What We Can Afford, and What We Can't

STEPHEN L. GOLDSTEIN

April 28, 1993|By STEPHEN L. GOLDSTEIN

Fort Lauderdale, Florida. -- The answer to America's economic woes can be found in cookies, pornography and hair spray.

Many of us want the government or someone else to foot the bill for education, health care and all the other boring stuff, claiming that we simply don't have the money to pay for them ourselves. And yet, each year, U.S. consumers spend $5.6 billion for cookies, $8 billion for pornography, and $505 million for hair spray. How can a people that has the moral will to buy 100 million M&Ms a day seriously wonder where the dough is going to come from to pay for all the services we say we need but cannot possibly afford? Isn't it obvious?

The problem in America is not that we don't have money. The problem is that we have gotten used to having so much money that we simply cannot imagine doing without what we have come to regard as necessities -- like tortilla chips, marshmallows and potato chips, on which we spent $6 billion in 1991.

Ross Perot is fond of saying that ''the devil is in the details.'' But the real villain is in our obsessions, our insecurities, and our vanities. We seem to be able to find billions of dollars every day to primp, to exercise and otherwise to pacify ourselves and our families. Small wonder that there is little, if any, money left to pay for the real essentials and that we are fading into oblivion as a world economic power.

Since only 13 percent of American women consider themselves pretty and only 28 percent of U.S. men think they are handsome, it is no surprise that ''America the Beautiful'' has become our real national anthem. While from ''sea to shining sea'' we cut money from schools, in 1991 U.S. consumers found $62 billion to spend on toilet articles, barbershops, beauty parlors and other cosmetic indulgences -- almost as much as the $70 billion we spent as private citizens for education.

Physical exercise is good, but fiscal restraint is just as good -- or, some would argue, even better. How quickly we have forgotten the truth of the song ''The Best Things in Life Are Free.'' It doesn't cost a penny to do push-ups and yoga or to jump rope, but Americans can't seem to exercise without satisfying a fetish for props. We shell out $2 billion a year for home exercise equipment and pay $14 million a day for health club memberships, most of which go unused in spite of our best intentions. Seventy percent of Americans who own running shoes don't even run. We seem to be more intent upon becoming a nation of incredible hulks than we do about being able to pay our own health-care costs.

We finance our foibles because as Americans we are a wonderful and generous people. We are filled with hope. That is, no doubt, why we wager $18.8 billion each year on lottery tickets. We love our children. That is perhaps why we spend $15 billion a year on toys, instead of reading to them for free. We spare no expense to reach out to each other. That's why every day four people have the money to call Graceland asking to speak with Elvis Presley and 41,000 toll calls are made to dial-a-porn numbers. We love nature. Otherwise, why would we have bought 450,000 plastic pink flamingos in 1985 alone? Objectively speaking, haven't we gone mildly mad?

Perhaps the prospect of an America without our gadgets and fads is simply too puritanical to bear. But like it or not, our future hangs in the balance. The excesses of American consumers make Pentagon cost overruns look like pocket change and thousand-dollar toilet seats seem a bargain.

For a few less tortilla chips, we, the American people, can reorder our spending priorities and reshape our national destiny for the immeasurable good. There is no tax break, spending cut, or government program that could possibly generate the money to educate our children, defend our borders, or pay for health care as quickly or as effectively as our facing up to what we can do without, so that we can afford what we really need.

While Congress struggles with our trade deficit and the pros and cons of protectionist legislation, the average American has the power to put other Americans back to work, restore our balance of trade, and send a signal to governments and corporations that want to exploit the wealth of the U.S. market.

We spend $2.5 billion each year on microwave ovens, four out of five of which are made abroad. Almost half of the dolls we buy come from China. Nine out of ten VCRs are made abroad. Most, if not all computer games are imported. What we buy from Japan is too obvious and too much of a dollar drain even to mention. Much of what we spend our disposable incomes on comes back to haunt us and sends a clear signal to others around the world that we really don't know what we are about. Only we can change our buying patterns.

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