February 1, 2009

Am I unpatriotic?

George Bush infamously asked Americans to go shopping to show their patriotism and jumpstart the economy after 9/11. This morning the AP ran a story titled "Americans save just when economy needs their money." And I have been thinking about this whole question of how economies work and whether I'm going to be contributing to the problem. But it's not an easy questi0n to answer without getting an economics degree. Wait, I do have an economics degree, from way back in 1984, but I don't remember much about it. I wasn't really that interested in it even at the time.

The AP article says American's new frugality couldn't be happening at a worse time. They cite the "paradox of thrift": that what's good for individuals - spending less and saving more - is bad for the economy when everyone does it. But the article continues by quoting economists who say the amount of spending of the past two decades was unsustainable, fueled only by gains in home equity, which was an illusion.

My first thought is that we Americans operate in extremes. We've heard for decades that we don't save enough, and we're drowning in debt. I suppose now if everyone really started saving half their paycheck and not frequenting their local shops and restaurants, that might not be the best thing to get the economy back on track. But that's not going to happen. Wouldn't it be better if more people started saving for an emergency and not buying things they don't need on credit?

There's also the issue of short term versus long term. In the short term, the economy needs to get back on track and maybe we as consumers need to help out with that. But in the long term, we really need to focus on these issues of climate change and environmental damage and how we contribute to the problem with materialism and overconsumption. So I think that long term goal is even more important than the short term goal of fixing the current economic crisis. And I put the burden of that job more heavily on government, banks, and corporations, than I do on myself or consumers.

Finally, just because I'm not going to buy any Gap clothes or Pottery Barn accessories this year, it doesn't mean I'm not going to be contributing to the economy. For one thing, I still have to buy food and I'll still be going out to eat. And we're not giving up wine and beer, so Trader Joe's will be getting just as much of our business. Also, there are plenty of services I'll still be using- I see no reason to give up getting a haircut or going to the car wash occasionally. Going to the car wash uses much less water than doing it in your driveway. So in a way, the title of my blog is misleading. I'll still be spending, just not buying new stuff.

But this is an ongoing question I'll be exploring. My hunch is that the economy would do just fine if everyone cut back and saved responsibly and didn't go into debt. It's the Wall Street bandits and corporations that have been making huge profits that might feel it if people stop buying cashmere mittens and designer kittens. So I say not buying all their crap IS patriotic!

What do you think? Can the economy get back on track if people stop buying new stuff?


KarenSantaFe said...

Hey Ang, I wrote the following to you in an e-mail but then decided to post in case it is of interest to your other blog readers. But let me first say Fuck George Bush and the greedy shithead financiers he hangs with. Fuck them all, more than anything else we have them and their fucking mortgage derivatives to thank for this mess, and not our own past spending habits. Of course they would all just LOVE to place the blame squarely on the American people so no one will sniff them out in their 10,000 sq. ft. Hampton weekend homes. Fuck them, they are going DOWN. OK, just had to get that off my chest!

I would say more accurately that I'm kinda sorta going to do this with you. This year I am going to keep spending to a minimum, for sure. I have two commitments:

1. Conscious Purchasing -- In addition to life's necessities (like food, pet care, etc.) if I really want something, I am going to buy it, but only after due consideration. In fact, I have this new habit I've developed where if I'm shopping for necessities like at Whole Foods or the coop and I see something I want like say a turquoise colander, then I stick it in my cart and keep shopping. Then, before I go to the check-out line, I go off to a quiet corner and survey what is in my cart. This next part might sound a little crazy, but I then "listen" to what my higher self has to tell me about the items in the cart. For example, I might survey the food and decide that most of it is OK but I don't really like those rice crackers and I got them because they were out of the brand I really like, so I then decide to ditch them and wait for the ones I actually enjoy eating -- I don't have to have rice crackers in the house 24/7, after all! With the colander, clearly not a "necessity," I ask myself do I need it, will it serve a purpose? Do I want it? WHY do I want it? Is there a memory attached? Will it bring me great joy every time I see it on my counter, filled with citrus? Do I need a colander in that particular size and always wish I had one exactly like it every time I cook, which these days is often? Or am I feeling blue and it's a cheerful looking thing and that's what it's about? So I get really, really clear about why I put it in my cart in the first place. I leave morality out of it. So for example if I've always yearned deeply for a turquoise colander for years and years and now here is the perfect one and I'm really clear it will bring me great joy every time I see it and handle it, well that's a good enough reason to buy it. But if it's a passing fancy, then back it goes. If it reminds me that spring is coming and that's what's really going on, then back it goes and instead I might go home and plant some seeds I have around the house or dig in the dirt to get ready for the April-May planting season.

2. Assessing/Purging -- My other commitment is to go through my "stuff" again and get rid of things that no longer serve me. I like to go "geographically." So I start in one corner of the house and work my way across to the other side. I touch and consider every space -- the medicine cabinet, the crap on the shelf above the washer/dryer, every pot and pan and sock and ball of yarn and book and plant and eye shadow. If it needs repair, it either gets repaired or it goes. If it's functional but I hate it, it goes. If it is a lovely thing but has a bad memory attached, it goes. It's really great, I just go slow, and have a designated "get rid of" area. Then, I give stuff away to people who might want it, and haul the rest off to the Goodwill, second hand shop, used book store, whatever. Usually I'll do a few cycles of this, like do the bathroom and kitchen. Then the dining area and living room. Then the hall closet. Then the bedroom. Then I divide the outside into a few sections too. In my wake I leave closets, cabinets, drawers organized and clean. It really feels great. I can't say it's fast, it actually takes me a few months to go through everything, but it feels so, so good and I end up with such greater appreciation for what I do retain.

Marylyn said...

It is "damaging" the economy, but it NEEDS to be damaged. What sort of economy is it that requires ordinary people to keep spending, spending, spending on things they don't need, and sometimes don't even want? Things that cause environmental problems in their manufacture, use, and disposal?
Just this morning there was an article in The Huntsville Times (yes, I get a hard copy every morning) saying that the recent rash of saving and non-spending has indeed "damaged" the economy. I think this is fine. Darkness before the dawn? However, I do think you should buy a few things from the creative lady's boutique. That's entirely different, especially because she uses recycled materials.

Anonymous said...

You nailed it: what will lead to an economy that's sustainable in the long term is people spending only what they can afford. I do *not* mean to say that we have to save up before buying every thing including car and house. What I mean is that we shouldn't enter into debts we can't reasonably expect to be able to service for the lifetime of that debt.

Telling US'ans to buy more right now, is just putting off the inevitable. And the longer one puts off the inevitable, the worse it is when it arrives. After the dotcom boom we put off the inevitable by having a housing boom. Do you really want to go through that again?

Callie said...

very interesting and well-written post. Thanks!