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Urban Rhythms

Tighten Up

By Wiley Hall III | Posted 9/12/2001

Everywhere I turned at the mall in Owings Mills I encountered an earnest entreaty to buy. At one major department store, big red-and-white signs trumpeted storewide clearances. Other stores boasted 20 percent to 30 percent off all merchandise, end-of-summer sales, back- to-school specials. And still consumers stayed away. At lunch hour on a Monday, the place was a virtual ghost town.

I had gone to the mall in a mocking mood. The president of the United States, his economic advisers, and all the very important professorial types at the nation's think tanks have been exhorting consumers to keep spending as a last final measure to ward off a recession. Since I believe that anyone who listens to such advice is a sucker and a fool, my plan was to go to one of the area's more affluent suburban malls and smirk at all the dupes feverishly stuffing their shopping bags with high-priced junk on command.

But what I found was no laughing matter. Tumbleweeds blew down the main concourse. Wolves howled hungrily in the distance. Bleached skulls with gaping mouths lay next to bone-dry watering holes. It was a sobering sight. The last time I've seen such emptiness was during the great recession of the early 1990s.

A leather-apparel shop was pushing its new Venus Williams collection, including a $229 black leather pantsuit.

"I know this is a hot item since Venus is the toast of tennis right now," I said to the clerk--who had plenty of time to talk to me, as I was the only customer in the store.

She snorted. "How many can I put you down for?"

"Sorry, baby," I said in my most debonair style. "I haven't been into leather since Nixon was president."

"I figured as much," she replied.

My fellow consumers apparently are not as simpleminded as I imagined. They know what I know: What's good for the country isn't necessarily good for individual households.

Consumer spending is "slowing down, unequivocally and unquestionably," economist Carl Steidtmann said in a recent interview with The Los Angeles Times. "For a whole lot of people, debt reduction and trying to rebuild their savings is of utmost importance right now."

The Conference Board, a nonprofit trade organization that tracks consumer confidence, warns that anxiety about the economy has been building for more than a year. Who can blame us? According to the latest report from the U.S. Labor Department, the nation's unemployment rate stood at 4.9 percent in August, its highest level in four years. Nearly a million Americans have lost their jobs so far this year, and some major manufacturers have warned that more cuts are in the offing. Meanwhile, consumer debt and personal bankruptcy remain at record highs. Household savings are at record lows. The percentage of Americans who are teetering on the lip of ruin, who live from paycheck to paycheck, can only be inferred from all the grim, unsmiling faces we see around us.

Investors are getting skittish. Corporate executives are worried. Policy-makers are pointing fingers at each other. And the best they can come up with is to encourage people like you and me to keep spending.

Ordinarily, I'd scoff at the sheer hypocrisy of their advice. Investors look at the economic climate and get conservative. Manufacturers start trimming their inventory and laying off people. But they want you and me to stay optimistic. Never mind what we're doing, they urge, you keep on buying.

Like I said, ordinarily such blithe duplicity would be worthy of ridicule. But I remember those bleak recession years. I don't want to go back.

And so, I'm with the president. My advice to each you is to shop. Shop till you drop. Spend, spend, spend till you can't spend no more. Buy a couple of those wide-screen televisions. Buy yourself a pair of high-heeled sneakers. Squeeze your fat bottom into one of those Venus Williams pantsuits.

Don't worry about saving. There's always tomorrow. Don't worry about losing your job. Your boss would never lay off a dedicated worker such as yourself. (All those thousands who lost their jobs last month must have sinned in some way.) Don't even worry about paying for all the stuff you buy. Charge it. If you get in a pinch, your creditors will surely accept your firstborn in lieu of payment.

So go for the gusto. In fact, somebody out there will have to do double duty. While the rest of you are doing your patriotic duty by piling up debt, I plan to keep my wallet in my pocket. I'm a cheapskate and a hypocrite, and I'm proud of it.

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