Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Bling For a New Economy

In light of our country's economic woes, I've noticed an increase in articles on frugality. Many of them site depression era home remedies, such as egg wash conditioners for those who no longer find it prudent to pay $20 for a salon conditioning. Another article I saw recommended shopping at consignment stores, or sample sales for fall fashions. And yet another offered restaurant recommendations with entrees under $12. To me, all this information begs the question: Why did we have to wait for an economic crisis to be encouraged to do these things?

As the financial crisis continues, stock and credit markets struggle, and politicians fail to pacify an increasingly concerned public, I wonder how will this historic era change our culture. Will we learn to be less decadent, and seek less gratification from the purchase of things? Will we decide to be defined by what we do as opposed to what we have? Will Americans realize that we were probably a richer country before we had all the bling?

To me, bling is the badge of our economy problems. Yes, I realize that this is largely about the sub-prime mortgage market that has disrupted the flow of credit that banks can offer to businesses and individuals that helps our economy run, but hear me out.

If one were to do a careful reconstruction of this financial disaster, it might be realized that this problem began with revolving credit. It use to be you lived within your means, but with the advent of predatory credit card companies, living within means was redefined as living within your credit limit. I realized this a few years ago when I heard one of my interns explain to his friend that the purpose of a credit card is to get things you can't afford. So now, after a few decades of such conditioning, it's only natural that a large swath of Americans thought it was a norm to have things that are not affordable. This includes televisions, vehicles, electronics, trophy homes and yes, bling.

Bling is worn as a testament to personal wealth. Whether or not it is a true testament is argumentative. But it seems that we all have a bling issue in one way or another, be it extravagant jewelry, designer shoes and bags, the latest mobile phone, or largest HDTV. We have systematically substituted things for substance, and that gratification which is never satiated, is part of what has fueled our combined misjudgment in the use of easy credit for things we can't afford, namely mortgages.

The theme at Burning Man this year was American Dream. A writer doing a story for an LA style magazine asked my son if thought there was such a thing as an American Dream. His answer was a poignant "No, dreams aren't real, that's why they are called dreams." The idea of having it all, is appealing, and it's understandable how so many would jump at the chance to have it all. But like most things that seem to good to be true, buying the American Dream on easy credit turned out to be wishful thinking.

So now, I have to wonder if we have learned our lesson. Will we see the error of our excessive ways and know better or will this drama simply be replayed in the next century as well?

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