Enough is enough

A recent column on not being able to think of anything I wanted for Christmas brought some critical comment.

“Millions of children go hungry,” one email sneered, “and you’re whining because you have too much? You don’t know how lucky you are.”

Right, except for two things: I wasn’t whining—I never whine; I occasionally keen—and I do know how lucky I am. That was the point—to encourage people to look at what they have, rather than what they lack. What we call poverty in this country is a condition to which a billion people in the world can’t even aspire.

The day after I wrote that, I heard a 20-something guy outside an electronics store whining into his cell phone. (He may have thought he was keening, but I know whining when I hear it.)

“It’s only 47 inches,” he said about a television being loaded into his truck. “Julie won’t let me get a big one.”

Kee-rist. I’d seen the TV in the store wearing a tag that read $1,749, more than I’ve paid for all the televisions I’ve owned since Ronald Reagan was doing Death Valley Days. The screen seemed as big as a camp cot. Putting it in my living room would be like hanging a stuffed moose head in the bathroom: No matter what you were doing, there it would be.

“I shoulda got the 60,” the disgruntled purchaser went on. “Julie’s gonna [defecate] anyway.”

Maybe it’s stereotyping, but I formed an instant opinion: 27-going-on-14, in debt but unable, even when everyone’s immediate future seems iffy, to imagine a world in which he doesn’t have everything he wants.

In other words, a typical American consumer, lugging home a trinket he can’t afford in a 12 miles per gallon truck financed for 72 months, to a house in which he’s upside down. Probably feeds his kids ramen noodles to save money to bet on the Raiders.

OK, I said I might be stereotyping. Still, we all know people like that. I’ve been wondering lately if we’ll know fewer of them in the future, and if that would be good.

It’s not a simple question. Reduced consumption could help many of us individually and all of us collectively, through lower debt, increased savings, lessened pollution, conservation and, who knows, maybe a national move toward sustainable expectations.

If so many of us didn’t buy crap we can’t afford, though, the American economy could caucus in a shoebox.

Still: A) Might it happen? And B) would it be bad?

Part A is being answered right now, at least temporarily. Consumers are cutting way, way back. That’s heralded as economic disaster, and in the short term, it is. Nearly every business owner I’ve spoken with lately has talked of sales being off 50 percent. That ripples through the economy. Curse our consuming culture all you want; people believing, shopping and spending are the lever that will pry us out of the ditch.

Over the long haul, though, there could be an upside to a downtrend. Reduced demand, remember, has brought the price of gasoline down $2.50 a gallon since summer. If that does nothing but revive SUV sales, we’ll repeat this cycle again and again. At the other extreme, if everyone suddenly grew brain cells and stuffed their discretionary income into, say, IRAs instead of landfill merchandise, our national standard of living might contract until you’d need a micrometer to measure it.

Between the two, though, there must be a balance. If enough people—I don’t know how many it would take—looked around and said, “Enough is enough,” that might be enough.