The Economist is the latest to assert the nearly baffling meme, “Americans are set to shift from spending to saving.” Pardon me for the “WTF?!” look on my face, but this idea overlooks the number one reason why Americans will probably never meaningfully shift from spenders to savers: consumption is our culture.
Let Me Repeat: Consumption is Our Culture
Yes, in the United States of America, consuming things is a powerful part of our culture. Our drive to consume is so overwhelming, we even mistake existential freedom with the much smaller idea of freedom to buy and consume whatever we want whenever we want it.
No one tells us we can’t eat our 1,500 calorie grade D hamburgers. No one tells us we can’t drink our diabetes causing carbonated sugar water. No one tells us we can’t drive gas-guzzling vehicles. We, my friend, are free.
We are free to play video games all day. We are free to cover our walls with HD LCD television screens. We are free to dine out at every meal. We are free to shop until we drop. This is the United States of America!
Longing Won’t Make it So
Those who long for a thrifty America are as wishful as a 15-year old girl lusting for a date with Twilight superstar Robert Pattinson — it ain’t gonna happen.
At one point in the very distant past, a generation of Americans lived through the Great Depression. They watched poverty rip through this country like PR for Apple’s (AAPL) iPad. However, during the current “Great Recession”, Applebee’s (DIN) and Chili’s (EAT) still have a relatively healthy number of cars in their parking lots. Best Buy (BBY) is still selling tons of gadgets.
These are hardly signs that Americans have a desire to profoundly change behaviors supported by decades of inertia. Most of the people I know are fortunate to still have jobs. They are also fortunate to still travel, dine out, buy iPhones, keep their kids in new clothes, etc. To compare this state of affairs with the life altering shock of the Great Depression is about as ridiculous as resurrecting the theory the Earth is flat.
“Consume” is our National Mantra
American media is overflowing with advertisements. Basically, we live under a perpetual regime of brainwashing to consume. These forces create a social reality in which the things we consume are direct reflections of who we are.
When most of us get a raise, we simply upgrade our stuff because that’s what we’ve been told to do since the first advertisement penetrated our skulls. This is not a judgment — it’s just how our culture operates. (Other cultures have their own bizarre methods for displaying status and self-worth.)
My Gut Says “We’ll Be Back”
Here’s my prediction: the millisecond hiring picks up, paychecks will be traded for more songs on iTunes, sweeter cars, larger houses, fresher clothes, etc. It’s not that we don’t want to retire. It’s that we want it all. That’s what we’ve been told all along. We are Americans. We can have it all. And no matter how many people disprove the theory, there’s a new generation waiting to express their freedom to try.