Need and want; two words that cover the scope of human emotions. Need symbolizes the most basic of human necessities; food, water, shelter, etc. Want is the limitless human drive for material possessions. The words are polar opposites; yet, in America today, the line between them has become blurred. Never is this more evident than during the holiday season, which marks the annual breakdown of the wall between need and want in America. Still reeling from the “Great Recession,” Americans must reflect on what they truly “need,” rather than “want.”
Despite a downtrodden economy, Black Friday 2011 saw a 16 percent increase in sales over 2010. Many news outlets reported the lavish spending as a success. Indeed, consumer confidence is a leading economic indicator. Yes, how shoppers feel is a barometer of the state of our union. America is addicted to many things: oil, food, television, but none perhaps more than spending. Following the financial meltdown, Americans closed their wallets, reaching a peak savings of over 5 percent. But the penny pinching has ceased.
In October, the New York Times reported the nation’s saving rate at 3.6 percent; the lowest rate since the recession began. In the second quarter of 2011, Americans accumulated 368 percent more debt than the same period in 2009. The harsh reality is in the numbers. America is rapidly returning to the destructive habits of the early 2000s.
The problem: the America of the early 2000s was an illusion. Leading up to 2007, the country’s savings rate was the lowest since the Great Depression. The dollars spent weren’t real; rather, credit card companies subsidized the Americans’ runaway spending. The government, desperate to spur growth, also fueled the addiction to retail. Instead of asking us to reform our habits, they continually cut taxes hoping those few extra dollars would make their way to Wal-mart, rather than bank accounts. The vicious cycle is reflected in our annual deficit, as the government is forced to borrow to make up for the loss of revenue.
Still, the America of yesterday is being sold as the model for recovery. Our GDP, consumer spending, retail sales, and trade are compared to pre-recession figures. America should not be striving to be the America of 2007. The America of 2007 caused the recession. Instead, we should learn from those past mistakes to create a healthier economy. But how do we recover if we restrict spending?
Sacrifice. Americans are going to have to sacrifice their “wants.” In the short term, this sacrifice may cost more jobs, as corporations will not hire if profits are stagnant. This is a difficult pill to swallow as unemployment hovers at 8.6 percent. But the American economy must correct itself.
Amazingly, we are still in a position to sacrifice rather unimportant possessions, when compared to the sacrifices of, say, the Great Depression. They had to sacrifice food, clothing; and shelter; the human “needs” mentioned in the beginning of the article. All we have to sacrifice is a bigger flat screen television or new pair of designer jeans.
Politicians, economists, and perhaps everyday Americans may scoff at the idea of sacrifice. After all, America has always made the choice of working harder for material possessions. It is why European citizens have smaller cars, smaller houses, and smaller home inventories when compared to their American counterparts, but enjoy larger savings. Their situation is worse than ours, so neither way of life has proved superior. Yet, our hunger for more now threatens our very being. How can we continue to spend as incomes fall? How will the younger generation retire with dignity if they spend frivolously, while pensions and Social Security disappear? How will America control its destiny, while being a slave to foreign creditors? It can’t and it won’t if we continue on our current path.
Perhaps Americans should look to Charles Dicken’s classic A Christmas Carol for direction. The cold hearted Ebenezer Scrooge realizes his accumulation of wealth has been for naught, when the Ghost of Christmas Present shows Scrooge two families who have less material possessions than he, but are abound with happiness. And remember, Scrooge had the luxury of being wealthy, most of us do not.
As a country, we must be more conscious of what we truly “need” in our lives. Our actions no longer affect only ourselves. Replicated millions of times over, Americans’ irresponsible spending will continue to hurt the country. People always complain that the holidays have become too stressful and commercialized. Ironically, we have created that environment. If the “Great Recession” taught us anything, it was to be more thankful for what we have. All we “need” this holiday is family; everything else is just a want.