Saturday, August 6, 2011

Guilty of guilty pleasures

It used to be through all the trials and tribulations life brought, the collective American psyche was calmed with one reassuring thought - the next generation would be better off than the current. From the first settlers at Plymouth Rock to Tom Brokaw’s “greatest generation” and beyond, it was proven true, as the mean and median standard of living grew, and America became the land where dreams came true.

No longer. Modern day America has lost that once soothing antidote and is now faced with the very real possibility that the next generation will actually be worse off than its predecessors. Those who are parents, try sleeping well after reading that.

Yesterday, Standard & Poor’s downgraded its rating of the United States’ credit to that of AA+. It’s the first time ever that the U.S.’s credit rating has not been AAA. Some knuckleheads might think, “Hey, AA+ isn’t bad.” Let me remind them that AA+ is the same rating Spain has. Now, don’t get me wrong, for I love Spain. It’s a beautiful country with beautiful people, with the exception, perhaps, of some of the mouth breathers around Bilboa. But, as great a place as Spain is, its economy has it teetering on becoming the Greece of Western Europe. Oh, wait a second, I suppose the title of “the Greece of Western Europe” is rightfully taken by Ireland. So, maybe Spain can aspire to be Ireland South.

Nonetheless, I digress.

S&P’s rating came one day after the Dow cratered, losing 512 points on Thursday and wiping out all the gains of the year thus far, the worse one day showing since the global economic crisis of 2008. So, what prompted all the bad economic news? Believe it or not, it was the “good news” of our federal legislative leaders coming to an agreement on a debt ceiling. As S&P stated in its report, “The political brinkmanship of recent months highlights what we see as America’s governance and policymaking becoming less stable, less effective and less predictable than what we previously believed.”

In our culture, we certainly love our heroes. But more so than admiring heroes, we practically live to stick it to our villains, and love to attach blame whenever we can. We’re finger pointers – if not always directly at someone/some group, then the finger is straight upright in self-righteous defiance.

Economists, or at least most of them, will tell you that deficit spending by government is a good economic stimulus and an engine for growth, but only when done somewhat in moderation. Now, you don’t need me to tell you that the United States has never been particularly adept at moderation.


In anything.

As citizens, we should be wary of pointing fingers of blame toward politicians. We need to remember the politicians in Washington are just like us, if maybe a bit more stupid and morally bankrupt, and certainly more conniving and shirking of personal accountability. Remember, we vote them into office, for crying out loud.

You see, as we point a finger toward Washington D.C., we neglect to see the three other fingers of our hands pointing backward to us. How can we blame the President, the Senate, and Congress for not being able to make tough choices and curtail spending when we can’t seem to do the same ourselves?

Behold, we collectively pledge our allegiance to the United States of Consumers.

Now, consumerism can be good, and it can bring a certain degree of comfort. That’s okay if we happen to consume the things we in turn make. Our problems stem in both sides of the equation – we consume much, much too much and we make … well, do we make anything at all anymore?

Take a look around at all your stuff. Is any of it made in America? If it is, say like a shitty car, do you secretly, or not so secretly as the case may be, harbor desires for a nicer competitive product made overseas?

Deficit spending is easy and a self-fulfilling prophecy when we don’t make anything anymore. Most Americans are “paper pushers,” but, guess what, there’s not even paper anymore. We’re really just email senders and receivers. About the only thing we do really well is check in on Foursquare when we go shopping. Oh, and serve each other over priced meals and drinks.

One simple statistic to show us just how messed up our country is. It’s $100,000. That’s the pay some barely functional retard named Snooki gets per episode of Jersey Shore. Why? Because 10.7 million other barely functional retards in the US actually watch each episode, what when they’re not busy keeping up with whoever the f&*$ the Kardashians are.

I feel depressed and more than a bit dirty just typing that paragraph.

I know, I know. Some of you Jersey Shore, Kardashian-loving lunatics are thinking we all deserve a guilty pleasure.

My one word retort: Starbucks.

Starbucks (NASDAQ: SBUX) is a $27.5 billion company built upon nothing but guilty pleasures. Yes, dear reader, a $4 coffee is a guilty pleasure a-plenty, and many Americans have their “guilty pleasure” quota box pleasure checked off by 9:30 am. By the way, Starbucks is only a $27.5 billion company because it shed over $3 billion in market capitalization as the financial markets shook last week. Anyway you cut $27.5 billion, that’s a lot of guilty pleasure.

More guilty pleasures? How about TVs? It used to be TVs were passed down from generation to generation, literally written into last wills and testaments. Now, we have industries, foreign of course, built on providing us new TVs to buy every four and half years. I would dare say all of us know of at least one neighbor or friend, if not ourselves, that has a TV in the garage.

If you have more than one TV for every person in the household – that’s a guilty pleasure.

Cars. Ever see a home foreclosed but a relatively new luxury car or sports sedan in the driveway? Guilty pleasure.

More cars than licensed drivers in the house? Guilty pleasure.

Think I skipped over the foreclosed home? Not so fast, my friends. Since 2007, news stories of strawberry pickers taking out, and defaulting on, jumbo mortgages have become rather commonplace.

Not all defaulted loans result in foreclosures. We’re seeing some rather new phenomena as evidenced with some southern California fires. Remember in decades past there would be news footage of homeowners sitting on their houses fighting the encroaching flames with garden hoses? We tend not to see such video footage anymore. I would like to think it’s because we have gotten a whole heck of a lot smarter. But, come on, you know the skeptics and realists of us are thinking homeowners want their upside down homes burned to the ground, alleviating their financial problems. 

Come to think off it, fires might provide all of us reason to take a deeper, introspective look at how we live and what is really important. With brush fires in California, we often have warnings, and those warnings result in evacuations. Homeowners grab what they can and then flee toward safety.

Quick, you have 30 minutes to take what’s important and leave – what do you take? All that other stuff you are willing to leave behind, do you need it? Do you even want it?

Why do you have it?

We can’t blame D.C. lawmakers for everything, for they are simply we. In a land of plenty, we want even more, damned be the costs and the consideration for what we can afford or what might have to be paid later, by others. U.S. consumers – all 300 million of us – had a collective $2.4 trillion of debt in 2010. Let’s just assume that figure has risen over the past 8 months.

A little look at the news and a quick read of the financial section of the newspaper should be required reading for all citizens. But, we’ll need to do it on our smart phone or tablet, so we can do it on the run to back-to-school shopping, or better yet Black Friday after Thanksgiving – nothing like standing in long lines to spend money we don’t have on stuff we don’t need. It’s the great American way in our United States of Consumers.

Then again, I could be wrong – it’s just this guy’s opinion.

Tweet me between visits to Starbucks @RayHartjen