Sunday, December 12, 2010

Spending Our Way -- commentary

We are again spending our way through a happy holiday season with Christmas representing the epitome of a consumer economy, lured on by the plethora of ads stuffed into our daily newspapers.

I am no economist and don’t understand that complex science, but I am troubled by an economy based on endless buying where the credit card has replaced the crèche as a primary holiday symbol.

I think a consumer economy contains the seeds of its own destruction. It works only if we keep spending more and only if we keep creating more people to consume. However, we live in a world with limits of both space and resources. To exacerbate the problem, our consumption has become a measure of success. I was recently channel surfing and came across a documentary featuring one of my former employers and his $50 million yacht. His conspicuous consumption lets the world know he has succeeded.

A serious young salesman working for me would often receive a monthly commission check of $10,000 or more and ask, “how much is enough?” In a consumer economy where the amount we are able to spend is our indicator of success, the answer is there is never enough. So, we continue to build or rent more and more mini-storage space to house our purchases after we have stuffed our two car garage so full we have to park our cars in the driveway.

Finally, we use all this stuff to expand the inventory of garage sales and flea markets so the less successful can also participate in the consumer economy. If we can afford to store it for a lifetime, it will then pad the pocket of the estate auctioneer or become treasure for “The American Pickers.”

It reminds me of Christ’s parable about the rich farmer who continued to build bigger and bigger barns. I think the punch line was “foolish man. Tonight your soul will be required of you.” My serious philosophical bent began with a reading of “Walden.” Thoreau, observing a railroad being built wrote, “We do not ride on the railroad, it rides upon us.” Was he prophetic?

As a younger man wanting to join in this madness, I often attended success workshops where presenters would advise, “find a need and fill it.” I think that advise has evolved into “create a product and convince the consumer it is a need.” The line between wants and needs has become so blurred that most of us can’t tell the difference. In a consumer economy, yesterday’s wants become today’s necessities. Consider the cell phone.

Where does it all end and what are the true benefits? Are we trapped in an unending cycle? If we quit consuming, manufacturing slows. If manufacturing slows, jobs are lost. On one hand politicians and bureaucrats want us to spend, spend, spend to stimulate the economy. Keep those interest rates low so we can afford to buy those big consumer items. At the same time we get public service commercials telling us to “feed the pig,” that is our piggy banks. To be (a spender) or not to be (a spender), that is the question.

Keep the interest rates low so we can borrow money for the real big items. A modern car, well cared for, should last 15 or 20 years, but the consumer economy needs us to get a new one every three or four years.

Is there some other kind of economic system that works better? Are
capitalism and consumerism necessarily tied together? What was our economy based on before consumption began to dominate? I wonder.

Once I realized the things that interested me would never make me wealthy in a consumer economy, I redefined wealth to suit me. To be wealthy is to achieve a life style that is comfortable and convenient and accrue enough assets to sustain it for a lifetime. This precludes having to rent a mini-storage space or park the car in the driveway.

Though consumption has become the hallmark of Christmas, it doesn’t have to cloud our understanding of what it is all about. Yes, it is about gifts. In that traditional nativity scene there were gifts representing two different economies.

There were the gifts brought by the three wise men: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. In many ways, we try to emulate these gifts with our own giving in our consumer economy.

There was also a gift in the manager, the Christ child. It was God’s gift to mankind from an economy of love, a sacrificial gift to inspire “peace on earth goodwill toward men.” This kind of gift giving is much more difficult to emulate but much more worthy of the effort. To again quote Thoreau, “Money is not necessary to buy one necessity of the soul.”

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