Once upon a time in America, we made things.
We made big things like steel for ships and tractors and turbines for hydroelectric plants. Our economy was based on production and boy did we produce! Cars, refrigerators, washing machines, TVs, telephones and toasters rolled off third shift assembly lines marked with the gold standard for quality, “Made in America.”
Now we just buy stuff.
Sometimes I sit in the car outside the local Best Buy and watch in awe as blue-shirted clerks with hand trucks wheel big screen after big screen out to waiting SUVs and pickups. Okay, it’s a little creepy, but at least I know I’m being creepy.
Economists call it the “consumer economy” and it is the patriotic duty of every red-blooded American to spend us back to prosperity. That’s more than a little creepy.
Old-fashioned notions like saving for tomorrow or using credit as a tool rather than the means to scratch every itch are not only passé; we’re told they’re actually bad for the country.
Shopping has become a civic duty.
After the terror attacks of September 11th, 2001, President George W. Bush told Americans they could help the country recover by visiting New York City to take in a Broadway show. Somehow that didn’t seem like much of a sacrifice -- not like organizing a scrap metal drive or planting a Victory Garden—unless you’re one of those people who hate musicals.
Yet, this year, even with God and Country counting on us, Black Friday sales were reportedly sluggish.
Market analysts suggest the annual orgy of Christmas consumerism has been diffused by retailers rolling out cut-rate prices earlier than previous years, robbing Black Friday of its traditional wallop.
Apparently the same was true for Cyber Monday, the day we’re supposed to empty our wallets buying on-line all the cool junk we didn’t buy at the mall over Thanksgiving.
If the Three Wise Men were truly wise they’d shop at FrankinsenseAndMyrrh.com.
Which isn’t to say there weren’t the usual fist-fights, stabbings and tramplings on Black Friday.
Mall violence has become as much a part of Christmas as Midnight Mass and Aunt Helen’s plum pudding with amped up shoppers in full discount bloodlust elbowing and gouging each other while grabbing the last of the bargain Barbies.
How long can this go on?
Our economy has ricocheted from one bubble to the next, with the dotcom boom giving way to a frenzy of day trading, until flipping houses became the rage leading to 2008s housing bubble collapse and the giant hole millions are still trying to climb out of.
Is it possible we’re witnessing the end days of the “Buying Bubble?”
At some point we have to reach the saturation point. Self-storage warehouses are popping up like lawn mushrooms to accommodate the spillover we can no longer stuff into our garages and attics -- and demographics aren’t encouraging.
As the population ages, spending slows. Instead of our sixth iPhone we suddenly start thinking about our first Jitterbug.
Retail Metrics Inc., an industry data analysis company, reports 67 percent of this year’s Holiday shoppers earn less than $50,000. They’re called “survivalists” in the trade because they arrive at the mall with very tight budgets after paying for life’s necessities. Still, they make up the largest block of holiday shoppers and are the key to retail success or failure. Big discounts and cheap credit keep them coming back for more; and keep millions in perpetual debt.
Still, Amazon claims they sold 426 items per second on Cyber Monday; that’s 36.8 million boxes shuttling around the globe filling up cabinets, kitchen shelves, closets, garages, storage units and eventually a blanket at someone’s yard sale.
The big sellers for Amazon this season have been the “Miracle-Gro Aerogarden Kit”, a dirt-free dome-shaped thing that lets you raise herbs in your kitchen. Other hot items include the “Tovulo Ice Mold”, a plastic orb that makes giant round ice cubes and something called the “Fitbit Flex Wireless Activity and Sleep Wrist Band” that monitors what you do as if the NSA weren’t already monitoring what we do.
When dirtless herb garden domes and round ice cube makers are the hit of Christmas, I think it’s safe to say we’ve reached the tipping point.
I’m as guilty as anyone.
The other day it dawned on me I own 7 refrigerators, 3 full-sized and four minis. How much Haagen-Dazs am I eating?
Still, the catalogues come; slippery, brightly colored seducers tempting us to call 1-800 MORECRAP or visit them on line for fruit in the mail, mini-remote control helicopters, electric towel warmers and $7,000 vibrating massage chairs.
What do you get the country that has everything?
At some point even the seemingly insatiable American consumer is going to have had his fill. When the “Buying Bubble” bursts, what then for the U.S. economy?
Doug McIntyre is host of “McIntyre in the Morning” on Talk Radio 790 KABC in Los Angeles and is a columnist for the L.A. Daily News. He can be reached at: Doug@KABC.com.