Apathy to Anxiety to Adaptation

Days after the AARP bulletin featured Your Money or Your Life an article titled “Austere Times? Perfect” in Easter Sunday’s NY Times did too. Both celebrate the frugal and free lifestyle. Together they have the book zooming again to Amazon best-seller-dom heaven.

Well if Jim Cramer, the Mad Money host, can announce the end of the Bear Market with scant data points, I can declare the end of “consumer fever” just by this happy confluence of articles. (Having been in bed for a week with fevers spiking above 103, I am attracted to the metaphor). But really, from the outside, “the rational man” (a convenient figment of economists’ imaginations) is in reality a fairly vacant wandering shopper who, if they reported in to work in the same state of mind they have in the mall, they wouldn’t be fired; they’d be sent somewhere for evaluation.

The diagnosis of course would be “consumer fever” – or affluenza as we called it in the 90s.  Early warnings – bouncing checks, hiding purchases – are ignored until the virus has fully taken over. So perhaps the last 8 months have been like a fever crisis – that long sweaty night when our immune system in a mighty act of self preservation kicks in overdrive and burns out the invading… mindset.

These two articles reflect a shift in American attitudes. Yes, job losses continue. The lived crisis deepens. But it seems we’re letting go of dying dreams (of sunset years, for eg) with a bit more humor. We’ve seen the first outline of what we can expect from the Administration and we do hope it eventually works out in the little guy’s favor, but nothings looks really good yet for anyone but the top brass and Wall Street.  We realize yet again that even an honorable President can only do so much so fast… and so we’re adapting. Frugality and community are two clearly  happy roads to a better future that ordinary people can see. “Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without” looks pretty good now, whereas not too long ago it seemed a motto fit for a penal colony.

So I’m seeing a pattern.

First there was apathy – you couldn’t get anyone to pay attention other than smart people like you.

Then come Fall ’08 there was anxiety – nay, abject terror. People froze in their tracks. They stopped spending. Savings rate went up. The normal pathways to a good and happy life seemed to be flanked by lions and tigers and bears, oh no. especially those bears!

Now we’re into a very pro-survival human behavior called adaptation. It’s a great source of hope for the future. We are a species that learns. It’s amazing to watch us go through it, and to also watch our growing awareness that we’ve been “sold a bill of goods” by the economy and we need to challenge it while managing what we do have with creativity and good cheer.


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