Mind Bender

by francine Hardaway on October 10, 2002

I am the consumer. I recently had the good fortune to receive a cash infusion from the karma gods. With it, I carefully and immediately paid off all my credit card and line of credit debt. I closed one of the cards, keeping only the one with the low interest rate. I am giving up my Platinum American Express card. I’m willing to sell my prized red Volvo convertible at a loss just to get the loan off my books. I am trying to sell a home I bought last year before it was built, as well as the home I live in now. What remaining investment I have is in a money market fund. This year, for the first time, I have bought no new fall clothing, and only one pair of new shoes.

You are the consumer. You are sending me your resume and contacting me through mutual acquaintances because you think I know something or someone that you do not. You were laid off by a failed dot-com or offered early retirement from your job of twenty years. You are writing me from other cities to network regarding technology opportunities in Phoenix. You are starting a business with a weak concept, just to keep yourself engaged. You are making low-ball offers on my house. You won’t buy my red Volvo convertible at the reserve price on Ebay. You are in front of me in the long line at Costco. You are listening to a talk show about what it’s like to occupy a foreign country, moderated by a writer who has interviewed American military who served in occupied Japan and Germany. You have both hands on the ends of your belt, pulling it in.

He is the consumer. He is testifying before a Congressional committee, telling them that as chairman of the company’s board, he talked to the CEO every day — but allowed him the autonomy to run the company as he saw fit. He never attended the management team meetings. He is offering to give back tens of millions to the employees whose 401(k) plans were destroyed. He’s always thought of himself as a nice guy, and he sure doesn’t want to go to jail. He didn’t mean for any of this to happen. His wife is watching their assets disappear and wondering who this guy is that she married.

We are the consumer. We are the content for endless panels called “what if the consumer stops spending?” on the news channels. We are offered 0% loans on cars and the lowest mortgage rates in 30 years. Unable to avoid such good deals, we refinance our homes and trade in our cars. We don’t visit retail stores, and we no longer buy things with designer logos on them. We don’t want to admit we’re afraid, but we’re trying to cut back, cut down, cut out.

We know it is a moment to make only the best decisions, and we try to think carefully about what we should do. We create scenarios in our heads: “What if a terrorist attacks again?” “What if I get laid off?” “What if we go to war against Iraq?” We make plans for all these eventualities. All the while we are watching CNBC and the programs about consumer spending. Even if we have money to spend, we don’t want to be the last consumer out there roaming around a department store, so we cut back just to be in step.

We have just heard that it will be a short shopping season before Christmas, and probably an unsuccessful one. Good. We have our excuses. We don’t have to go out there and brave the crowds, trying to get gifts for everyone on our list. Justifiably, in a period of belt-tightening we can cut the list down and wait for markdowns. We can cancel the company’s Christmas Party: we never liked it anyway.

We’re in a world we haven’t experienced before. Even the pundits say so.

But every day of life is a day we haven’t experienced before. Why are we so frightened? America has no debtor’s prisons. The bankruptcy law changes are stalled in Congress, taking a back seat to homeland security. Interest rates are low. There has never been a better time to spend. And by not spending, we are furthering the economy’s downward spiral.

There. I’ve done it. I’ve convinced myself. I will be sitting down to make a shopping list. After all, I don’t even have to make the first payments on anything until after the first of the year. I am the consumer. I rule!

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