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The Fall of the American Consumer

How much lower can consumer spending go? The malls are like mausoleums, retail clerks are getting laid off and AOL recently featured on its welcome page the story of a man so cheap that he recycles his dental floss--hanging it from a nail in his garage until it dries out.

It could go a lot lower of course. This guy could start saving the little morsels he flosses out and boil them up to augment the children's breakfast gruel. Already, as the recession or whatever it is closes in, people have stopped buying homes and cars and cut way back on restaurant meals. They don't have the money; they don't have the credit; and increasingly they're finding that no one wants their money anyway. NPR reported on February 28 that more and more Manhattan stores are accepting Euros and at least one has gone Euros-only.

The Sharper Image has declared bankruptcy and is closing ninety-six US stores. (To think I missed my chance to buy those headphones that treat you to forest sounds while massaging your temples!) Victoria's Secret is so desperate that it's adding fabric to its undergarments. Starbucks had no sooner taken time off to teach its baristas how to make coffee than it started laying them off.

While Americans search for interview outfits in consignment stores and switch from Whole Foods to Wal-Mart for sustenance, the world watches tremulously. The Australian Courier-Mail, for example, warns of an economic "pandemic" if Americans cut back any further, since we are responsible for $9 trillion a year in spending, compared to a puny $1 trillion for the one billion-strong Chinese. Yes, we have been the world's designated shoppers, and, if we fall down on the job, we take the global economy with us.

"Shop till you drop," was our motto, by which we didn't mean to say we were more compassion-worthy than a woman fainting at her work station in some Honduran sweatshop. It was just our proper role in the scheme of things. Some people make stuff; other people have to buy it. And when we gave up making stuff, starting in the 1980s, we were left with the unique role of buying. Remember Bush telling us, shortly after 9/11, to get out there and shop? It may have seemed ludicrous at the time, but what he meant was get back to work.

We took pride in our role in the global economy. No doubt it takes some skill to make things, but what about all the craft that goes into buying them--finding a convenient parking space at the mall, navigating our way through department stores laid out for maximum consumer confusion, determining which of our credit cards still has a smidgeon of credit in it? Not everyone could do this, especially not people whose only experience was stitching, assembling, wiring and packaging the stuff that we bought.

But if we thought we were special, they thought we were marks. They could make anything, and we would dutifully buy it. I once found, in a party store, a baseball cap with a plastic turd affixed to its top and the words "shit head" on the visor. The label said "made in the Philippines" and the makers must have been convulsed as they made it. If those dumb Yanks will buy this...

There's talk already of emergency measures, like making Christmas a weekly holiday, although this would require a level of deforestation that could leave Cheney with no quail to hunt.

More likely, there'll be a move to outsource shopping, just as we've already outsourced manufacturing, customer service, X-ray reading and R&D. But to whom? The Indians are clever enough, but right now they only account for $600 million in consumer spending a year. And could they really be trusted to put a flat screen TV in every child's room, distinguish Guess jeans from a knock-off and replace their kitchen counters on an annual basis?

And what happens to us, the world's erstwhile shoppers? The President recently observed, in one of his more sentient moments, that unemployment is "painful." But if a pink slip hurts, what about a letter from Citicard announcing that you've been laid off as a shopper? Will we fill our vacant hours twisting recycled dental floss onto spools or will we decide that, if we can't shop, we're going to have to shoplift?

Because we've shopped till we dropped alright, face down on the floor.

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