In this gilded age, we need more concern for the poor

August 12, 1999|By Marilyn McCraven

WHEN THE going is good, those who can afford it go shopping. In recent years, Americans' consumption of luxury goods has hit record highs. And with the economy still booming, this is expected to be another banner year for sales of many high-ticket items, according to trend forecasters.

And it's not only day traders and Internet millionaires who are indulging, but also moderate-income consumers. For example, from 1995 to last year, ownership of premium sports cars, such as Mazda RX-7s and BMW 23 Roadsters, increased 18 percent among people who make $20,000 to $49,999 a year.

There were 63 percent more fur owners last year in households earning $30,000 to $39,999 than in 1995.

Of course, many religious leaders and others say this pattern of spending signals a decadent society. But many big spenders turn a deaf ear to such folks, refusing to let such moral purists rain on their parade.

Occasionally, I find myself tripping over that line. There's a certain thrill in going on a shopping spree with charge card in hand and buying the $100 silk blouse simply because I couldn't resist it. But then I feel a twinge of guilt for those who are forced to go without necessities.

Recently, Sun reporter Kate Shatzkin wrote revealingly about how Maryland, one of the nation's richest states, has a severe giving gap. We're 43rd among states this year on something called the Generosity Index, a national poll that ranks states by income and charitable giving.

Not unlike the biblical story of the poor widow who gave all that she had, those of modest means are carrying their share of the burden. It's Maryland's richest who have neglected to give adequately.

Ms. Shatzkin reported that if those who make at least $100,000 a year gave at the national average for their income group, the additional contributions would provide another $200 million for charity per year.

Just think of what such a boost would do for poverty-torn Baltimore.

Meanwhile, the ranks of those eager to keep up with the Joneses continues to grow, even if it means becoming encumbered by debt.

Just say charge it

Experts give a variety of reasons for this trend, including many people's penchant for conspicuous consumption, the prevalance of advertising, the need of some successful hard-charging types to obtain the latest status symbol, whether it's a private airplane or a trek through the Himalayas.

"Perhaps there's an envy affect, but probably what's really driving consumption is the availability of credit," said Mark Blyth, an assistance professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University.

"You have banks and finance houses falling all over themselves to give people credit . . . this helps drive this shift from Honda to BMW." But what happens if this "bubble" economy bursts, people lose their jobs, leaving them unable to pay off debts accumulated to pay for all those BMWs and Rolex watches?

Mr. Blyth, who up until a few months ago thought the hot economy would soon cool off, now says the good times may roll on long enough for most folks not to worry about financial ruin.

Societal costs

But even if the largest peace-time economic expansion in history continues, a lot of folks fear that we'll end up a worse society for such splurging. And many say that future generations will probably look back on us with scorn for blowing a chance to fix some social problems while we had the resources.

"Fortune magazine should have a list of the 100 people who have given away the most money or helped the most people, because we need a different way of keeping score," said Drew Leder, a philosophy professor at Loyola College and author of the recently published "Games for the Soul."

"Ostentatious wealth in America is a way to keep score now. This is a way of saying that I'm a winner . . . but we know the good society keeps score in different ways -- the way we love one another, take care of our disadvantaged and try to spread justice and mercy in the world."

Of course, the major consumers are baby boomers who are in their prime working years. Even as they age, boomers are expected to continue spending record amounts, especially as they inherit the nest eggs left by their thrifty Depression-era parents.

"People aren't thinking about it ending . . . everybody's happy and spending a little bit more. Consumer confidence is fabulous," said Caroline Stanley, spokesman for the Jewelers of America, which has seen sales rise from $14 billion to $20.55 billion from 1992 to 1997.

He who has the most baubles in the end wins? I don't think so.

Marilyn McCraven edits the Opinion Commentary page.

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