Cognitive Dissonance and Shopping

If we’re going to slowly dig our way out of our collective economic hole, we’re going to have to make fundamental changes in our spending patterns, one of the principal aspects being a concentrated effort to buy local.  "Local" is a general geographic term, definable by the type of product being sold and it’s origin of manufacture.  But the more is better meme has become so entrenched in the national psyche that acting contrary to the meme can create significant internal conflict and cognitive dissonance.  It might seem easy, but breaking the consumer programming can be harder than it appears and will take a conscious effort; I experienced the discomfort with a recent purchase for an upcoming child’s birthday.

Middle is in his mid-teens and at a stage in which he’s now aware of his appearance.  That however, is butting against the fact that he’s probably not yet finished growing and I know that he’d like at least one more spurt so that he’s officially taller than his old man.  He recently asked for clothing for his upcoming birthday and the reality is that what he had last winter is going to be too short when he pulls it out for this winter.  Knowing that the article – he hasn’t had the birthday yet and I know that at least one of his friends reads this for some odd reason – isn’t going to be cheap, I began to shop accordingly.  My intent was to purchase the desired item, but one that was made in this country.  As I went shopping however, it became apparent that anything sold in any of the department stores was manufactured overseas, even if the headquarters were domiciled domestically.  Let’s be frank, the goal is to push money to the worker and not to the management.  The next step was to shift to the internet, via UPromise.  This isn’t a marketing shill, but if money is going to be spent online, I’d rather see a small segment come back to the college savings accounts.  What I learned however, was that the article is available from domestic manufacturers but at much – in this instance, twice as – greater prices.  Clothes shopping isn’t well-suited to the internet and with all of the major retail outlets pushing foreign-made brands, I suspect that there isn’t sufficient demand to allow the higher labor costs to be offset by higher volume sales. 

The upshot was the classic putting your money where your mouth is scenario.  There is a general amount that can be spent for the birthday and honestly, purchasing the domestic article would handily blow that budget out of the water.  As it is, the foreign made article available at the department store also pushes the budget but allows for the purchase of one or two smaller items.  As I stewed on the decision, the constantly reinforced more is better meme smacked me in the mental head and led to true cognitive dissonance:  birthday satisfaction or common good? 

With the end of the Second World War, there was a conscious decision by American business and the government to push much greater rates of consumer spending.  Both parties remembered how business spending collapsed during the Great Depression; that was replaced by the new Keynesian philosophy of pushing government spending, which Roosevelt embraced in his first two terms in office.  But government spending exploded during the Second World War, driving business investment and spending and allowing the American economy to again reach full employment.  The Axis’ defeat, and subsequent military downsizing, did leave the question of what would happen to the economy as government leaders believed in that quaint notion that the government’s budget had to be balanced.  The drop in defense spending did lead to a recession just as millions of American men came home…what – or who – would take it’s place?  Picture three players at a card table and two of them were working in tandem with a common strategy.  As the old axiom goes, if you’re at the table and don’t know who the sucker is, it’s you.  That third player was the American consumer, who wanted a better future after two decades of economic collapse and global war. 

Pent up demand was fed by the new instruments of television advertising and the soon-to-be created credit card and the horses were out of the gate.  If you don’t believe that the government was complicit with the business community, just look at all of the tax deductions available in the IRS tax code.  While everyone talks about the tax-deductibility of student debt and mortgage interest, most have forgotten that until its repeal in Reagan’s 1986 Income Tax Revision Plan, the average person could also deduct their credit card interest payments from their federal income taxes.  It was during the early 1980s that the government decided it needed the tax revenue more than the public policy goal of building a consumerist society and the deduction ended; the consumer mentality train was happily rolling onwards.

But while the train was speeding down the tracks at this time, foreign competition increased.  Remember how the Japanese were going to rule the world?  American corporations were losing market share and profit margin and corporations began to address at least the latter by shifting their production overseas.  Textiles left the south, shoes left New England and autos departed from Detroit.  If Americans wanted to purchase inexpensive consumer items, Walmart also began its historic and explosive growth, reimporting these departed items from far cheaper shores to an American consumer who didn’t realize that the economic ground was shifting beneath his sneaker-clad feet.  The effect was that the corporate sector switched the track beneath this speeding train, changing it to a line that was now running on an incline while the American consumer was slowly running out of fuel.  A railroad coal car might look full when it starts, but it eventually runs out of the coal. 

So that’s where we are.  The train is running out of fuel and the management is telling us to shovel for all our worth, but the fuel is depleting.  We’ve become conditioned to shoveling despite the growing realization that the only way to make the train keep running is to go more slowly and do a better job of managing what we have. 

Do I have to spend more than 96% of my disposable income in order to be happy?  Will that thingymabob make me more satisfied?   It’s a personal decision for each of us and I can now attest that breaking the mantra of six decades will require work and real readjustment of my priorities.  But it’s one that we have to begin making now.  The economic future facing our children truly is going to be more constrained than what they have now and if they don’t learn how to make more responsible choices from us while we’re not completely over the barrel, then they’ll be forced to contend with a cognitive dissonance that dwarves the discomfort which I faced. 

So what happened with the present for Middle’s upcoming birthday?  The result was a "victory" for the personal budget over common good as I went with the sale and got the price differential.  But the dissonance is still there.  I’m annoyed with myself for not recognizing the size of the price differences and accounting for it up front.  More importantly however, is the realization that there has to be purposeful conversation over the question of how much is enough? so that this little foray into globalization can have a different ending.

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