BOB KATRIN: Our Economic Chickens Have Come Home to Roost
Americans have been sold a bill of goods -- literally. And the Repo man is around back taking it away, and the bank's breathing down your neck.
Maybe it's all the stuff we bought that we couldn't afford: the big house, boat, RV, Hummer, home theater, 60-inch, wall-mounted TV, crushed-topaz countertops, 3.5-carat diamond ring, Rolex, top-of-the-line Apple laptop and desktop, iPod, iPhone, Sony Playstation III, Mom's Manolo Blahniks, Gucci's, Hermes, Prada, etc., etc, ad infinitum-- so much expensive junk that we started a new industry, storage lockers for all the stuff you couldn't fit in the house. And now you can't pay the rent on them so the contents are being auctioned off.
You were doing exactly what my old man used to yell at my mother about when he said, "We're living beyond our means."
One overextended guy I read about in the paper, who was losing it all and declaring bankruptcy, said, "I have no intention of ever buying anything, ever. I don't think I could if I wanted to." Which reminds me, go out and buy something with your economic stimulus check!
I feel so virtuous. The truth is I never had a lot of money. Still, I could have managed some small evasions of sanity like buying the "previously owned" convertible I coveted, small change compared to a $275,000 boat, but I resisted. Although it felt like going into battle with the dark side, and a little devil, as in the old Excedrin commercials, was swinging his pickax inside my head.
That's what advertising and marketing have become: ever-present, omnidirectional homing devices, find something to buy quick, implanted in our heads.
For the longest time I've been trying to reconcile the messages we get from the economic geniuses running the country who repeatedly tell us that consumer spending is the only way to keep the economy going. Hopefully that myth will run its course. But we were taken in, and we maxed out our credit cards, stopped saving money, and got horribly into debt. One writer said the main thing we manufactured in America was debt.
We made Wall Street and large corporations richer and richer -- the oil company thing is obscene -- and they got tax breaks on top of that. Go figure. Then when financial markets started to go bust, they got a government bail-out. I'm always amused by those who tout less government regulation until they need it.
The spending bubble was pumped up and pumped up until it burst. Greed, corruption, and deregulation had a field day until it all got out of control. We're lied to and arbitrarily ripped off constantly by every corporation that can get away with it.
Salaries haven't been as stagnant as they are now since the '70s, and the top fifth of the earners in the country were drunk with wealth. They had so much money -- many of them still do -- that they couldn't waste it fast enough.
Conservation, sensible living and common sense were put aside by many American consumers. What history will show is how America led the world in infectious economic stupidity and waste. Now the world is on the brink, with gigantic undeveloped countries like China and India ready to follow in our footsteps.
What happened? The pace of our ability to make and invent stuff became so streamlined and sophisticated (technology is a dirty word in my book) that we became like mad scientists in Frankenstein's laboratory. Yes, we're incredibly smart, but also incredibly dumb. Its nothing new, the age-old struggle of pitting people's finest instincts against their basest. And guess which side marketers prefer.
You might call what we're experiencing these days, with no quick end in sight, a cleansing or a purge. Unfortunately, many people will be ruined, like the guy who said he'd probably never be able to buy anything even if he wanted to, and all the working-class and even some higher-earning families struggling with stagflation on top of incredibly rising prices everywhere.
There is a pendulum, and I'd like to believe it is swung by a higher power to teach us a lesson. But we never seem to get it, and that's why it keeps swinging.
Bob Katrin lives in Southern Pines.
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