Transcript for the Piece Audio version of KERA Commentary: The New Normal
Depending on which news report you hear on which day of the week, we may or may not be seeing signs of a recovering economy. And so it’s time to ask, how has the recession changed the way we live?
One answer comes in a recent study by a global consulting firm. Only 18 % of respondents in that survey said they plan to go back to buying clothing, shoes and other goods the way they did before the recession. And there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that for many people, the New Normal may mean fewer trips to the mall. I’ve lost count of the articles and blog posts I’ve read from people who, having lost a job or seen their discretionary income otherwise reduced, have found that there is indeed life beyond the credit card.
Now this kind of report understandably sends a shiver through many in the retail sector, and raises questions that go beyond economics into matters of social and personal identity. If Americans are not primarily homo consumens, to use the psychologist Erich Fromm’s term, then what are we? Freedom, he said, should be more than the freedom to buy and consume.
I know that thousands of people have lost jobs in retail sales and I certainly don’t want to make light of anyone’s predicament. But why do we assume that going back to the "Old Normal" is the right and socially healthy thing to do? We shouldn’t be overly sentimental about a consumer economy that was and still is built on over-consumption, planned obsolescence, impulse buying, and waste--a deeply flawed model.
How many people do you know whose homes or apartments are absolutely stuffed with things they rarely or never use? We have a bitter joke around our house: What if we went away for the weekend and burglars broke in while we were gone, stealing about a third of our stuff? When the shock and anger subsided, we might actually thank them for clearing away so much unneeded clutter.
I walk frequently in my neighborhood, and I often wondered why one family left two expensive luxury cars out in the driveway each night. Then I walked by one day when their garage door was open and saw the answer: the entire garage was stacked 3 feet deep with stuff. There was no room for the cars.
And consider food. According to a government study, Americans waste about 27% of the food they buy for consumption. The EPA estimates that we generate about 30 million tons of food waste every year. That's about a pound of food a day for every person in the country.
I don’t want to sound sanctimonious here. We waste food at my house, too. The point is, it might actually be a good thing, not an economic disaster, if we planned meals more carefully and stopped buying food we don't get around to eating. Throwing food away dishonors the producers' work, it borders on gluttony, and if we throw away meat, we’re also wasting an animal’s life. We can argue about global warming, but I never heard anyone make a good argument for waste.
Also, it's well known that Americans' savings rates are among the worst in the world, and large numbers of the Baby Boom generation have not saved enough for more than a month or two of retirement. Maybe it wouldn't be so bad if we bought less patio furniture and fewer golf shirts and socked that money away instead.
As Machiavelli once said, in a thought recently echoed by some leading politicians, “never waste the opportunities offered by a good crisis.” We should use this economic crisis to transcend our identity as consumers, exercising our precious freedom for something more than getting and spending.Back