All the Black Friday hysteria, the frantic post-Black Friday counting of the numbers, and the speculation about the health of the economy/Christmas season has brought to mind something that's been bothering me since the recession began.
Commentators discussing our annual spending spree pointed to the higher-than-last-year numbers almost universally spoke of them being a good indicator of things to come and the importance of the retail sector to the overall recovery.
Here's where I get concerned. Although, much of the downturn had to do with the abuse of banks and investment firms playing while the cat (SEC and others) were looking away, a fair amount of the trouble can be atttributed to the ridiculous amount of credit card or mortgage debt people were carrying vs. the appalling lack of savings. That's why it seemed so wrong when President Bush asked people not give up their way of life, but to "go shopping." This encouragement of excess contributed to the extreme difficulty people found themselves in when the housing bubble collapsed. Because they had no savings, many of them had nothing to fall back on when they lost their jobs or got upside down in their mortagages.
Now, the savings rate is up; higher than it's been in decades. People are waiting to make big purchases and forgoing many smaller ones. But economists are talking about how much the economy relies on people, not just corporations, but average people, exercising buying power.
It just seems foolish to rely so heavily on people buying crap they don't need.
Especially when so much of that crap is not even made here in the USA.
What that means is that we are counting on Walmart and perhaps Macy's to make a dent in the unemployment picture. But what kinds of jobs are these? Not only do they pay poorly, but many of these businesses dependent on hourly labor seek to keep these jobs from straying into full-time, benefits earning territory. They might artificially lower the employment rate, but these are not growth producing jobs, either for the economy as a whole, or the people in them.
Thirty-one years ago, Jimmy Carter gave a speech discussing our way of life and the challenges we faced as a nation; economically, culturally, and spiritually. The country was in the midst of an energy crisis and a recession. In it, he implored Americans to face the reality of our situation and its implications.
In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we've discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We've learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.
He never actually used the word, but this became known as Carter's malaise speech, and he was castigated by Republicans and others who felt that Americans should never have to make sacrifices.
Unfortunately, our failure to pursue serious energy saving technologies has helped to put us right back in the same situation 30 years later. Refusal to do serious R&D into hybrid and alternative power technologies contributed to the near demise of GM and Chrysler, resulting in large bailouts and enormous job loss. George Bush's "ownership society" quickly turned to owership, with relief efforts that are either non-existent or badly botched, and with many banks still making money hand-over-fist, but not contibuting to the economy in the form of loans.
Yet here we are again, talking about consumerism as the key to economic recovery. This strikes me as irresponsible and dangerous. Buying crap we don't need is not going to lead us to investment in the kinds of things we do need, either as families, or as a nation.
What do we need that hasn't been invented yet? A cure for cancer? Large-scale water purifying technology? More efficient vaccine or medication development? Better public transportation? Less polluting energy sources? Cleaner, less disease-prone aquaculture?
If you had $50 to invest in something meaningful with a host of other people what would it be?
P.S. If you leave a comment, don't be afraid to get a little silly, as long as it would truly be useful. Great inventions have sprung from impossible ideas.
Cross posted at Beyond the Blackboards.