Consumer spending? Way too much

Pretzels, tattoos, and gambling can save the U.S. economy. In "By the Numbers: How Americans Spend Their Money," Lucas Reilly reports that in 2011, Americans spent trillions shopping for all sorts of sine qua nons: $550 million on pretzels, $96 billion on beer (much of it, presumably, to go along with all those pretzels), $2.3 billion on tattoos, $66 million on tattoo removal (much of it, no doubt, to obliterate the names of former loves), $34.6 billion on gambling, and scads of others.

Recession? What recession? It isn't that individually and collectively Americans don't have enough money: We're drowning in it.

It's that we only have money for what we want to have money for: the sexy stuff, but not flood or health insurance, saving for our kids' college educations, or socking it away for retirement. Instead, each year, untold numbers of Americans commit economic suicide, shopping by designer label 'til they drop. As Pogo so wisely observed, "We have met the enemy, and he is us."

Historically, frivolous consumer spending has driven our economy. Encouraging it is at the heart of national economic policy. When the economy was in the tank, George W. Bush advised his mother to go out and buy.

In the irony of ironies, Congress and the president are looking for money to stop the federal budget from hemorrhaging, smack in the middle of the biggest consumer spending spree of the year — this year said to have netted $59 billion from Thursday through Sunday. "Black Friday" has now morphed into "Black Thursday Night," and, for some businesses, has been extended until the end of November. We now have "Small Business Saturday" and "Cyber Monday," to help fleece you of more of your money. What's coming next year, "Sucker Sunday" and "Take Everything You've Got Left Tuesday?"

But however positive consumer-spending may have been for our economy in the past, now it is out-of-control, helping to dig us deeper in our financial ditch. If Mr. and Mrs. Average America and their average 2.5 kids stopped throwing their money away on baubles, bangles, and beads — $310 million on pet halloween costumes, for example — we could help eliminate the deficit, pay down the national debt, and still have gazillions to fritter away. Unless someone buys the Twinkies brand from bankrupt Hostess, next year, we'll get a windfall from the approximately $500 million we won't be spending on that sugar fest. Think of how many trust funds for college that could amount to.

In addition to raising taxes, closing tax loopholes, and reducing federal spending, Congress and the president need to enact policies that turn us from a nation of spenders into a nation of savers and investors. That way, more of us will have the money we need to pay for almost all the things we need — and it will help reduce the size and budget of government at every level.

The greatest freedom is freedom from debt — on both a national and personal level.

Most, if not all, of the trillions that Americans spent last year was no doubt on credit, some of which they are still paying off, to the tune of $18 billion on credit card late fees. The only losers in (what would become) our new saving economy would be usurers: credit card companies, banks, and individuals who thrive by encouraging our indebtedness, the culprits whose high-risk loans caused our recent recession.

Of course, with or without government action, we can turn the economy around. All we need is a sea-change in our attitudes as consumers. Obviously, I am not suggesting we stop spending altogether —simply that all of us get our priorities straight, spend within our means, and resist the temptation of the good life advertisers promise us if only we buy their products and services.

I don't expect marrieds to spend on their mothers-in-law an amount equal to the $50.96 million they lavish on their pets, though it might ensure greater domestic tranquility. I would only suggest that we spend less than the $65 billion we did last year on soft drinks so that we could save some of the $1.4 billion we paid for over-the-counter teeth whiteners, much of it no doubt to bleach out stains from soft drinks.

But if between now and the next holiday season, spend you must, remember this: There will always be another pretzel, tattoo, and way to gamble, and the people you're making rich will be laughing all the way to the bank.

Contact Stephen L. Goldstein on Twitter at @drslgoldstein or by email at trendsman@aol.com.

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