April 21st, 2009
03:18 PM ET

Infrastructure or chotchkes?

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David Gewirtz | BIO
Editor-in-Chief, ZATZ Publishing

My wife and I have too much junk.

When we got married four years ago and combined the contents of two small apartments into a house, we moved 19,480 pounds of...stuff. Books and furniture mostly, kitchen gadgets that don't get much use, DVDs and video games that have never been watched or played, tools I have no idea how to use, and more.

We moved into a house that seemed slightly overpriced then and seems way too expensive now. But it's not just the cost, it's the upkeep that's getting to us. Neither of us ever considered what would be required to keep a whole house clean, or what it would take to keep everything in working order.

Since we moved in, we've probably bought another ten tons of junk. More books, DVDs, games, toys, tools, gadgets, a home gym, and furniture. Did you know furniture in a bedroom was supposed to match? I didn't, at least until I got married.

We've found ourselves wishing we'd moved into a smaller house. Like most Americans, we're constantly worrying about whether or not our income will be reliable enough for us to keep making payments. They seemed reasonable when we moved in and now seem almost overwhelming.

We've stopped buying so much stuff. We rent movies now, although we rarely get the time to watch them. Rather than buying new things, we try to remember to use what we already have.

Of course, that doesn't work for necessities, like pizza, chocolate, and medical care.

But you'd be amazed what you can save when you change from being a good American consumer to a frugal one. Like most Americans, we filed our taxes last week and after pulling together all our paperwork, we discovered we spent a whole lot less in 2008 than we did in previous years.

The thing is, other than that prevailing sense of non-specific doom we all have, we didn't feel any sense of lack from our reduced spending. We didn't deny ourselves TV or entertainment, we just used what we had.

We did, however, hold off on buying the new couch and bed. Instead, we made a few repairs. All it took was an hour and a few parts from the hardware store (and my summoning the courage to use a reciprocating saw instead of a keyboard). Instead of spending a few thousand dollars to replace some furniture, it cost us less than $5 to fix what we already had.

Most Americans, rich or poor (but, actually, more often poor and middle-class) have too much stuff. A few years ago, there was a big boom in anti-clutter TV shows just to help people learn how to come to terms with getting rid of their crap.

And it's here that there might just be a small silver lining in the cloud of our post-crash economy. We're becoming a more frugal nation. In buying less stuff, we're impacting our planet less, saving a little money, and using what we've already got. No one wants enforced frugality, but irrational consumption isn't healthy either.

Sadly though, what might be healthy on an individual basis might not translate to the greater good - at this point anyway. After all, if we all rediscover the frugality and practicality that helped early Americans settle this country, we'll all wind up spending less. And, as we've come to know, when we spend less, there are fewer jobs.

It's a troubling paradox. What might be healthy for us individually and for the planet might not be so good for a consumer-based economy. But was all that instant gratification really good for us? Many of our favorite chotchkes aren't even made here in America.

Is there a way for us to learn to create jobs and employ Americans without relying on junk we buy from other countries?

That's one less obvious reason why the stimulus package might just be a good idea. Maybe, if we fix our broken bridges and rewire failing schools, there will still be jobs, but as we dig our way out of this depressing recession, we won't have to keep digging our way out of all that junk that's cluttering up our homes and our lives - and quietly eroding our economy.

Follow David on Twitter at twitter.com/davidgewirtz.

Editor’s note: David Gewirtz is Editor-in-Chief, ZATZ Magazines, including OutlookPower Magazine. He is a leading Presidential scholar specializing in White House email. He is a member of FBI InfraGard, the Cyberterrorism Advisor for the International Association for Counterterrorism & Security Professionals, a columnist for The Journal of Counterterrorism and Homeland Security, and has been a guest commentator for the Nieman Watchdog of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University. He is a faculty member at the University of California, Berkeley extension, a recipient of the Sigma Xi Research Award in Engineering and was a candidate for the 2008 Pulitzer Prize in Letters.

Filed under: David Gewirtz • Economy
soundoff (One Response)
  1. Annie Kate

    Oh the junk....yes I have plenty of it too. I got rid of a lot of mine. But then there are the piles of junk from my grown up children that I am suppose to "store" until they have room for it. If I could get them to come get that my house would lose half its contents. But they don't have the room and I'm too soft to tell them to toss their treasures from childhood. So while I'm being frugal and not buying much I swear their stuff is multiplying in the attic.

    April 21, 2009 at 6:34 pm |