Shopped ’til we Dropped

I can’t say I was one of those prescient people who saw the Great Recession coming, but I will tell you that ever since the 1980s, whenever I walked into a mall or shared the freeway with a zillion other cars with just a driver in them (and no passengers), I felt like our culture (at least the urban version in Los Angeles) was profoundly out of balance. It seemed like in the mall ninety percent of the money being spent was for stuff that the buyers did not really need, and on the freeway the same percentage of the gasoline being consumed was beyond what was needed to move all these people from their points A to points B. We were like addicts trying to maintain a high, taking yet another dose at the expense of our health, ever pushing back and even attempting to deny any day of reckoning.

My partner Sally and I bought a house, just before the millennium began, that doubled in price in seven years. We borrowed much of that equity and plowed it into business investments that went south with the rest of the economy. This to say that we got caught up in the whole thing like many others, and so are not about to cast any stones.

I hear some commentators and economists speculating on how long it will take to get back to where we were before the recession, particularly for home prices to recover to those stratospheric 2007 levels. But were those home prices ever realistic, and could anything short of another craze and resulting bubble get prices their again in the near future? Not sure that would be a good thing. And do we really want to go back to an economy that depended on “shop ’til you drop” to have full employment? Well I have a job and so do both of my young adult kids at the moment (knock on wood), so maybe I’m not the one to best answer that question.

So with the 2010 national election now behind us and more conservative (even libertarian) governance ideas in ascension (for the present at least), and the U.S. still mired in a slow recovery that some say could sputter back to a new recession, I keep thinking that 2008 was a helluva time for Obama and the Democrats to grab the political reins. Of course who knows where we’d be if they hadn’t, but I just wish George Bush could have been President long enough to be responsible for all that crude spilling into the Gulf of Mexico from his favorite industry, and have to be fully culpable for the financial (and not to mention human fiasco) that was the Iraq war.

Instead of that scenario, we have had the Democrats at the helm while a significant percentage of the electorate is indulging themselves in reenacting that iconic scene from the movie “Network”, where people go to their windows and scream, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore”, egged on of course by the bulk of the Republicans in congress and the full array of the Fox commentators.

I keep wondering if, from the moment Obama was elected, if the congressional Republicans had any intention of being anything but completely obstructionist. I think about the U.S. Back in 1860, when Lincoln’s election as a “radical Republican” led to the almost immediate secession of the soon to be Confederate states from the Union.

Anyway… as I have said before, I am guilty of being an optimist. As such, I seem to be one of a minority of political progressives that thinks Obama and the Congressional majority did a good job crafting a compromise health care reform bill, to finally create a path forward for the county to move toward universal health care, in such a way to accommodate our crazy for-profit medical industry. In my mind, just the fact that the Federal government is finally getting into the business of regulating the insurance industry is a great step forward. Certainly there is much “sausage making” to come, but after half a century of trying, the U.S. is finally at least starting to build some sort of consensus (still shaky, and soon to be tested post 2010 election) for health care as a universal right.

I hold out hope that the silver lining here is if we can get to some sort of near universal health care coverage by 2014 (assuming Obama can get reelected) then continuing health care inflation by our mostly for-profit system will put pressure toward moving to a single payer system to get costs under control. That may be the way it will work.

When I suggested this to a good friend the other day in an email, he replied…

I certainly hope you’re right, but delivery of affordable health care is not a stand alone problem. it is part of a witch’s brew of a toxic economy, a sick housing market, high unemployment and a continuing loss of better paying jobs. If matters do not improve in the next couple of years providing access to medical care may be even less possible than it is now.

I hear his concern and I have it too. But what I am hoping is we are going through a painful adjustment to a “new normal” that is less materialistic, less “shop ’til you drop”, and more focused on a real, rather than what seemed like a more fabricated quality of living.

So for a while the metaphorical addict (our country) will have to go through a “detox” process as the toxins are expelled from our system and we eventually recover to a healthier base state not so reliant on artificial stimulants and other metaphorical “medication”. From my point of view the housing market was “on drugs” for years prior to its crash in 2007-2008, I don’t think that either the big run-or or crash was healthy.

Once we recover from this metaphorical “substance abuse”, I think we have a chance for a healthier housing market that is more realistic and less speculative. As to employment, we will have to acknowledge that the jobs that supported “shop ’til you drop” probably won’t return and we have to sort out how maybe we can all live more frugally, rather than endlessly trying to work more, in an endless pursuit of more money. Again, perhaps easy for me to say, I have a good-paying job at the moment.

I see the whole halting, still shaky, and long-sought move towards universal health care emblematic of perhaps a new beginning of moving from “us and them” thinking to more of a frame of “all us”, and an acknowledgment that we are all in this ongoing experiment we call the United States of America together. If we can move to taking access to affordable health care off the table somehow, I think it can simplify all our lives and help us really unlock the entrepreneurial spirit of our country, which could eventually lead to a renaissance of simple pragmatism and “rightsizing”.

That’s my optimistic spin and the dream I hold on to!

5 replies on “Shopped ’til we Dropped”

  1. Cooper, I share your optimism and also hope that we are discovering a new normal. We are definitely experiencing a paradigm shift as a nation and I think that’s healthy, albeit, uncomfortable for some. Honestly, becoming less materialistic is better for all people and the planet we live on.

    Keep the faith!

  2. I keep wondering if, from the moment Obama was elected, if the congressional Republicans had any intention of being anything but completely obstructionist.

    Wonder no more. They said as much from Day One. I voted for the president and admire him, in part because I hoped he really might help shake us out of the polarized mess we are in. That that didn’t happen, I don’t blame on him. But I do feel naive now.

    (And I personally agree w/ you that the health care plan we got was about the best we could get, an acceptable first step.)

  3. Emily… thanks for the second and the encouraging words. Let’s all set an intention to imagine that simpler, more pragmatic, more balanced “new normal”! I even welcome the Tea Party people coming out of their self-imposed obscurity to join the conversation. Sunlight and dialog are good for all things!

  4. DairyStateDad… I appreciate that second on the health care reform and getting a toe in the door. I think it will be a long and difficult road ahead, but a journey begins with a single step, and the destination of caring about everyone in our country is a truly worthy one.

    I think you agree its not about winners and losers… its about all of us and what are we going to do about it to move our human evolution forward.

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