Shopping till we drop

Everybody has their weak point, I guess. Mine would be electronics. 

I would like to think that I don’t buy that much, though I do have multiple machines for playing CDs and the usual array of such “necessities” as televisions, DVD players and cell phone devices to alternately entertain me and drive me crazy. 

I’m not so much an “early adopter” as a “middling to late adopter.” I may not have the new iPad, but whenever I do get it — or some clone version — I’ll be pretty sure the bugs are worked out. On the other hand, by then it won’t be “cool” to own anymore either. My wife and I bought our first microwave around 1999, which led some friends to congratulate us by saying, “Welcome to the ’80s.” I see myself buying a GPS sometime around 2020. 

But every Christmas, I find myself looking at the Best Buy ads for surround sound and home theaters and all sorts of gorgeously unnecessary stuff that tempt me to think that purchasing them would be the best way to make the commemoration of the birth of the Savior more memorable. 

It’s easy to write editorials bemoaning consumerism. It’s another thing to see Blu-ray DVD players going for the price of a pair of pants or a dinner for the family at Pizza Hut. Get behind thee, Satan, but not too far behind, just yet… 

It sounds like lots of families are facing similar temptations to become consumerist reverts. Newsweek magazine called it “the urge to splurge,” and concluded that Americans have had enough of the era of thriftiness. As one waitress said after she had decided to start spending again, even though she was evicted, lives with her parents and is still struggling to get by: “You stop spending and you stop living.” That may be an admirable philosophy on Madison Avenue, but it should make the rest of us nervous. 

Said one economist quoted by Newsweek: “The story everybody wants to tell is that we’ve learned our lesson and will be thriftier going forward. But I don’t think we have.” 

Which is also why we as a nation are staring down the barrel at trillions of dollars in federal debt, two wars and a growing debt crisis in many states and cities, as well as the memento mori of various European countries being humiliated by their heavy debt loads, and the best we can do is talk about trillion-dollar tax cuts. We seem incapable of any sort of mature discussion about how we avoid a Eurostyle crisis of our own. 

We do have consensus on one thing, however. When the red ink hits the fan, we all agree that it’s “the other guy’s fault.” 

Catholics who are paying attention to the simmering crisis will differ on how best to resolve such matters. There is no Catholic consensus on strategies for debt reduction or capping Medicare. But both the Gospels and Catholic social teaching teach that the burden should not be disproportionately borne by the poorest and least powerful in society. 

They are already bearing a lot right now. My sister runs a Catholic Charities office and is overwhelmed by people who are now lining up for assistance. People who found jobs and stopped turning to Catholic Charities 10 years ago are now back in her office, looking for everything from assistance for energy bills and basic medical care to Christmas presents for their children.  

People are out looking every day but not finding jobs, and it is breaking their spirits, their marriages, their families. 

Thriftiness may be so 2009, but many Americans have no choice. This Christmas, let’s remember those who are poor and jobless, hungry and without hope. And let’s keep Catholic Charities and other aid agencies on our gift lists. If we are feeling blessed, then pass it on. 

Greg Erlandson is OSV president and publisher.