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It's Time to Drop The Consumer Label

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."

I once was part of this madness. In my early newspaper career I had a column called "Born to Shop." I defended my passion and the reason for the column by arguing I was bargain shopping and therefore saving myself and others money.

But you never save when you spend.

Never.

When you buy things on sale you are still spending money.

National holidays are celebrated by shopping. We have Veterans Day sales. That's how we honor our servicemen and women -- by shopping, by consuming more stuff.

And we are passing this legacy of consumerism on to our children. More children go shopping every week than read, go to church, participate in youth groups, play outdoors or spend time in household conversation, according to consumerism expert and Boston College professor Juliet B. Schor, author of "Born to Buy: The Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture."

"Although children have long participated in the consumer marketplace, until recently they were bit players, purchasers of cheap goods," Schor writes in her book. "That has changed. . . . Children's social worlds are increasingly constructed around consuming." Schor adds: "Contemporary American tweens and teens have emerged as the most brand-oriented, consumer-involved, and materialistic generation in history."

Our children are courted as consumers even before they have full-time employment.

"The kind of consuming people have been encouraged to do is undermining, not enhancing, our economic situation," Schor said in an interview. "And all this consumption has become financially and ecologically unsustainable. Doing more of the same makes those long-term problems worse, even if it props up some failing enterprises in the moment."

Rather than keeping things the same, why don't we again become producers?

"Households and the country need investment, not consumption," Schor said. "We need to invest in energy conservation, degraded ecosystems, a sustainable food system, education, community building, human connection and skills for everyday living."

Aren't you weary of being a consumer with all the accompanying debt it requires to keep up this occupation? If so, make 2009 the year you stop defining yourself as a consumer.

· On the air: Michelle Singletary discusses personal finance Tuesdays on NPR's "Day to Day" program and at http://www.npr.org.

· By mail: Readers can write to her at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.

· By e-mail: singletarym@washpost.com.

Comments and questions are welcome, but because of the volume of mail, personal responses are not always possible. Please note that comments or questions may be used in a future column, with the writer's name, unless a specific request to do otherwise is indicated.

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