Wednesday, 17 December 2014

The fall and rise of consumerism

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I have never read Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, though I may have been instructed to do so at some stage during my secondary school years. Therefore it is only anecdotally that I am led to believe that the fall was due to widespread immoral behaviour.

A few years ago however it was thought that if the empirical grouping of the Western democracies ever declines and falls it would likely be due to shopping. The buzz word at the time was “shopocalypse” which was coined by an anti-shopping evangelist in New York who called himself the “Reverend Billy”. He headed The Church of Stop Shopping and featured in a documentary called: What would Jesus Buy?

The Reverend Billy – real name William Talen – toured shopping malls with a gospel choir who sang cynical anti-shopping songs while the good reverend cast out demons of consumerism and exorcized credit cards.

He wasn’t a real reverend of course, but he dressed in a smart white suit and was deadly serious about his evangelical performances. He sincerely believed that Christmas had turned into a jingle hell of bloated consumerism that wasn’t merely soul-destroying, but economy destroying and even planet destroying.

William Talen disappeared from consciousness in September 2008 when the global financial crisis hit the world stage and it was revealed that the real culprit of the decline and fall of the western democracies was in fact international financiers, especially the irrationally exuberant Anglo-Saxon sort who thought they had found a way to banish risk when in fact they had simply lost track of it.

The great moderation years of low inflation and stable growth fostered complacency in the hallowed halls of the money-men. A savings glut in Asia pushed down interest rates and borrowers were encouraged to buy houses priced way above their true value and in the process inherited crippling mortgage repayments.

Much of world is still affected by the collapse of Lehman Brothers, a sprawling global bank, but sound stewardship by the Key government has meant that consumerism is getting back on track in our country although retailers now face the added competition of website sales that in most cases don’t attract the added burden of GST.

Huge distribution centres in far off lands that are hooked up to fast-flying freight planes and then on to couriers allows goods to land on your doorstep within a few days of placing an order.

Supermarkets in the main don’t suffer from the ignominy of their customers sourcing goods from overseas and I imagine their cash flows are eye-watering. There are constant queues at the checkout counters and they offer up a choice of merchandise that would astonish our forebears.

I recall my mother’s modest brown cardboard box of groceries delivered to our door each Wednesday afternoon which lasted our family of four until the following Wednesday, apart from a few minor top-ups from the corner shop along the road.

But we’ve moved on since then and the end result is mounting credit card debt and a stressed society struggling with repayments on a diet of alcohol and anti-depressants.

Recently in a $2 shop an item that caught my eye was a plastic brush and shovel on sale for $1.45. Made in China of course and I studied the product looking for flaws, but found none.

I can’t for the life of me understand how it could be manufactured, warehoused, delivered to the port, shipped, warehoused again, then trucked to the shop, unpacked, labelled, placed on the shelf and sold to the consumer by a reasonably well-paid shop assistant, allowing all those in the chain to make a profit along the way.

The western world is totally dependent on lowly paid third-world workers to sustain us in our consumer heaven at prices that keeps inflation in check. We now live in a society that, apart from the agricultural sector, hardly produces anything of real value and we rely on incomes from service industries and paper-shuffling businesses.

It looks like a house of cards with the Chinese being the dealers.

And I suspect in this environment some retailers resort to trickery. I was mystified as to how a well-known retail giant manages to stay solvent given the company promotes back-to-back sales with thirty to sixty per cent off most items.

So I did some sleuthing. I went to the store in question and chose a well-known brand of a regular household appliance and checked out the price: $219.99. However a large attached card announced: “40 per cent off.” Using my iPhone calculator I determined that this would attract a rebate of $88.00 meaning at the checkout the item would cost $132.00. Seemed like a bargain. But I went to a shop just down the road and found exactly the same item, with the same model number, on the shelf for $130.00

I’m not sure what Jesus would buy, but I would advise him to shop around.

“Christmas is the Disneyfication of Christianity” – Don Cupitt


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