Thursday, July 10, 2008



News and talk radio are currently replete with a commercial for a major auto insurance company, the scenario of which varies slightly, but proceeds generally like this: A subject encounters a friend in a bizarre situation or accompanied by a bizarre companion or companions. In one instance, a gaggle of groupies follows a rather non-descript woman. In another, a folk singer sits in the backseat of a guy’s car warbling aural pabulum to the annoyance all around him. When asked whence the paparazzi or anachronistic crooner came, the friend replies: “I saved so much on my auto insurance that I decided to hire a (folksinger, entourage, etc., depending on the particular scenario).” If you listen to news or talk radio, you know the ad.

I realize that these ads are just a fatuous and largely failed attempt at humor. However, being I, I see a profound message in these ads. Notice that the insured never says anything like “I saved so much on auto insurance that I decided to put some money away for retirement (or save for my kid’s education, or build up my emergency nest egg, etc.)” No, it’s always some exaggeratedly ridiculous use for the money. Again, a feeble attempt at humor. But I would be willing to wager that the writers of the aforementioned commercial never considered having their insureds talking about investing or otherwise putting away the money they saved. Americans simply are incapable of saving money, and many do not even consider doing so an option. If they save on one thing, they just blow the money on something else, usually some sort of useless gimcrack that brings, at most, transitory pleasure, and then go on to complain about how they “can’t make ends meet.”

The financial consequences of a country with an utter inability to save are obvious, if concealed for the last fifteen or so years. For example, many experts compare the economic and financial situation we face today with the post real estate bubble malaise confronted by Japan in the ‘90s. However, there is a profound difference between the two situations: Japan didn’t have to import capital while we, due to our profligacy, must import our capital. Maybe that doesn’t make difference; perhaps capital is capital and knows no boundaries. I draw no comfort from such anodyne reassurances, however, and would much rather have a healthy supply of good old domestic savings when faced with a prolonged period of economic difficulty, but perhaps this attitude arises from my hopelessly dated view of the world, financial and otherwise.

There are more than financial consequences arising from the wanton profligacy of the modern American, however. I contend that there are serious moral, spiritual, and psychological causes and consequences of our inability to save. To people like me, the spending we see all around us has its basis in some sort of profound emptiness that people are trying to fill by accumulating piles of ultimately worthless geegaws in an attempt to reassure themselves that everything is, and they are, alright. Such attempts to fulfill deep-seated needs with superficial material forms of self-assurance are bound to fail, and ultimately cause people to neglect more effective, and rather obvious, solutions to our problems. To put it succinctly, excessive spending is a serious character flaw. There is indeed something satisfying, indeed noble, about aggressively saving and willfully sharing the fruits of one’s labor with those in need rather than blowing every dollar on, well, overpriced crap.

A few weeks ago, my wife and I were visiting her family on Long Island. As we were driving to a local water park (Splish-Splash in Riverhead, which I highly recommend, by the way, but not at full retail. We got our tickets at a steep discount as part of a fundraising effort by our niece’s Girl Scout troop.), we heard a report on WCBS about the recession’s and high gas prices’ forcing people to cut back on things that they had grown used to purchasing. As all these stories go, such forced frugality was portrayed as a near tragedy. But my wife, who shares my outlook on spending and saving, pointed out that, if there is a silver lining in this recession, it is that perhaps people will come to realize that they have been, er, urinating away money on useless junk for years, junk that they can easily do without. I have long contended on these pages that we are due for a recession in order to clear out financial and economic excesses. But I also agree with my wife that we are due for a recession in order to clear up personal financial excesses by forcing a reexamination of what is really important and what is clearly extraneous, and ultimately debilitating, in our lives.

Of course, my wife, like most human beings, is more optimistic than I am. When we arrived at Splish-Splash, I was waiting for the rest of our group outside the restrooms. Directly across from this particular set of restrooms was one of those silly basketball games in which the sucker forks over a couple bucks and attempts to sink a basket in order to win a worthless piece of figurative dung. I noticed that there were no takers in the ten minutes or so I waited for my kids, wife, in-laws, nieces, nephews, etc. When I happened to walk by the same “attraction” later in the day, I noticed that there were also no takers. Initially, I thought this was good, a perfect example of the forced frugality that my wife and I had discussed. But then my good sense returned; people are not peeing their money away because they have little or nothing to pee away. But when (if?) prosperity ever returns and people have a few extra bucks in their pocket, they’ll be right back up to the silly carnival games and other components of the trough, lapping up the malodorous detritus that some smart operator is willing to sell them at a grossly inflated price. It’s inevitable; this is America. Money burns not only through our pockets, but through our flesh and what remains of our sinew to our very souls.

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