It would be silly to insist that a few terrible months meant the end of American consumer culture. But it would be equally silly to assume that culture could never change. It might be changing right now.Data and anecdotes support the notion that consumers are currently spending less and mean to cut back even more -- Best Buy's CEO declared that "rapid, seismic changes in consumer behavior have created the most difficult climate we've ever seen." The FT's Lex column today wondered whether "conspicuous aceticism" might become the "new ostentation," producing "structually lower levels of demand across all areas of discretionary spending." I'm still pessimistic, though, that this amounts to a rupture with the culture that is all any of us born after World War II have known.
Nevertheless, I don't think that means Americans are incurably optimistic. One of the strangest things about the business press, and I'm still not used to it, is how optimistic is usually a complimentary term, a boon and a benefit. Where I come from intellectually, it tends to mean you are a useful idiot or a rube. That seems especially true when applied to consumers.
Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center, noted that his recent polls showed a sharp rise in the number of people planning to cut back on spending — but also a clear increase in the number who expected the economy to be in better shape next year. “What the American economy has going for it is the innate optimism of the public,” he said. “Americans get optimistic at the drop of a hat.”We don't need a reason to expect the best; we're just dog-like in that way. Our masters are going to put something good in the bowl; we just know it.
Also, is shopping rather than saving really an expression of optimism? "I am feeling very positive. I'm going to go buy a TV set." Seems like it is a preference for living for today instead of having faith or concern with tomorrow. I guess the idea is that confidence in our future earning capabilities makes us more likely to spend now, but I always (wrongly) interpret consumer confidence as meaning "confidence in the consumer way of life." When it is high, it suggests to me a vote of no confidence in the possibility of meaningful work, of finding purpose, confidence, hope, etc. in making and doing rather than spending and getting. It's as though consumers are surrendering by being confident in the pleasures of consuming, and that when consumer confidence falls, people are indicating that they suddenly enjoy consumption less. Falling consumer confidence seems like it should mean rising personal confidence. But that of course isn't the case. They just aren't confident enough about having a healthy flow of cash to support all the spending they wish to perform.
Still, the term consumer confidence seems to relegate people to their passive roles, whereas these same people also are part of the production process. But we are accustomed to thinking that the only role we take pride and pleasure in is our role as consumer; it's through that process that we make ourselves with as much autonomy as we like -- not the working world. What's hard to take is how often disappointment in American consumers is expressed, for letting the economy down, for their thinking of other ways to make it through their days without ceaseless spending on consumer goods. How dare they? Have they lost their minds? Why can't they be more optimistic and compliant?