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economic cold turkey

An economic fix: going cold turkey

By George A. Ricker

There is a curious naiveté reflected in all the commentary about our nation’s economic difficulties. The American people have been told by various pundits and prognosticators that our current difficulties are due to the housing crisis (Who did not see that coming?), the high cost of fuel, the high cost of food, competition from China for scarcer resources, too much regulation, ethanol, the Congress, the press (If they would just stop telling us how bad things are, they would get better.) and so on. The solution proposed by the administration and the Congress also seemed naive. Give the American people more money through tax rebates, so they have more to spend. Get it? We would spend our way back to prosperity.

I have yet to hear a single person with a working brain—outside of Washington, D.C. anyway—who thought tax rebates would solve our problems. With most of the rebates paid out and the economy still sagging, it appears the “nattering nabobs of negativity” (to borrow rhetoric from a previous era) were correct in this instance. There is a fairly obvious reason. Our nation has been spending like a drunken sailor for the past 30-plus years. We have been spending money we do not have, piling up debt, and apparently trying to see how piggish we can be when it comes to consuming the world’s resources. We have asserted our unassailable right to exert no self-control whatever and made SUVs and ersatz humvees the new emblems of material success and macho self-righteousness.

In a way, the U.S. economy is like a drug addict. During the last half century we have gone from a society of producers to a society of consumers. We have replaced the traditional economic values of saving and thrift with new economic imperatives to borrow and spend. Our government urges us to spend, spend, spend. Even after the nightmarish attacks of September 11, 2001, we were told to keep spending. In a curiously mixed message Americans were warned to “be afraid, be very afraid” but told to “shop ‘til you drop” at the same time.

So we have. The American people have a new national identity. We are the shoppers of the world. Our job is to spend money. If we can not earn the money, we’ll borrow the money. Following the example of our government, we have accepted the economic dictum that it is far better to spend money you do not have than to defer the purchase until you can afford it. So we borrowed on credit cards, we borrowed on our homes, we cashed out the savings bonds, deferred saving and speculated instead. Now we wonder what went wrong.

Like any junkie, we find it increasingly difficult to kick our habit. It is a habit that is reinforced by constant reminders that our duty is to spend. Not to be outdone by the private sector, our national government also has been on a spending spree. While cutting revenues with massive tax cuts—largely for people who really didn’t need them—our government has increased spending at an alarming rate. Much of the increase has been in military spending. Our nation now spends more on national defense—if one includes the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (and why would we not?)—than all the other nations of the world combined. Add in the increases in spending on domestic spying, security and all the rest, and it is not difficult to see where most of the red ink comes from.

Of course, in today’s political climate, those who attack bloated defense budgets and military misadventures run the risk of being called soft on terrorism and unpatriotic. Now that we have declared war on a strategy instead of a genuine enemy, there is not, cannot be, an end in sight. Indeed, some of the most terrifying aspects of the so-called “global war on terror” have come from our own government as it invokes the mantra of 9/11 to justify the suspension of civil liberties, the undermining of the Constitution and the suppression of information. Welcome to the modern, security state, designed to protect our corporate way of life and unconcerned about sacrificing the liberty of individuals to achieve that goal.

But all of this takes us away from my subject. If our economy is driven by a junkie-like dependence on borrowing and spending resources we don’t have, then what’s the cure?

I think we need to go cold turkey. Obviously, individuals can’t just stop spending altogether. There are necessities to be purchased. We have to buy food—although starting a small vegetable garden wouldn’t be a bad idea. We need utilities to provide potable water and energy—although here again, there are economies that can be made. We need shelter and clothing, and so on.

If we cannot stop spending altogether, what most of us can do is stop spending money we do not have. Stop going into debt for things that are not absolute essentials. Do not run balances on credit cards. Do not borrow to the hilt on your home. Do not buy the newest version of that gadget you really do not need anyway. When you have to replace your automobile, replace it with one that is more economical. Consider alternative modes of transportation. Try riding a bicycle to work, or walking (if feasible) or taking the bus or subway or commuter train, assuming you are fortunate enough to live in an area that is served by such things.

Above all, stop borrowing to sustain a lifestyle that really benefits no one except the corporate fat-cats who profit from it.

Of course, if Americans stop their spending orgy, it will have an immediate impact on the world’s economy as well as our own. Cassandra's around the globe will have a field day predicting the end of all things. The stock markets will crash. Corporations will come unstuck as centers of power. Politicians may be forced to actually consider what is best for the people they are supposed to serve instead of how to sustain their own political careers. There will be much pain in the marketplaces of the world. Some jobs will be lost. Some factories will be closed.

This will not be easy to do. It is never easy to go cold turkey. Those who can will come through the experience and find a better life on the other side. In this case, it will be a life that is not so caught up in “getting and spending.” It will be a life that is less frantic, less stressful and more rewarding in ways many people cannot imagine. Once people stop spending money they do not have, they usually begin realizing that there are a great many satisfactions in life that cost very little. Once our society decides to kick the spending habit, we may find time to reflect on the true nature of our debt-ridden economy and who really benefits from keeping it in place.

Breaking any addiction is extremely difficult. It may well be that we Americans lack the intestinal fortitude to break our addiction to borrowing and spending beyond our means. If that is the case, then we will never recover from the downward spiral we see before us. Like a junkie determined to get the next fix, regardless of the cost, we will continue to ignore the reality of our situation until it comes crashing down on top of us.

For it really is not a sick economy that dooms us. It is our addiction. We cannot survive as we are. The only question is whether we have enough time and enough character to change. For our children’s sake, I hope we do. But time, in this instance, is not on our side.

© 2008 by George A. Ricker

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