scheme. The guys on top were raking in plenty of money (they always do) and most of the rest of the population of the western world consisted of poor suckers who thought that happy days were here again forever. Not so.

Recently I've read several fine articles and posts about the precarious state of our economy and its effects on corporations and individuals. I'm particularly fond of one in the LA Times by Judith Freeman, who wrote a touching story from a different perspective. It's called "Americans or Economic Beasts of Burden?" in which she writes about having observed people over the years as they shopped in thrift stores. But she begins her article with her memory of a night that she says haunts her to this day:

"On the night of Aug. 21, 2001, my husband and I checked into a motel in Miles City, Mont. Once settled, we poured ourselves a glass of wine and turned on the TV in order to relax after a long day's drive. I've never forgotten that night. It's haunted me ever since. An economist on the evening news was discussing the economy, then in the midst of a serious slump. The economist looked into the camera and said, 'If the American consumer packs it in, the entire global economy is in jeopardy. The American consumer better hang tough or we're in real trouble.'

"I don't think I had ever before quite understood in such stark terms just what beasts of burden we'd become. What the economist said made me realize something I'd never considered -- that the entire global economy, as he put it, depended on Americans continuing to consume."

Notice that the economist made this observation prior to 9/11 so the foundation for Bush's exhortations to keep shopping was already in place.

Ms. Freeman concludes her article with speculation about a possible benefit from the current malaise that is keeping shoppers from doing their "civic duty" -- I agree with her:

"It seems to me there might be a good side to this. It's as if the consuming fever has broken, if only temporarily. We're disinclined to carry more debt or keep shopping, even if we could, even knowing that the entire global economy might depend on us getting and spending. We're all wondering where this economic meltdown is headed, and how long it might last . . . And will there be a time when we can hope to be relieved of our burden of hanging tough? Can there be some different kind of engine to drive the world economy other than the endless, often mindless consumption by ordinary Americans?"

Yes, there must be another way. I'm a great believer in hope for the future and feel optimistic that this economic downturn is part of the endless cycle that humanity seems intent on repeating: greed that gets out of control until the system collapses; then a period of reflection, restructuring and ethical, responsible behavior that builds until opportunities are so prevalent that greed kicks in again.

Okay, on the face of it that doesn't sound particularly hopeful, but I like to think of the process as a spiraling forward motion in which, over time, more and more people become responsible and ethical, while fewer and fewer people are tempted by greed.

So, even though we're in turmoil and certainly many people are suffering, on a larger scale, maybe we're headed toward that rebirth of a caring, less consumption-oriented society. Maybe we're realizing that we don't have to shop 'til we drop to keep the world afloat. And maybe that realization will help us ensure that the terrorists won't ever win.

© 2008 Cynthia Friedlob

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