The malls are full. Internet deals are flying out the window (or so it seems). WalMart is such a mess; I’m not even going to attempt to shop for anything, including toilet paper, there. People, it seems, are spending. Maybe not as much as in years past, but spending nonetheless. Economists are hoping the spending trend will continue. While this is great news for struggling business owners and employees, and certainly good news for the economy, I have some mixed feelings.
I know how capitalism works, and—as far as a system goes—it is probably the best way to encourage new inventions, entrepreneurism, and individualism. Although it is the perfect embodiment of self-interest, it is, justifiably, generally considered to be the only economic system compatible with freedom–especially if one considers the meaning of freedom, where objective laws rule, not men. The basic purpose of our Constitution is not to protect the government, but to protect the individual, and capitalism fits in nicely with that purpose. All in all, most Americans are happy with the system. And, many other countries envy (and hate) us FOR that system. Of course, just like with other defined economic systems, or political systems, “pure” capitalism, like “pure” socialism, just does not exist today. There is government intervention in our “capitalist” system, right alongside private enterprise—however, as was frighteningly illustrated with this last recession, our form of capitalism–as does “pure” capitalism– tends to concentrate power in the hands of the wealthy, whose aim, basically, is to maximize profits. But, by and large, although capitalism has its critics and does contribute to the gap between the haves and the have-nots, the majority of people in this country both expect and desire the benefits of the capitalist system as it exists today, and would not trade it for any other. Benefits such as being able to shop in a multitude of businesses for a multitude of items at competitive prices. The benefits of choice, both of buying and selling. The promise of wealth. The dream of owning one’s own business. The benefits and pleasures of the overindulgence of the senses. Freedom to earn and to spend those earnings in any way desired.
In a sense, this “I want it, I want it now, I’m entitled to it” philosophy keeps our economy going. It is unfortunate that banks have taken advantage of this idea by making lines of credit so that no one, unless they have so abused the line of credit that they are now a liability, has to wait for much of anything. Want a new car? Credit. Want a new house? Credit. New clothes? Credit. Christmas? Credit. Don’t have the money? Credit. With the recent recession, many people got a taste of what our parents, or our grandparents, experienced in the Great Depression. Just a brief taste of fear that “it” might not always be there. That one’s only true physical needs are BASIC food, clothing, and shelter. But, I think the idea of “gimme, gimme, gimme” is so ingrained in our society, at least since the Baby Boomer generation, that it is part of the system itself, which feeds upon the idea. So, as soon as there is money to spend, it is spent. And, if it is not spent, the system starts to fail.
Now, I’m not a sociologist, an economist, or an expert on political systems. That much, I am sure, is obvious. And, I know it is not cut and dried, black and white, simple. Yet, as with most people, I understand the basic equation: business=produce=consumer=jobs=business ad infinitum. And, I WANT the economy to improve. Really I do. But, it kind of bothers me to see those who, just a few short months ago, were beginning to realize that a new television, a new pair of shoes, a new home, a new $500.00 purse, new appliances, that wonderful pair of Uggs on sale for $149.99, et cetera could wait until the money was really there to purchase whatever the item is–or, better, that the money should be saved instead of spent or the credit cards paid off– become the masses at the malls that were desired this holiday season to boost a floundering economy. Those same masses who will keep the economy going. Who are “doing their part” for economic recovery. Basically being “overwhelmed by the tribe” (Kipling) telling them it is OK now to spend, desired that they spend, patriotic to spend. As an aside, of course, this doesn’t affect the already rich: they have always have the money to spend (as long as they are wealthy), and many times, they have that money because they are not indiscriminate consumers. What troubles me are the “middle-classes”: lower, middle and upper, who—when things were tough, learned, or at least practiced, wise spending—and are now packing the malls, both on and off-line, and doing exactly as they were before all this latest recession mess came crumbling down upon our collective heads. Cases where those who, just a few short months ago, were wondering how they were going to handle the next mortgage payment, or fix the car, or go to the doctor, who–now that things are improving, that their job is “secured”– have decided that a NEW car is absolutely needed RIGHT NOW. Or, new jewelry. Or an expensive vacation. Or spending an entire paycheck on gifts, both for themselves and others. These things are needed NOW. Not just desired, not just wanted. NEEDED. Those who were struggling to even KEEP a house a year ago, are now looking forward, with hope, to shooting for a newer one that will impress the neighbors, the social group, or even strangers. Or any of the multitude of products, large and small, that are available and will say to the world, “Look at me! Look how successful I am, look at what I have, look what I can buy”. Back to the same old habits that helped to get the country into this mess, a mess which will only be rectified IF the PEOPLE resume those habits.
Of course, there are still thousands of people who are out of work and are NOT doing these things. They are concerned about where their children are going to get their next meal, or how they are going to retire with their savings wiped out. They are concerned about basic survival. Even among the employed, there are thousands who have learned their lesson about indiscriminate spending. Thousands who are paying off the credit cards, keeping the old car, keeping the old house, scaling down and cutting back, doing without because the recession taught them that expendable income is not necessarily always going to be there. But, there are millions who are now, once again, listening to the glitzy ads, to the society that says, “I want it, I want it now, I’m entitled to it” and going out to shop with a sigh of relief that spending is coming back in style. And with the hope—in most cases, foolish optimism—that it is just going to get better and things will get back to normal, that the incredible abundance is always going to be there for which to attain; their “piece of the pie” promised under a capitalistic system. While I don’t feel sorry for them in their stupidity and greed, I pity those they affect—largely because the spending masses continue to contribute to the problem whereby the rich get richer and the poor, poorer. And all of the mistakes of the past will again come to pass because the masses did not learn from these mistakes. The system has become cannibalistic.
So, while I’m happy the economy is improving, I’m also wondering just what kinds of lessons were learned by the masses. While I am satisfied with capitalism, even in its impure form, and how it works with the idea of individual freedom, I also see it as a greedy beast that must constantly feed upon itself in order to survive.