Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Conspicuous Nonconsumption

I've noticed in the past five years or so that as any big event occurs, I realize how little I (and everyone else in America) understood about some giant chunk of important stuff. The last occasion was during the primaries, when suddenly everyone paid attention for once and ended up really, really confused. Wait, so the primaries not only take place over a period of months, but their scheduling can be varied (but not too much, or you'll incur the wrath of the party overlords)? The Democratic Party can actually refuse to count states if they want? (Don't they have an obligation to count everyone? Oh, wait, no, they don't. They have nothing to do with the government and can run their primaries however they please...or not at all.) Democratic and Republican primaries are often not on the same day in a given state? Puerto Rico gets to vote in the primary but not in the general election? Texas has a combination caucus and primary system? How do superdelegates work again? I don't know about everyone else, but I learned more about the Democratic Party (no, I didn't pay as much attention to the Republican primaries because none of their candidates were interesting) and the party system in a couple months than I had in the previous several years. I felt the current system of primaries was ridiculous and that it desperately needed drastic reform.

Fast-forward to, oh, now: the economy. Suddenly all of America is learning things they never knew about derivatives, credit swaps, leveraging, and toxic assets (or are trying as hard as they can to). Everyone's wondering how we managed to get into this mess, and everyone's pretty sure (OK, I'm pretty sure, and I'm extrapolating) that if everyone had known what was going on, it wouldn't have been going on for long. Why don't we know more about how the things we use every day work?

What this economic crisis has taught me: I think the economy is stupid, and I hope it dies. I mean, I don't want unemployment and famine to sweep the land or anything like that, but I really think the economy the way it works right now is somewhere past ridiculous. For example: credit is the lifeblood of our economy. It's true; everyone says it: to save more banks from collapse, we just need to get credit flowing again. Um, but why? Why is it that corporations' payrolls are paid each week with money they don't actually have at that time? Why is it that stores go the entire first 10.75 months of the year in the red and only come into the black during the holidays? Why does our entire country run on not having any money right now? Why is this state desirable? Why should we facilitate this?

Andrew and I were talking today, and we have both recently begun to wonder what exactly the point of the stock market is. Oh no, the stock market is down! Which means...someone's opinion of how much someone else will pay for their tiny chunk of voting rights (that nobody actually wants) in a company is less than it used to be! Think about it. The stock market goes down for all sorts of non-economic reasons, including elections and inaugurations (no, not just Obama's). It goes up for all sorts of stupid reasons completely unconnected with the companies whose stock actually involved. Basically, the stock market survives and goes up because stockholders/traders assume that there will always be someone else who wants the stock they own right now. How silly. And to tie everyone's retirement to the stock market in the form of 401(k)s and IRAs? That is one of the dumbest things I think our country has ever done.

Then there's the whole "consumer confidence" thing (a silly term, in my opinion). Everyone's supposed to keep going out and buying stuff; the worst thing for The Economy (capitalized for its almightiness) that one can do right now is to save money and pay down one's own debt. Wait, what?

So what The Economy needs to survive is lots of people going further into debt, consuming stupid crap they don't need, merely to prop up corporations that wagered on people always wanting stupid crap. The Economy needs huge corporations to survive. I have a hard time caring. Why is our economy structured such that it can only survive as long as everyone keeps buying monkey-shaped bookends or a third sofa or gag gifts like rubber squirrel-faced punching bag balloons? (And isn't that the whole point of a free market, that if people decide they no longer need horrid punching-bag animals from the dollar bin that the maker of said abominable creations goes under or starts making something people will buy?) All I really need to purchase right now is food (although if pushed, I could probably live for a month or two on what's in our pantry already combined with the CSA boxes we've already paid for), with the occasional purchase of body wash or whatever I'm out of at the moment. Why do we consume so much utter crap?

Well, I'm stopping. I gave up my credit card for Lent (not that I'm Catholic or even Christian, but I had never done Lent before and kind of like imposing arbitrary rules on myself, so why not?) since I am actually carrying a balance on it at the moment (for the first time ever, thankyouverymuch) and need to quit using it while I pay it off. Also, paying for things with cash, you're actually aware of how much you're spending and tend to spend less than if you just charge it (research shows). So I've basically not spent any money in the past couple weeks except on one movie (OK, so I'm still consuming some, but only for movies I've been waiting for for months), one $12 grocery run, and one $3 emergency gum-and-Pringles infusion yesterday at work. No clothes, no shoes, no things. (I considered giving up parentheses instead. One can see why I chose the credit card. I don't think I could actually live without, they don't actually hurt anyone. (Do they?))

Anyway, so yeah, I'm going to see how little I can consume. I know that makes me unpatriotic, because the best thing one can do for the economy in a recession is go shopping, but so what? When it comes down to my duty to myself versus my duty to my country, I'm picking me. Actually, it's not even really a money thing, though money did start it all; it's a simplification thing. I've been saying for years that I own too much stuff, and I've steadily gotten rid of it even as I acquired more. Recently, I have been fed up with all the junk I own. Then I've been looking at it from an environmental standpoint and an economic standpoint simultaneously and realized that the solution to both those problems of waste is simply not to consume.

When everything goes under, blame me. It'll make you feel better.

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