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It's Time to Drop The Consumer Label

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By Michelle Singletary
Sunday, January 4, 2009

One of my New Year's resolutions is to stop referring to myself as a consumer.

The idea for the resolution actually came from reader Tom Krohn, who suggested that it's not just the country's spending habits that need to change for the better, but the language we use to describe who we are.

"We Americans are so used to being referred to as 'consumers' that we comfortably fall into that role and do so conspicuously," Krohn, a retired Navy submariner living in Arkansas, wrote to me. "Imagine an epitaph that read, 'Michelle Singletary -- A Wonderful Consumer.' Not very satisfying, is it?"

No, Tom, it's not how I want to live, or die.

We use the word consumer when referring to ourselves even when the topic isn't about consuming. But look at the word consume. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, consume means "to do away with completely; destroy, to spend wastefully; squander."

And yet we are no longer citizens but consumers. This recession has proved that things have to change, and still the message from many of our leaders continues to be that consumerism -- consumers -- will save the day. To be a consumer is equivalent to being a good American.

Consumerism has become a basic component of our American citizenship, contends Lizabeth Cohen in "A Consumers' Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America."

"By the end of the Depression decade, invoking 'the consumer' would become an acceptable way of promoting the public good, of defending the economic rights and needs of ordinary citizens," writes Cohen, a Harvard University professor.

We track closely the results of the Consumer Confidence Survey. Ever wonder why it isn't billed as the survey of confidence among the American people -- moms, dads, engineers, teachers, social workers, bus drivers, doctors, church-goers, etc.? It's not billed that way because we've come to gauge where we stand -- for good or bad -- by people's purchasing intentions.

Why is our confidence driven down by how much less we can spend?

Consumer spending accounts for about 70 percent of the nation's gross domestic product. That's bad because much of that spending was made possible by the overuse of credit -- other people's money. Our economy is a mess today because too many people -- individuals and corporate executives -- believed it was financially savvy to use other people's money. In many ways, the country has participated in a colossal Ponzi scheme. A scam we obviously couldn't sustain. We ran out of other people's money. That's what makes a Ponzi scheme fail. You can't get any more cash.

Since the Great Depression, we've embraced and celebrated our consumerism. We have mantras such as "I shop, therefore I am."


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