Tired of Spending (November 29, 2010)

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Having barely survived this past weekend’s Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, and as we the American consumer make our way through Cyber Monday, I am worn out from the retail experience a month away from my family’s interfaith celebration. A collective of Christians, Hindus and Muslims, we are able to reach across the aisle to embrace the secular side of the holiday season: the food, the gifts, the music, and most especially the family togetherness. We pride ourselves on finding the most cost effectively fabulous gifts, and love every moment of the window shopping work it takes to get there. Or at least that’s the way things worked in healthier years.

This annum, I am unemployed – for the second time. My sister and her husband are underwater with their mortgage, after refinancing their home a couple of years before the markets exploded in one giant, universe wrecking supernova. My husband and brother-in-law are gainfully employed but shell shocked by layoff experiences of the past that have set them permanently on edge. My nieces, perfect human beings of ages 11 and 3, have had special education and minor surgical needs, respectively. None of that, as is obvious to every parent in the nation, is anywhere close to free.

Long story short, like too many members of the middle class across the land, my kin and I have taken some hits. And is it just me, or is there something extra depressing about the bottomless worry we are being asked to choke back this holiday season? It’s like we’ve become a country of strong and supportive 1950s June Cleavers, putting on a happy face to declare in our public discourse that America is on its way back. But secretly, we’re popping mother’s little helpers, lying awake in despair, wrestling with the secret suspicion that the American dynasty has jumped the shark irretrievably.

Consider the results of Rasmussen Reports Friday, November 19th poll, released just a week before the kickoff of the holiday shopping season. Participants in the telephone query were asked the following question: “When you think about our nation in the context of history, are America’s Best Days in the future or in the past?” The outcome may not be that surprising. According to Rasmussen’s data, “just over one-third (37%) of Likely U.S. Voters believe America’s best days are in the future. Forty-seven percent (47%) say the nation’s best days are in the past, while 16% are undecided.”

There’s a gut check moment. Almost half of us believe that we are collectively worse off, with questionable prospects for regaining what we’ve lost. Another one-fifth of us can’t make up our minds. Considering that some of our “best days,” include the Civil War, the Great Depression and two world battles, it would be dangerous not to pause and reflect.

With this pessimism in mind, the shine appears to be off the once celebrated mass consumption orgy that is the November/December gift giving season. What do you get for the family that has nothing? What gift best says, “you may not have your home, a career, your retirement fund or good credit, but have a Sponge Bob Chia Pet!” And I don’t know about you, but I am less inclined and enthused to spend because the indistinguishable government/corporate sector wants it so badly.

Politicians, economists and market wonks keep waiting for that good old reliable consumer spending to kick in, the force that has never failed to lift the country out of even lengthy periods of recession. But this time around? The unemployed need every penny they can grab just to stay afloat. Those lucky enough to have jobs are trying to take a whack at record levels of personal debt accumulated in the latter years of the 1990s and into the aughts. Those more fortunate still are hoarding cash, finally learning the lesson that nuclear Asian families have been preaching for decades: save, baby, save.

Middle America finally gets it even if Washington and Wall Street have yet to catch up. We’re not going to be able to spend our way out of long-term, fiscally unsound policy. When you expend two decades shipping low to medium wage jobs overseas, when you let housing prices spiral out of control, when the cost of a competitive, first world education carries a higher price tag than a used Bentley, something is out of whack that no Walmart door buster is going to repair.

So although Reuters reported this morning that “total retail traffic will have risen 8.7 percent to 212 million shoppers from Thanksgiving Day through Sunday, compared with the same period in 2009,” that bit of good news is delivered with the sobering caution that “it is still too early to say whether retailers will be winners this holiday season, especially if early online and store deals have already gotten consumers to complete the bulk of their shopping.”

As I wandered the malls this weekend with my husband, the air was heavy with something that smelled an awful lot like futility. The pall hung over the low wage, no benefit retail employees, the family carrying reward certificates and shopping lists, yelling at one another to hurry up and get in the checkout line. There seemed to be no joy in a ritual that once spawned the kind of nostalgia that beget great cinematic classics like A Christmas Story and Miracle on 34th Street. Macy’s is longer a place where dreams comes true. Instead it’s just another tony market where hardworking people with “good” white and blue collar jobs can’t afford to shop.

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