Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Perils of Consumerism

A few weeks ago, I was talking with my friend David, an ardent Republican, about the State of the Union address. I mentioned to him that I thought the President had a difficult line to walk. On the one hand, he has to deny that there is anything wrong with the economy (because either he needs to avoid responsibility for the mess that the country is in or because the markets can tank based on his speech). At the same time, he has the entire country listening for his solutions, to a problem that he cannot acknowledge exists. This entire line of conversation caused David and me to discuss the economy at length. One of the conclusions we jointly came to is that American consumerism is at fault for much of the state of our country.

Whether or not one wants to acknowledge that there is a problem with our current economy, it appears that either the state of the economy itself or with people’s perceptions of the state of the economy are the direct result of the excess of American consumerism and our consumer-driven economy. Take the housing crisis, as an example. The breakdown of the subprime mortgage industry was a result of consumers wanting to find ways to buy bigger and better houses than they could realistically afford, and of a banking industry looking for new market for their products (i.e., loans). Another example is the public’s feelings of concern about gasoline prices and the rise of food prices, and those of other products. America runs on a debt-based economy. Stores entice people to buy products they cannot currently afford by offering zero-interest financing if the loan is paid within a fixed amount of time. Even if consumers can afford the payments on these loans, in my opinion, there are psychological effects from carrying a debt load. Ramifications include worry about the future and what will happen if one encounters a negative event, such as being laid off from one’s job. Therefore, no matter if the economy is really on solid ground, people are left concerned about the future.

One of the pitfalls of raising children today is that there is a distorted view of what a “normal” household owns, consumes or acquires. When I was growing up, it was normal for a middle-class family of five (families were larger back then) to live in a 1,600 square foot rambler. Now, that home would be considered much too small for a family of that size. A home that size could not hold a wide screen television, a Viking stove, or any of the other accoutrements that are deemed necessary or desirable for a home. Many people buy new cars before the loans are paid off on their last purchase. Many households have at least two, if not more, televisions. Party line telephones are unheard of. I saw a reference that stated that average teenage girls spend $1,100 a year on clothing. However, this is not the whole story.

The reality is that our economy would come to a screeching halt if Americans stopped their endless consumption. Corporations target, and stockholders expect and demand, growth year after year after year. Planned obsolescence is a fundamental part of their business plans. Worse than that, Americans complacently buy products that break, fall apart, stop working or are no longer functional after a short amount of time, without protest. After 56 years in the business, a television repair shop in Fremont is closing its doors. Why? Because it is almost cheaper to replace a television than to repair it, and Americans are not offended with the idea of throwing a broken television into a landfill so that they can buy a newer model. The best essay I have seen on this subject is a Seattle Times article titled, “Articles of Faith: Consumerism is a greedy society’s religion.”

Aside from the effects of unbridled consumerism on the housing market or the psyche of individual consumers, there is a real impact on the health of our society. Americans are working longer hours and taking less vacation than ever before. Only fourteen percent of Americans will take a vacation of two weeks or longer. Americans have astronomical rates of heart disease, partly due to our diet. However, there is also a connection between vacations and heart health. The reality is that many people take their vacations in shorter bursts, or in the form of cash, partly because they want to avoid being overloaded at work when they return, or the cash would enable them to purchase yet again another product. Americans work habits are also taking a toll on families who are stressed and are unable to find time to be together. Daycare providers are parenting children so that parents can work more to pay for their families perceived “needs.”

Even though American consumers reigning in their debt would cause the economy to slow, I believe that we are a resilient society that can devise other, less destructive, ways for our markets to work. For the sake of American society, families, health, prosperity and, not the least, our environment, endless consumption must cease. I wholeheartedly welcome planned obsolescence for the “product” of consumer debt.

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