So here we are, 7 months after Lehman Brothers folds and knee-deep in a painful recession. Yes, it hurts. We’re all doing what we can to get by, but…in the back of my head, I still really really really want a new dress, a new bag, and a flat-panel TV. If I had the slightest bit of disposable income, I would buy them all. But I don’t, so I just bought the dress.
For the past few issues, TIME Magazine has been getting on my nerves–they’re a bit too preachy about this recession and consumer spending habits. The cover story a few weeks ago, “The End of Excess,” was all about how spending is down, saving is up, and nobody will ever look at the mall the same way again. Perhaps, but if my own tendencies are any indication, I’m itching for some good news so I can reward myself with a completely frivolous treat. Yes, I am a shopaholic, but after the easy credit of the past ten years, so are most Americans. How many of them, like me, are just itching to get back to the days of buy, buy, (best) buy?
This past week’s cover story, “The New Frugality,” looks to be pretty much the same story. I can’t bring myself to read it because, well, time is valuable and I feel like this cover is a pound-for-pound repeat of “The End of Excess.” Why reinvent the wheel? Tell me if you feel the same, but I’m getting the feeling that TIME is trying to make something true by printing it over and over.
I read their quotes from people who are freelancers growing their own vegetables or laid-off auto workers who can’t pay for healthcare. I feel for them. It is a terrible situation, and I would never wish it on anyone (except possibly Gwyneth Paltrow…I really do despise her). And yet…until I am in that horrible position, I am not strong enough to deny myself a dinner out or a new book or a new dress (clearance only, but still). I want it, life is hard, and sometimes just surviving another day means I want to reward myself.
If I feel this way, I’m guessing some of you do, too. My spending habits have been changed, but not for good. I’m riding out the storm, waiting for the clouds to clear. I’m not building a bomb shelter or stocking my nuclear survival kit. I think TIME is talking about extremes, hoping to cause a peer-pressure sort of situation in which we think everyone is hanging onto every dime, and thus do the same. It’s like they want us to believe America is full of Puritans again, so they proclaim it loud and proud, and hope the message sticks. But I’m not buying it.
Do I have any evidence to support this? If I did, I’d be a journalist, not a blogger. All I have are my own feelings, my intuition, and some observations. But here’s what I see: The girls at work haven’t changed their spending habits. We all still shop, just like before. One of them just took a vacation to Paris. One of them is buying a house. One of them just bought a new car. It is still impossible to get into pretty much any chain restaurant in Little Rock between six and eight pm on Friday or Saturday night. They’re packed. Lines out the door. Fat-ass families who get appetizers, meals, drinks and possibly dessert. That shit’s not cheap. Every meal out is $50-$90 when you’ve got a family of 4 or more. And they’re everywhere…Outback, Olive Garden, Friday’s, Applebee’s, Chili’s…you name the bastion of mediocre Americanized fare, it’s packed to the gills on an Arkansas Friday or Saturday night. These are not people holding back or pinching pennies.
And this is in Arkansas, land of Midwestern values and third-world salaries. If anyone would be strapped or hurting more than usual, it would be here. This leads me to believe that Arkansas is either a strange deviation from the TIME Magazine norm, or things aren’t as terrible as fear-mongering TIME would have me believe. The end of excess? I’d say more like the pause-button of excess. It will be back. It has just been temporarily silenced by forces larger than itself.
After the privation and horror of the Civil War, we had the Gilded Age. Gilded. As in PAINTED WITH GOLD. As in THE ERA WHEN PEOPLE LIKE ROCKEFELLER MADE ALL THEIR MONEY. If Gordon Gecko had a great-grandpa, he would have given these fools a run for their money. If the gut-wrenching Civil War couldn’t make people embrace each other and good old-fashioned American values, how the fuck is a recession going to do so?
After World War II, when six million Jews were cruelly murdered and 25 million soldiers died fighting to save the world they knew, we had the suburban boom of the 50s and early 60s. Cars, refrigerators, TVs, houses, pools…everything with a price tag got snapped up. If the horrors of our most evil and insidious war didn’t make people grateful just to be alive, how the fuck is a recession going to do so?
I think we as Americans are programmed to want more. It’s called Manifest Destiny, and every single US history textbook talks about it. It’s in our blood. We’ve lived it since 1776. Every horrible thing that happened only tamped it down; it never extinguished it. I mean no disrespect to people who have been hit with the loss of a job, home, health care, or retirement portfolio. But this recession is not the end of the world. We’ve had worse, and always come out on the side of survival-and excess. I imagine Gordon Gecko, dressed up as the Terminator, aping Arnold’s voice: I’ll be back…to kick TIME Magazine’s ass.