What’s Wrong With the United States? Part Two

Yesterday I started a series of blogs dedicated to the noticeable problems that I’ve observed since returning to the States. The complex underpinnings of our food culture and their encouragement through commercialization of food and the degradation of traditional eating patterns slowly leading us to collective suicide aside (mouthful!), there is a further extension of the glorification of quantity over quality. This extends to all areas of American consumer life.

The most influential and highest-grossing store in the United States is Wal-Mart. They blow other competitors away on Black Friday, which is later this week (in case you hadn’t been bombarded with ads since before Halloween). Last year on this most thinly-veiled of all commercial holidays, this megastore saw a 30% increase in traffic as compared to previous years. Part economic recession, part clever advertising, and part extremely low prices on everything from underwear to electronics. No matter that the prices are slashed so low that they seem impossible…those Homer Simpson slippers were made with indentured labor in China and so they cost nothing to make. Wal-Mart could probably sell some of their products for a dime and still make eight cents of profit.

Anyone who’s ever shopped at the great Wal knows that the quality of the low-priced products is shabby at best. It will probably fall apart in two months and then you’ll have to go buy a new one.

And that’s the key. People in the United States (and elsewhere) have been conditioned into a culture of extreme consumerism. If something breaks or is out of fashion or doesn’t fit anymore due to our expanding waistlines, we stash it and then go buy a new one. The poor quality of clothing and other products that we buy is offset by their replacement. And that’s how you end up with five of the same sweater in five shades of beige.

A snapshot of her two-layered, 4000 package paper towel stockpile from TLC.Discovery.com

But I already knew that before living abroad eight months out of the year. What’s struck me as the next step in the insanity is TLC’s new show in their parade of the bizzare, Extreme Couponing. Just one look at the stockpiles that these people have amassed is enough to reveal a serious fixation on overwhelming quantities of household and personal products. They routinely are worth over $30,000. It’s true, those in these stories are probably clinically off-balance. Plus, they now have to eat the same chemical-laced soup that has enough preservatives to make it edible in 1000 years for the rest of their lives. If the prospect is not enough to push them over the edge, I don’t know what would be.

These people need help. - From TLC.Discovery.com

Just the fact that we have a TV show dedicated to this phenomenon is evidence of a serious cultural failing in the US. We want more and more and more until we can’t even possibly eat or use all the products that we’ve stockpiled. This valuing of quantity over quality puts pressure on companies to produce beyond their means. Then customers must buy beyond theirs in order to have “enough.” Then we need more space for all of our junk, and so we have to buy a house with a mortgage beyond our means. And two cars at least, and smartphones, and 50 pairs of shoes, and five giant-screen TVs….And all of that leads to the third cultural failing in the United States.

We are a culture of debt.

It’s undeniable. Our national debt has surged to over $15 Trillion this year, increasing by an average of $3 Billion a day, and leaving each US Citizen with $48,000 of debt if we divided it equally. Add to that the average of $20,000 in debt upon graduating university, and the average of $10,700 of household credit card debt, and each American owes around $78,700 personally. Americans carried $886 Billion in credit card debt and had an average of nine credit cards per household in 2006. That number went up to nearly a trillion dollars before dipping in 2010.

The fact is that Americans have bought into an economic system that requires massive debt to function. The average American cannot buy a house, a car, or even a TV without putting themselves in debt, but more than that, they cannot even be considered for a mortgage or car payment plan unless they are able to prove that they have a history of it. Credit checks force each and every American to take out a credit card if they want to be able to someday buy a house. Almost all of the traditional American markers for adulthood revolve around indebting oneself to a ridiculous degree. 

It’s no mystery to me that the national debt would be so high when personal debt is not only accepted but unavoidable. Just across the Atlantic, a credit card is a rare luxury. True, the countries in the European Union also have their fair share of problems with debt. But in sheer numbers, Greece’s debt is $498.3 billion. That’s 30 times smaller than that of the United States. Dividing it equally to compare to our personal burdens in the States, each Greek owes $45,000 in national debt. And yet their debt crisis nearly brought the Eurozone down and caused international panic.

In the United States, individuals must take action to reduce their consumerism and to actively oppose a culture of debt. How? Abandon the traditions of the American Dream that do not serve this generation. Join an Occupy Wall Street movement. Pay off your credit card and live only within your means. Shop for fewer articles of better quality. Repair your broken clothes and recycle them into quilts or pillows. Take a  challenge (ahem…) and commit to changing one spending/shopping habit.

Better yet, take a stand this Black Friday by refusing to participate in the commercial feeding frenzy. Buy absolutely nothing that day. Spend the time you’ll save  volunteering, being with family, reading, or making your own holiday presents by hand. And then take the money you would have spent and support local, quality businesses on Shop Local Saturday.

Check out #BlackoutBlackFriday and #ShopLocalSaturday on Twitter for more information!

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