So Many Things, So Little Prosperity

A couple of years ago, I was invited to the house-warming party of a friend and former colleague.  As I drove into the neighborhood, I noticed many cars parked along the streets, and in fact had to park some distance from her house.  In the course of the usual small talk of greetings, I mentioned that there must be a lot of parties going on in the neighborhood, what with all the vehicles parked on the streets.  “Oh,” she said, “those are all my neighbors’ cars.  They can’t get their cars in their garages because they’re full of stuff.”  She described how, whenever neighbors left their garage doors open, she could see household things piled up right to the door.  She mentioned that many families in the neighborhood were having trouble making their mortgage payments.

This struck me as emblematic of the current economic situation in the United States.  While it is all too true that much of the blame for our recession belongs to Wall Street, some of the blame must be assigned to Main Street as well.  I don’t know how many of my friend’s neighbors bought the stuff in their garages with money obtained from second mortgages or lines of credit on the now long-gone equity in their homes, or with maxed-out credit cards.  But I do know that across the United States people resorted to such measures in order to maintain consumption habits that their wages and salaries could no longer sustain.  It is these consumption habits that led to an historically low rate of savings and high rate of household debt.  Consequently, we had houses so full of things that we had to store the overflow in our garages (and attics and basements).  It is also noteworthy that during the period of the run-up to the financial crisis of 2008, the self-storage business grew into a multi-million dollar business.  Americans had (and continue to have) a lot of stuff that they aren’t using.  Maybe because in fact those things really aren’t very useful, and their lack of usefulness may explain why we grow tired of them so quickly.

Worse is the fact that so much of this storage square footage, whether in one’s own home or in a rented storage unit, is not worth the cost of storing it.  We all know, though seldom consider it when making a purchase, that consumer products do not hold their value, that is their original retail price (“discounted” or not).  It is axiomatic that a new car loses value as you drive it off the dealer’s lot, but we seldom think about the fact that everything else loses value as soon as we walk out the retailer’s door with it.  This is the sad reality that everyone who has ever had a yard sale soon learns.  The plunge in value is partly because the retail price of any item is the sum of many factors: the retailer’s overhead, packaging, transportation, the manufacturer’s overhead, advertising costs, etc., as well as the profit margin of all those involved in the manufacturing, transportation, and retail sale of the item.  Those costs, over and above the use value of the item and the commodity value of the materials it contains, evaporate once the product is in the consumer’s hands.  The only way for the consumer to recover that loss is to actually use the product, in fact to use it up.  If the product is cheaply made or has little utility, it is unlikely that the loss can actually be recovered.

But that is not the way of a consumer culture.  The economics of consumer capitalism requires that we continue to buy new things well before the old things have, literally, been consumed.  Your three-year-old computer may still be perfectly serviceable for your needs (the one I’m typing on is in fact five years old), but you must get the latest model, with its faster processing and larger memory, even though you will never actually use its full capacity.  If you have an iPhone, you must also get an iPad, even though you will use it only to watch a sitcom or read a pointless article in a (consumer) magazine or download a trivial app.  That tank-top you bought last week is not enough—you must buy another one this week because it’s “so cute.”  Keep the refrigerator and pantry stocked with food, much of which will spoil before you get around to eating it; according to the USDA, 26% of edible food is thrown out and 20% of edible fresh fruits and vegetables is discarded.  If your income is not keeping up with the increase in costs nor with the increase in your consumer “needs,” and if interest rates are artificially low, and if the Chinese have lots of extra money (which they got from us when we purchased their cheap goods) to loan to both the federal government and the American consumer, borrow, first on your credit cards, then on the inflated equity in your house—in other words, mortgage your future.  What’s important is to keep the economic engine running.

Until, of course, it stops, as it did in 2008.  Now, surrounded by things, your car (about to be repossessed) sits in the driveway or on the street because there’s no room in the garage.  Your house, if you still have it, is underwater, and if you’ve been laid off, you don’t know how much longer you can keep it.  If you still have a job (as most Americans in fact do), you haven’t seen a raise in a couple of years, you’re paying more for health insurance (if your company even offers coverage), and you’ve had a series of yard sales—but no one else wants your stuff (they already have too much of their own).  Meanwhile you and most everyone else have stopped buying more stuff, and since the economy requires consumer demand to start to grow again, it remains in the doldrums and economists ponder the prospect of a double dip.

It is unlikely that a resurgence in demand will come any time soon, for as Jeffrey Sachs (in his new book The Price of Civilization) and others are pointing out, the problems with the American economy are structural rather than cyclical.  In part because of our collective dependence on debt-fueled consumption, at the cost of long-term investment in those things which are the basis of prosperity and growth (energy, infrastructure, education and training, to name a few), the foundations of our economy have been weakened and it will take a great deal of commitment and money to bring them up to twentieth-century standards.  Sachs also notes, again as do others, that the process of weakening did not begin in 2008, but a good thirty to forty years earlier; the current financial crisis is like the sudden medical crisis (a heart attack) that is the consequence of years of living badly (burgers and fries).

Thus, even though in the last thirty years or so we have acquired much more stuff than we can reasonably make use of, in effect becoming chronic hoarders through compulsive shopping, we have in fact not prospered.  The root meaning of to prosper is to flourish, a sense that entails much more than material possessions.  To be healthy, live long, and have healthy children is a form of prosperity, yet America lags many other countries, including ones less technologically advanced or with lower average incomes, in medical care and personal health, longevity, infant mortality, and child obesity, diabetes, and educational attainment.  Broken down by class, these deficits are especially injurious to our poor, who as a percentage of our total population have increased markedly in recent years.  There are many cheap things in our garages and storage sheds, but we cannot afford the things that actually help us prosper—or we are politically unwilling to pay for them through taxes and social commitment.

Some years ago there was a popular bumper sticker that read something to the effect that he who dies with the most toys wins.  How ironic that the truth is that he who has the most toys will most likely die first.

Comments

  • truefinds  On October 9, 2011 at 11:56 AM

    Thanks for your insightful blog entry. As an estate sale professional, I have first hand experience with the hoarding behavior of the American people, at least those on the west coast. While I found your comments to be accurate, I’d like to add to them. Most hoarder households I have worked on (and there have been many) have fallen into a few categories: adults with a home full of their own purchases who have inherited the household belongings of their parents or other relatives; older people who have been lured in by the promises that they have found on late night shopping channels; people who have made a lifestyle choice or have been forced by the economy to downsize, which leaves them with all the huge household trappings crammed into a much smaller space. One of the issues you brought up has also contributed to the hoarding phenomenon: when you combine the ingrained thriftiness of our older generations with the cheap products being produced today, you will find an abundance of broken purchases that someone still hopes can be fixed or somehow still be of use. Memories are yet another contributing factor to hoarding. Maybe it’s due to the fast pace of change of today’s society, but many people–the elderly chief among them because they have so many years to hold on to–cling to things that still are “the way they were”. One last reason I’ve encountered with hoarders is that many are collecting as a safeguard against a bad economy: buy now at a cheap price now (often by shopping at garage sales or discount stores) so that you will have it later when it will be much more expensive. Rarely have I encountered a hoarder of expensive symbols of a conspicuous consumption (though I did just do a downsizing sale in an expensive coastal community that was exactly that). Whatever the reasons, our society is indeed becoming a hoarder nation. It’s good for my business (who else wants to deal with the masses of possessions), but I’m unsure if it’s says about our lifestyles in the long run.

    • William L. Scurrah  On October 9, 2011 at 3:26 PM

      It was very interesting to get your first hand insights into hoarding. I can imagine that you’ve seen it all. Ever watch the “Hoarders” series on television?

  • truefinds  On October 11, 2011 at 11:01 AM

    I’ve watched it. It’s interesting and just a bit scary for someone like me. My father was a hoarder (fell into the “safeguard against bad economy/ inherited parents stuff/ ingrained thriftiness” categories), so I always feel a need to keep a strong handle on my own hoarding tendencies. Being in the estate sale business provides way too many temptations for collecting, so I try to avoid it all together.

Trackbacks

  • By Why Do Hoarders Hoard? | truefinds on October 12, 2011 at 3:43 PM

    […] people, at least those on the west coast.  A few days ago, I read an excellent blog called So Many Things, So Little Prosperity, (written by William L. Scurrah, a retired college English instructor who writes about “a […]

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