Thursday, December 27, 2007

Affluenza

The holiday gift-giving season has ended and the bills are now coming due. There is no question that the American economy relies on year-end spending which has effectively commercialized any faith tradition's holy day or days that fall within this time period. Reports of numbers will tell us whether the bottom line bodes well for business or not, but there are serious burdens borne by the consumer that demand our attention. One is what economist Joel Waldfogel calls the “Deadweight Loss of Christmas.”

On National Public Radio's Marketplace, Waldfogel was quoted saying “People value things they receive as gifts about 20 percent less per dollar spent then they value items they purchase for themselves.” This deadweight loss is valued at somewhere between twelve and eighteen billion dollars this year. In effect this means that the marketing of the holiday caused Americans to hand over that much money in exchange for nothing more than the consolation of knowing that they participated in the annual spending ritual. And this only measures the difference in perceived value of gifts received, it makes no judgment on the uselessness of many of the gifts that were given.

The second burden to consider is the growing consumer debt that the holiday consumption frenzy creates. A recent Federal Reserve Bank report indicates that Americans carry over $920 billion in credit debt. Over the previous year, the number of accounts that are 30 days past due has risen by 26% and those that are 90 days overdue by 50% according to some lenders. This all adds up to an insane practice of purchasing over-valued items, many of them redundant or useless, with money we don't have and then either paying even more for them due to interest payments or creating insurmountable debt that brings an avalanche of other problems.


The only thing that keeps this cycle going is the cycle itself! Like a gerbil running on a wheel, the only way to stop the motion is to get off the wheel. This annual feast of overconsumption is surely an a disease. As we enter the flu season, it is apt that this economic disease can been called Affluenza. It is in fact a manifestation of the disease of addiction. Anyone who is living with an addiction knows the daily battles that can involve many setbacks without vigilance. The most successful way of dealing with addiction is through the wisdom of the Twelve Steps. The first step is to admit that we are powerless over the addiction – that our lives have become unmanageable. That should be plain from the numbers reported here, or the bills that you cannot pay.

The second step is coming to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. What power is that for you? Whether you are comfortable calling that higher power God or not, there is a spirituality required for recovery. We are a sorry and hopeless people indeed if we cannot find the spiritual path that will lead us out of the insanity of this runaway consumerism.

2 comments:

David J. Spuria said...

First of all, where are all the post-ers? We used ot have some nice threads on here. Anyhoo, love this topic and I love the way you spun this. This is definitely a great piece of writing and some uncommon insight into a growing problem. Each year I can almost sense this crush of frenzy and emotion. My job itself has me hearing people wrapped up in the turmoil. Heaven forbid UPS not deliver the eternal gift on time! And why hasn't Bose gone HD wireless everything yet?

There is something very wrong with Christmas. Fundamentalists are correct in calling Christ back for Christmas. Libs are correct in their decrees against rabid materialism. It's hard to know Jesus when there's little mention of Him, except in reference to a "holiday". A gift (unless to a poor child) can rarely change a life. Instead, the factor you spoke of magnifies this feeling I've had for years. That Christmas is a pagan ritual. It no longer embodies "It's A Wonderful Life". Clarence would likely be jumping in the icy river alone, looking to escape the colder reality of consumerism gone mad. On this one my friend, you've made a great statement of Christianity. But how do we change? How do we get out of it?

sojourner said...

I agree wholeheartedly with David's concluding remarks. How do we get out of it? My only answer is that it starts with a commitment from each of us. Several times in the past I have given gifts in the names of my usual gift recipients to charities in lieu of tangible presents. Organizations such as The Heifer Project multiply the gifts many times with their m.o. Still I seem to slip back into the tangible gifts mania. Is it just a bad habit?