December 22, 2000 (Ira Pilgrim)

A Consumer Culture

Merchants we have heard on high,

Tell us to go out and BUY!

Tom Lehrer

I have gotten to know a young man fairly well. I find his attitude toward money to be so different from my own, that it is a bit of a shock. He has very little money, yet he spends it as if he were a millionaire with unlimited funds. He thought nothing of spending $200 for a fly rod, or several thousand for an automobile sound system for an old car. He is the consumer that manufacturers and sales people dream about. If everyone had his attitude, they would all be in fat city. It takes just a small fraction of the population with this attitude toward money to keep the manufacturers of luxury goods doing very very well.

I suspect that this type of consumer is becoming more and more common and that it is not just an accidental occurrence. Commercials directed at small children are specifically designed to produce just such consumers, and lots of them. Kids are bombarded by TV commercials which exhort them to buy, buy, buy and to go to all sorts of expensive playgrounds such as the Disney enterprises. This attitude is supported by parents, mainly at Christmas time.

It is consumers who are willing to spend, spend, spend who are at the root of our present economic boom. Trickle down economic theories seem to me to be bunk. While it is true that investment is needed, it is sales that drive the economy. If a substantial percentage of consumers decided to stop spending and to stash their money away, the economy would collapse and we would find ourselves in a depression that would dwarf the great depression that started in the 1930s and continued until the start of World War II. That is why economists watch the figures on sales as if their lives depended on it. Their own lives may not be affected, but the economy sure as hell would be if sales dropped significantly.

I was born during the roaring twenties and grew up during the depression. While I never knew hunger, I knew that money to spend was a scarce, and was therefore a precious, commodity. I still look very carefully at what I buy and try to get the most in value for my money. By value, I mean a combination of quality measured against price. With a high priced item, I rarely get either the best or the cheapest, but try to get what I consider to be the most for my money. With things like food, I try to get the best that I can, provided it is not too expensive. When I think about it, I feel foolish since I now have enough money so that I could afford to overspend a bit. I hereby resolve that if I can get a truly fine dinner, I won't care how much it costs. But I'll be damned if I'll spend a lot of money on just chow.

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