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Jon Talton

Analysis and commentary on economic news, trends and issues, with an emphasis on Seattle and the Northwest.

November 24, 2009 at 9:55 AM

Are we bidding the era of exuberant consumption goodbye too soon?

Top of the News: Even the CEO of Wal-Mart has talked about the “new normal” including an era of more frugal shoppers (I want to wean myself off the term “consumers,” a demeaning way to think of citizens). Not everybody’s buying it, however.

Grant McCracken, an anthropologist who has dedicated his career to studying shopper behavior, argues that “consumerism” won’t die because it has become so embedded in people’s cultural behavior.

He uses as an example of his many interviews, Susan, standing in her packed garage. “What created this mountain of stuff?” he asks. “Was it irrational exuberance and cheap money? It was not. This crowded garage springs from cultural motives. These things were not purchased to express vanity or pursue status. They were purchased to help Susan build a life.”

McCracken goes on: “When circumstances allow, she will return to spending enthusiastically to fashion her children, her family, and herself. The ‘new normalists’ missed one thing. Susan has real and substantial motives for spending.”

Maybe so. But a nation of Susans and Sams are confronting a historic level of debt, the worst jobs situation since the Depression and a world of discontinuity. It may not matter what they want; I want a best-seller and movie star looks. Circumstances may force changes whether people want this or not.

The Back Story: As my colleague Drew DeSilver reported in the Sunday Seattle Times, billions of dollars in boring CDs have left Chase since its takeover of Washington Mutual. And the “experts” say that’s fine because these accounts are not profitable enough.

Now comes a report that hedge fund money may make up as much as 40 percent of the money raised this year by American and European banks. Nothing boring or low-profit there. Only high risk. But the past year has shown that dull American taxpayers will be standing there with a safety net.

Today’s Econ Haiku:

Revise GDP?

No shock to those revising

resumes, savings

Comments | More in Banking, Consumer spending

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