I WAS driving to work the other morning when I heard this on the radio:
"There will be a recession if the consumer doesn't shape up. Economists say that only the shopper can decide whether the country will go into a tailspin or not."
I thought to myself, "If I could just get my hands around the consumer's throat I would force him to buy twice as much as he needs."
I turned to Sister Mary Louise, a nun who is in my car pool, and said, "Wouldn't you think that after all we've done for the consumer, the least he or she could do is keep us out of a recession?"
Sister Mary Louise told me, "The problem for the consumer is that we gave him mixed signals. On the one hand we said that he was getting into too much debt and he should put his money into a savings and loan -- and, on the other, we urged him to go out and buy a new car.
"The consumer isn't to blame because the government economists don't know which end of the year is up and which is down," she added.
"Nevertheless, I don't want my future in the hands of people who are not sure whether this is a good time to spend any money." I replied.
Sister Mary Louise added, "We must not be unkind to consumers. For the most part they are just like you and me. The only difference is that they have money to spend, and if they're going to sit on it I'm afraid that we will all be selling imitation Rolexes on Fifth Avenue.
"The problem as I see it is that the consumer is jittery and thinks that if he uses up his money, there won't be any left when the hard times roll by. He doesn't realize that by not spending it, he is actually causing the depression he lives in fear of."
"Someone should tell the consumer that if he doesn't bring about prosperity, nobody will," I said.
"I personally know a lot of buyers," Sister Mary Louise informed me, "and they're nice people.
It's just that there are times when they can be stubborn. If you want my opinion, their sin is that they blow hot when they should blow cold, and cold when they should blow hot," she said.
I asked her, "Do you think that the reason they blow cold is because they have enough of everything?"
"Not necessarily. Most people buy to prevent others from having more than they do.
For example, kids will purchase T-shirts to look better than other kids, and girls will purchase flashy jeans to attract the boys. They may look young, but they are consumers too. If the kids stop acquiring clothes, then there'll be a recession," she added.
"Perhaps we should do more to honor the shopper who spends money," I replied.
"For example, the Federal Reserve could have the Consumer-of-the-Month to lunch and give him a shopping cart for life," I suggested.
Sister Mary Louise had another idea. "The only solution is to create more consumers by issuing more credit cards -- 10 to a family -- and keep a supply of them at perfume counters in case somebody doesn't have one. The two things that go together are debt and plastic."
"But," I said, "Many consumers are lazy and don't like to shop."
The sister said, "I know what you mean. This country is not going to make it when consumers buy just food. If we're to beat the doldrums -- and I'm not saying we will -- we have to make everybody who goes to Safeway stop off on their way home at Victoria's Secret."
Art Buchwald is a syndicated columnist.