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Our Patriotic Debt



The economic news lately is grim for those of us who actually pay attention to the price of, say, a half-gallon of orange juice. And it's tax season, so we might be ready for a little economic relief from annual refunds and the anticipated "tax rebates" promised us by the president.

I'm not so sure this extra cash will provide the lesson we need, though the money is welcome. For my part, in something as prosaic as a discarded tool, I saw a metaphor for addressing a national economic problem: our grotesque dependence on debt-based consumption.

Last year, while hauling trash to the landfill, I inherited a nearly new lawn mower that had been abandoned. The machine works perfectly since its cheap overhaul. Yet its fate is uncommon: At the small-engine shop they told me that many owners simply toss pieces of less expensive lawn equipment as soon as they stop running. My salvaged mower, with fresh gas and a little coaxing, nearly started, as is, in the repair shop.

When our tax-rebate checks arrive, pause to recall that every penny will be financed with more debt. National debt totals $9.2 trillion dollars, up from an estimated $3.4 trillion at the end of the Clinton years. So instead of blowing our "incentive" from the government on consumer items, we might decide to do something that was once considered the most patriotic thing possible: saving money.

Richmond has been fortunate, when compared to other metro areas in this post-boom, pre-recession lull, but a new era of economic austerity is here. We look up from "American Idol" to marvel at awful financial decisions made by people we used to consider sane, even stodgy. Yet it's too easy to blame senators, CEOs, investment bankers and mortgage lenders for all of our troubles. In the April issue of Consumer Reports, Consumers Union estimates that Americans carry $800 billion dollars in credit card debt. All of us, then, share some blame for living beyond our means and not screaming loudly enough when those in power act like high rollers in Vegas after too many tequila sunrises.

This Niagara of red ink, public and private, comes at an especially bad moment. It's probable that climate change and global oil depletion soon will increasingly affect everything we do; factor in an economic recession and we have a one-two-three punch aimed squarely at the ample gut of our consumer society. This may make our next decade look more like America's 1930s than Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. Today, however, that novel is us, since it eerily predicted our shop-till-you-drop culture, with the mantra "Ending is better than mending" drilled into citizens' heads while they sleep.

Like Huxley's consumerists, for us sacrifice usually seems out of the question. We might be tempted to pin our hopes on some deus ex machina replacement for our economic lifeblood, cheap petroleum and credit (and the occasional "rebate" from Uncle Sam). Instead of praying for miracles, what if we rolled up our sleeves, as our Depression-era ancestors would have done, to say "Bio-diesel might meet 3 percent of our fuel needs? Let's find three more … then cut our fuel consumption by another 10 percent!"

Want to make the biggest spender of them all angry? Say: "Thanks, President Bush! With my family's $1,200, I'm going to pay down a credit card!" This is how our parents and grandparents thought not so very long ago; they would have known that a new plasma-screen TV would not make them happy in lean times. My own television is a Sony set from the mid-1980s, and I in no way feel deprived or unpatriotic for owning it. For my parents in Richmond during the Depression, escape was even simpler: a quarter spent at the movies.

We can learn to live lean, and in my own case I'm leaner, literally, from driving less while biking and walking more. As a bus-and-bicycle commuter, I've already made one low-tech adaptation that saves me cash and CO2. My bike, a hybrid vehicle running on calories and cholesterol, has needed just $100 in parts and repairs in its 14 years. On the rack of a GRTC bus, it can take me anywhere in town. Like the repaired lawn mower, the bike provides another lesson in big-spending, carbon-belching times.

Other little victories over consumer culture are all around us, but it takes time to shift our perspective from consumption-as-patriotic. I only slowly came to see that thrift, denial of instant gratification and refusal to be swayed instantly by advertising are not perverse but indeed virtuous. As a child, I was embarrassed by my Lebanese grandmother's frugality of reusing jars and bottles, and I scoffed at a schoolmate carefully folding his lunch bag so it could be used for a few more days.

Now I do those things and more even as an orgy of hyper-consumption roars around me, though lately the music sounds more frenzied and discordant, a last blow-out before the morning after.

It need not be grim as we adapt to a downscale economy. We can learn to "make do or do without," as they said in the Depression. It might even be more psychologically rewarding to live in a future less like the Jetsons and more like the Waltons. John Walton's shop behind the house, where he repaired things and occupied his free time, seems a lot more appealing than George Jetson's robotic treadmill. That's where George got trapped at the end of every episode, walking Astro the dog.

We're on that treadmill, even in financially conservative Richmond. The way off and onto solid footing again may be as close as a little denied gratification, a repaired item or the corner bus stop. S

Joe Essid teaches English at the University of Richmond and just completed installing a bathroom floor tiled with salvaged roofing slates. He swears by H.C. Flores' simple-living manifesto, "Food Not Lawns."

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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