A New Chapter (Perhaps) in the Story of Stuff

If you haven’t seen Annie Leonard’s The Story of Stuff, you really should. The negative impacts of consumerism have rarely been put as succinctly and as entertainingly. You can watch it


More when you return —

Could the greedy have begun to accomplish what all the anti-consumerists have not been able to? The “T” word, thrift, appears to be making a comeback:

For more than half a century, Americans have proved staggeringly resourceful at finding new ways to spend money.

In the 1950s and ’60s, as credit cards grew in popularity, many began dining out when the mood struck or buying new television sets on the installment plan rather than waiting for payday. By the 1980s, millions of Americans were entrusting their savings to the booming stock market, using the winnings to spend in excess of their income. Millions more exuberantly borrowed against the value of their homes.

But now the freewheeling days of credit and risk may have run their course — at least for a while and perhaps much longer — as a period of involuntary thrift unfolds in many households. With the number of jobs shrinking, housing prices falling and debt levels swelling, the same nation that pioneered the no-money-down mortgage suddenly confronts an unfamiliar imperative: more Americans must live within their means.

I remember that phrase, “live within their means.” Old school conservatives used to say that a lot about government. My Dad, who came of age during the Great Depression, used that phrase as a signpost for living life well.

Live within your means. It had a quaint, slightly musty aroma, no? It went with stories about how Grandpa always paid cash for everything, including his house. Who could imagine that today? But the times, they are a’ changing:

The long collapse in the United States savings rate is over,” said Ethan S. Harris, chief United States economist for Lehman Brothers. “People are going to start saving the old-fashioned way, rather than letting the stock market and rising home values do it for them.”

… For the 34 million households who took money out of their homes over the last four years by refinancing or borrowing against their equity — roughly one-third of the nation — the savings rate was running at a negative 13 percent in the middle of 2006, according to Moody’s Economy.com. That means they were borrowing heavily against their assets to finance their day-to-day lives.

By late last year, the savings rate for this group had improved, but just to negative 7 percent and mostly because tightened standards made loans harder to get.

“For them, that game is over,” said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Economy.com. “They have been spending well beyond their incomes, and now they are seeing the limits of credit.”

…The return to reality is on vivid display at shopping centers, where consumers used to trading up to higher-price stores are now heading to discounters. Wal-Mart and T. J. Maxx are thriving, but business has slowed at Coach, Tiffany and Williams-Sonoma.

Wow. And when everyone has to go out and buy new digital televisions or expensive converter boxes next year to get a TV signal, do you suppose the nouvel économe class might instead —

read books?

From the library, no less?

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