A couple nights ago, I caught a segment on local TV news about the buying habits of consumers in this "New Economy." One of the "revelations" made during the segment was that shoppers are so wary of economic turmoil in these crazy times that they've stopped making bulk purchases of common household items like toilet paper, paper towels, cleaning supplies, etc.
I had to throw a yellow flag on the field for that one.
I don't for a minute dispute that vast sums have evaporated from people's IRAs and 401(k)s. Neither do I contend that huge numbers of people face, or have recently faced, involuntary periods of economic inactivity, whether through unemployment, underemployment, or any combination thereof. Lastly, I don't take anything away from the fact that the real estate collapse has left millions of people holding notes for their homes that are greater than the value of the homes themselves.
In fact, maybe the reason why I'm so confident that Americans are dealing with all three of those phenomena (and more) is because I've been among their ranks since the Great Recession kicked off more than two years ago. I'm now employed (over-employed?) but in a somewhat precarious sort of temporary way. All of that experience, coupled with the fact that I live within one square mile of pretty much the entire economic spectrum this country has to offer, makes me think I might have some concept of just how good or bad things are for many participants in our economy.
Having laid all that out, what I WILL dispute is the idea that our society is undergoing such widespread privation that people are budgeting week-to-week and honestly concluding that, "Honey, I don't think we can afford the $12.79 one-time outlay for the Bounty Towels, even though that brings the unit cost down. Instead, let's just keep our edge by buying the rolls one-at-a-time, because we have no idea if we'll ever see ten bucks again." Fewer family ski vacations to Vail? Sure. More meals eaten at home this year? Okay. But a mass trend away from cheaper, multi-pack toilet paper due to a fear of parting with a little more money up front? Not a chance, my friend.
Although he'll never win a Nobel Prize for Economics for saying it, I still remember the skepticism that a friend of mine (someone who has lived through an ACTUAL Great Depression, mind you) showed when he heard all the Chicken Little-ism back in 2008: "When people all around me start canceling their cable subscriptions, that's when I'll know we're really into something bad here." Again, nothing necessarily profound, or even backed up by hard data, but I think there's a nugget of wisdom to be found in that statement for anyone willing to look.
I was reminded of all this today when the missus and I were trying to find a parking spot outside the Target at the Pheasant Lane Mall. All the aggressiveness of drivers unwilling to cede an inch, the "sharking" of the people who appeared to be leaving the store and heading towards their cars, and our overall inability to find any space (remember, I'm one of those 'analog' people who parks in the back while the digital types fight for the good ones) reminded me that the apocalypse might've arrived somewhere else, but it's not here.
When times get so tough that people's basest instincts stop being displayed in their quest to part with disposable income on a Sunday afternoon in Nashua, I'll believe we're really in for a societal sea change. Until that happens, I'll use Comcast revenues as a better indicator than some bogus news report about a phenomenon that doesn't exist!