To avoid another crisis, we need an economy based on thrift and sustainability not loans and credit card debt
In 1977, two Boeing 747s collided on an airstrip in the Canary Islands. According to accident investigators, those who survived the initial blast in one plane had time to escape before a fire consumed the wreckage. But eyewitnesses reported that many remained in their seat looking perfectly content — as if nothing was wrong.
Not surprisingly, dozens of these dazed victims were burned to death, and the episode became a reminder of the so-called normalcy bias — a cognitive phenomenon whereby many who are faced with imminent disaster instantly convince themselves that everything is normal and that they don’t have to modify their behavior.
Unpleasant as this anecdote is to recount, it exemplifies the psychology at the root of one of America’s most destructive traits: our obsession with materialism and consumerism. To extrapolate the metaphor, if our damaged economy, record-low savings rate and sky-high personal debt levels are that smoldering plane about to explode, then America’s “shop till you drop” normalcy bias may be engineering yet another avoidable tragedy.
The most recent holiday binge exemplified the impending crisis. Despite persistent unemployment, flat wages and higher prices for necessities (food, healthcare, etc.), America nonetheless went on its usual post-Thanksgiving buying spree.
A glance at new data from the holiday season tells this story. After Black Friday’s now-annual melee of hyper-aggressive shoppers, the Washington Post reported that Christmas saw credit card purchases jump 7 percent over last year. Meanwhile, the Federal Reserve bank reported that consumer borrowing surged to pre-recession levels; Forbes reported that online holiday spending hit a record; and the Los Angeles Times reported that “consumer spending “grew faster than people’s take-home incomes” as households “cut their savings rate (to) support their purchases of cars and other goods and services.”
In the face of such self-destructive behavior, it’s worth asking: Why is overconsumption still the preferred “normal” in America? The flippant answer is that it’s simply hard for shopaholics to break old habits. But while that’s certainly true, it’s not the whole story when enablers are everywhere.
Turn on the television, and you’ll inevitably face a bevy of ads telling you to buy something — a cellphone, a television, a car, anything! — even if you don’t actually need the product. Look around at the economy and you’ll see growing industries that are based not on fulfilling customers’ basic needs, but on satiating consumers’ materialist impulses. Tune into politics and you’ll hear policies touted for how they will prompt even more consumer spending.
Of course, that latter enabler — politics — is the most powerful of all, as our national leaders regularly tout consumption for its own sake.
Recall that in the face of the planet’s climate change and resource crises, then-Vice President Dick Cheney denigrated the notion of frugality, saying, “Conservation may be a sign of personal virtue, but it is not a sufficient basis for a sound, comprehensive energy policy.” Likewise, Rudy “America’s Mayor” Giuliani told everyone not to sacrifice after 9/11 but instead to “go shopping.” And last month, Bloomberg News headlined a dispatch “Bernanke Prods Savers to Become Consumers,” highlighting how the “easy money” lending policies of the nation’s chief banker was reinvigorating the culture of gluttony.
Just five years ago, this same Fed chairman was rightly imploring Americans to “forgo consumption or leisure” in order to start reshaping our economy around sustainability and thrift. But after the financial crisis, he, like so many politicians, became just another passenger on that burning plane.
Paralyzed by the normalcy bias, Bernanke and other leaders keep calmly imploring us to go about our business … move along … and that’s what we keep doing, even though the fuselage may soon go up in flames.
David Sirota is a nationally syndicated newspaper columnist, magazine journalist and the best-selling author of the books "Hostile Takeover," "The Uprising" and "Back to Our Future." E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, follow him on Twitter @davidsirota or visit his website at www.davidsirota.com. More David Sirota.
More Related Stories
- Developers evict historic women's shelter to build luxury hotel
- Kaitlyn Hunt refuses plea offer, will go to court over high school relationship
- DHS admits "impossible" to control 3D-printed guns
- Journalists file suit against Manning trial secrecy
- Russia: Syrian regime ready to talk peace
- Report: Nearly a quarter of all Americans struggle to afford food
- Ted Cruz against the world
- Louie Gohmert: Women should be forced to carry nonviable pregnancies to term
- 2 men arrested for endangering commercial aircraft
- Oversized load blamed for bridge collapse
- This is what Guy Fieri looks like as a balloon
- Iran hackers aiming at U.S. energy firms
- Lawyers release data in attempt to discredit Trayvon Martin
- Anonymous rallies behind Kaitlyn Hunt
- Bridge collapse: Part of "aging infrastructure"
- Mistrial in penalty phase of Arias case
- Amanda Bynes arrested after hurling bong from window
- Interstate 5 bridge collapses north of Seattle
- Mississippi could begin prosecuting women for miscarriages
- Teenage girl claims she was beaten up for looking like Taylor Swift
- UK Military: London attack victim was a "model soldier"
Featured Slide Shows
The week in 10 picsclose X
- 1 of 11
Lisa Montgomery embraces her nephew Thursday after a tornado tore apart her home in Cleburne, Texas. The twister killed six people and destroyed entire swaths of the North Texas town.
Credit: AP/LM Otero
Jack McMahon, the defense attorney for abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell, speaks outside the Criminal Justice Center in Philadelphia Tuesday. His client was convicted of killing three babies in his clinic, and will serve multiple life sentences.
Credit: AP/Matt Rourke
A photo taken Monday captures Vice President Joe Biden's response to a Milwaukee second-grader's innovative proposal to end America's epidemic of gun violence. This guy!
Credit: AP/Jenny Aicher
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., flanked by a grouper-eyed Michele Bachmann, addresses the IRS' admission that it targeted Tea Party groups in advance of the 2012 election. In an op-ed for CNN Thursday, the Kentucky senator slammed the president for his faux outrage.
Credit: AP/Molly Riley
Ousted IRS chief Steven Miller is sworn in on Capitol Hill Friday. Miller testified before the House Ways and Means Committee on the extra scrutiny the agency gave conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status.
Credit: AP/J. Scott Applewhite
Attorney General Eric Holder pauses as he testifies on Capitol Hill before the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday. Holder is under fire, among other things, for the Justice Department's gathering of phone records at the Associated Press.
Credit: AP/Carolyn Kaster
O.J. Simpson sits during an evidentiary hearing at Clark County District Court in Las Vegas, Nev., Thursday. Simpson, who is currently serving a nine-to-33-year sentence in state prison for armed robbery and kidnapping, is using a writ of habeas corpus to seek a new trial.
Credit: AP/Las Vegas Review-Journal/Jeff Scheid
Major Tom to ground control: On Sunday astronaut Chris Hadfield recorded the first music video from space, a cover of David Bowie's "Space Oddity."
Credit: AP/NASA/Chris Hadfield
When it rains it pours. President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference Thursday with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, inexplicably inspiring an #umbrellagate Twitter meme.
Credit: AP/Jacquelyn Martin
A smoke plume rises high above a road block at the intersection of County A and Ross Road east of Solon Springs, Wis., Tuesday. No injuries were reported, but the the wildfire caused evacuations across northwestern Wisconsin.
Credit: AP/The Duluth News-Tribune/Clint Austin
Recent Slide Shows
- 1 of 11