Workers feel spent, frazzled But their diligence yields broad benefits

The Economy

December 06, 1998|By JAY HANCOCK

Just in time for the recession, it's "Simplify the Holidays," a helpful brochure from Maryland's Center for a New American Dream on how to reduce stress, renew your spirit and drive down sales at Circuit City.

"You don't have to rack up credit-card debt or get swept up in the season's commercialism," says the brochure, which suggests organically grown Christmas dinners and hand-made Hanukkah gifts.

Founded in 1997 and based in Takoma Park, the Center for a New American Dream taps into a deep and brackish American well: ambivalence about working, getting and spending.

"Americans were reporting in poll after poll, including ours, feeling very high-stressed, feeling the need for more time in their life," said Executive Director Betsy Taylor, who used to run the Merck Family Fund in Takoma Park. "These are people saying they want to get out of the rat race and take on less debt, to have the financial freedom to feel more secure."

As well they might.

Most Americans carry credit-card balances, according to the Consumer Federation of America. The average is $7,000 per household.

More than 1.3 million U.S. consumers went bankrupt last year -- a record.

Personal bankruptcies for 1998 are on track to top that, according to the American Bankruptcy Institute.

In September, Americans spent more than they saved for the first time since at least 1959, when the government started measuring savings on a monthly basis.

In October, they did it again, borrowing more through plastic and home equity lines than they earned.

We borrow to buy.

We buy so others might work.

We work to pay debts. And we work extra hard at our downsized companies to improve products and cut costs -- so others might buy.

The mental friction of this act throws off heat everywhere.

A large 1995 study by the Merck Family Fund found that 65 percent of surveyed Americans agreed with the statement, "I would like to simplify my life." Most respondents to a poll this year by the Center for a New American Dream figured they didn't need at least a tenth of the stuff they buy -- and 12 percent said more than half their possessions were superfluous.

"I have been growing discontent and weary of the spending cycle, and everything that comes with it, with each passing day," fTC says a respondent on an Internet bulletin board devoted to consumption. "I work an average 40-hour week in a white-collar industry and commute 50 miles by bus to work every day. I am busy trying to pay for my 4x4 not to mention credit-card bills that I still seem to add to."

U.S. productivity boomed at a 3 percent annual rate in the third quarter, showing that the country is producing much more wealth with the same amount of labor. Washington economist Charles McMillion, however, thinks recent productivity reports are partly bogus, since they almost certainly under-measure hours worked.

Sure, output is growing, McMillion says. But we're working a heck of a lot harder, too, and driving ourselves crazy in the process. "Everybody I know is working their brains out," he said.

Americans feel frazzled, bilious and hocked out.

True.

But it should not be forgotten that their toil and spending have yielded tremendous benefit.

Unemployment was 4.4 percent in November, near a three-decade low.

Government has enough money for once.

Schools are adding staff.

U.S. consumers have stabilized Asian economies.

Life expectancy -- which follows economic growth -- continues to rise.

And -- oh yeah -- a lot of us have cool new 4x4s. Most of the world's consumers wouldn't mind that problem.

Look at Japan, a model of moderate consumption and high savings.

It's in a depression.

Go ahead and unplug the Christmas machine. Have a sane Hanukkah.

Just keep it to yourself.

Pub Date: 12/06/98

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