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Be gentle with me now, because I am about to do three things a careful commentator would never do:
1) I'm going to make a sweeping generalization.
2) I'm going to back it up anecdotally.
3) I'm going to predict the future.
1)Americans are in a malaise because they don't feel at ease immersing themselves in their primary form of entertainment: shopping.
One can make the case that we've become self-immersed -- that traditional gathering places have, for many, fallen from view. But this ignores a fact of modern existence: There is still a public square. It's called "out and about." Engagements may be cursory, but it's where we go to see and do.
It's the "do" that's crucial. Mere cruising was only cool in high school (and not really even then). So it's the mall. Or the big box. Or the Asian "bistro."
Which costs money. Which people aren't sure they have.
Now, you can talk about a vicious circle -- consumers won't spend because they're uncertain about their jobs, and employers won't hire because they're uncertain about the consumer. Or you can talk about bubbles and excess that can be wrung out only with a lengthy course of austerity.
What a downer.
Austerity is responsible. Austerity is imperative. Austerity stinks.
2)Consumerism hasn't gone away; it's evolved, courtesy of the Internet, into a resurgence of casual barter. This is good for the planet, sort of. It is good for our sense of community, sort of. It is a drag on the economy.
Every day, people crisscross urban areas to acquire stuff -- just like before, except now they're buying used, at lower cost, via websites like Craigslist. Since the personal savings rate has doubled in our dark times (which is not to say it's now pure parsimony), we can assume that at least part of the money retailers aren't getting is going under the mattress.
Personally, I ...
•Have purchased a gorgeous dining room table for $500 from a friendly couple, instead of for $1,700 from a catalog. It looks great in my house. But it represents money withheld from the traditional economy.
•Have driven 20 miles to Maple Grove, instead of biking 3 miles to Target, to buy a small lamp. It's a perfectly good lamp. A new one didn't need to be manufactured on my behalf. But please don't ask about the oil.
•Have met interesting people I otherwise would not have met. (Haven't stayed in touch.)
It doesn't end with Craigslist. The New York Times had an article last weekend about a trend in which websites help people rent out their possessions. One can imagine the impact a service like this could have on the equation between the demand for goods and the actual need. One can also imagine an exchange like the following:
Frank: "Say, neighbor Joe, can I borrow your Roomba?"
Joe: "For you, Frank (you freeloading fool), ten bucks a day. Plus a $300 security deposit."
Frank: Hey, Joe (you usurious jerk), thanks!"
3)The free-spending (if resource-wasting) American consumer will be back, and sooner than you think.
For starters, personal spending has been rebounding for a year, like the earth's crust after an ice age. It is, in the long run, irrepressible.
Also -- as if we need to be reminded (though apparently we do) -- these things run in cycles. Remember when gas was rocketing past $4 a gallon? Well, that was all of two years ago.
Anyway, at some point people are going to want things for themselves, shiny and new. It's an age-old impulse. After all, the 10th commandment -- "thou shalt not covet ... anything that is thy neighbor's" -- isn't there just for the sake of a round number.
• • •
So why this load of conjecture? Why dwell on consumption as a vivifying force in the economy, when relying on it too much seems to have been precisely the problem in the past? The latest message from the Federal Reserve appears to be that the central bank stands ready to do -- oh, I don't know, something -- to support the recovery, but that it can't perform this miracle alone. American Public Media's "Marketplace" took that to mean: Would y'all liberate your wallets already?
Meanwhile, according to a CBS News poll, 37 percent of Americans believe the economy is in permanent decline. They don't foresee a recovery. Not now.
Something's gotta give.
David Banks is an associate editor for the Star Tribune's opinion pages.
The Opinion section is produced by the Editorial Department to foster discussion about key issues. The Editorial Board represents the institutional voice of the Star Tribune and operates independently of the newsroom.