Monday, February 16, 2009

Do You Keep Up With The Jones'? You Know You Do

In one of my previous incarnations as a financial planner I made it a standard part of my spiel to ask prospective clients: "Do you keep up with the Jones"? Without exception everyone would say they had no interest in "keeping up". I would then proceed to ask another series of questions, and at least 90% of the time the answer to these questions was...Yes.

Do you have cable or satellite?
Do you have call waiting?
Call display?
Hi-Speed Internet?
X-Box, Playstation or some other gaming console?

Can you imagine living without these conveniences? Having to choose between just 10-20 TV stations. Leaving callers to hear an annoying busy signal if your telephone is engaged, inconveniencing them and forcing them to call back. Not knowing who it is calling you before you pick up the phone. Trudging along in your surfing with a cheap and slow dial-up modem. Having to entertain yourself with something as mundane as a book or a board game.

And that's just the tip of the ice berg for a lot of people. Let's not forget health clubs, with their ever escalating membership tiers. "You want to use the new machines? Oh, well they require a special membership...but don't worry, its only $10 more per month". What do you mean your child isn't attending a Montessori school??? Oh my GAWD!!! Little Johnny will never be able to compete with the kids who are already doing long division at age three.

Our consumer driven society knows no bounds, and with cheap and readily available credit who can refuse. Marketing professionals and sales people know exactly which buttons to push, the art of psychology has become so refined that high pressure tactics aren't even needed anymore, although they're still used by some.

Anyone with kids knows which of their friends already have cell phones, game consoles, the latest fashions, tickets to the best sporting events and concerts. I remember how traumatic it was when my Dad refused to buy me a pair of $50+ "designer" jeans...with the fancy pocket stitching. I had to go around in my GWG 'scrubbies' which only cost $10 or $15 while my friends would walk behind me singing the GWG advertising song, "bum bum buh-buh-buh-buh bum bum".
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So strong was my need for those coveted pair of Sergios that I went out and got myself a job at the golden arches...making something like $2 or $3 bucks per hour and working 2 or 3 shifts a week. After about a month I'd earned enough to finally purchase the object of my desire. But after realizing the countless times I'd asked "do you want fries with that" in order to earn the cash...they suddenly lost their appeal. Strangely my 'bum bum' jeans seemed to suit me just fine.

Maybe I'm tilting at windmills, or worse...maybe I'm a subversive out to destroy the North American economy. After 9-11 the mantra became, 'stop spending and the terrorists win'. It was as though our existence as a free and democratic society hinged on consumers snatching up whatever piece of expensive crap was foisted upon us.

With all of our innovation and technology you'd think our market driven economy could solve all the world's problems, or at least a good chunk of them. Or could it be that we're so busy trying to keep up with, or stay ahead of our peers...that there just isn't enough creative energy left to tackle the really big problems?

And now with the global economy teetering on the edge of disaster...or so we're told, we're seeing hundreds of billions of dollars tossed around the globe in an effort to perpetuate the very culture of consumerism which got us in this hole in the first place. Ah well, its not like its money out of our pockets....its borrowed money that our kids and grand kids will have to pay back.

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