Monday, March 9, 2009

You're Cheaper Off

Listening to CBS 101.1 FM the other day, I was struck when one of the station's DJs said "frugal" will be the sexiest word of 2009. As I've said before, this lack of confidence is not a good sign for the economy. As much as many people irrationally spent too much in the years leading up to the current crisis, many of them are now irrationally spending too little. Warren Buffett said today on CNBC that "fear is very contagious and I've never seen the consumer, or the Americans just generally, more fearful than this." Makes you a tad bit nervous, no?

It makes me wonder, though, if this current crisis will actually have a long-term impact on people's spending habits. The Great Depression, of course, led to a generation's worth of people that knew the value of every penny, but that was obviously an extreme case. As legendary New York newspaper columnist Jimmy Breslin* once wrote of his mother-in-law's penny-pinching ways:

The depression arranged all of her life. Since the Depression, she always has regarded any other problem as a bothersome dwarf. When the last Depression ended, she immediately began to prepare, financially and mentally, for the next. Once, she only suspected it would come. Now, reading the headlines, seeing the prices, she is certain that everything will snap.

And German's are apparently still "traumatised" by the hyperinflation in the Weimar Republic.

But other than that, people tend to have short memories. Americans moved to more fuel-efficient vehicles following the oil crisis in 1970s, but eventually found their way to gas guzzling SUVs. And we all know investors are prone to jump from one asset bubble to the next. So, it will be interesting to see what attitudes -- if any -- stick from this crisis.

* I give the Jack Seal of Approval to Breslin's most recent book, The Good Rat , which just got released in paperback. In it, Breslin intertwines Mafia associate Burt Kaplan's testimony against Louis Eppolito and Stephen Caracappa -- two disgraced New York cops now sentenced life in prison for carrying out mob hits -- with his own recollections of the mob. Aside from many of the tremendous stories Breslin tells, the book is filled with gems like this.

The Mafia no longer sends great chords crashing down from the heavens. As it dissolves, you inspect it for what it actually was, grammar-school dropouts who kill each other and purport to live by codes from the hills of Sicily that are either unintelligible or ignored.
It lasted longest in film and print, through the false drama of victims' being shot gloriously with machine guns but without the usual exit wounds the size of a soup plate.

And this:

As gangsters did not have the legs to remain standing on street corners all day, and most certainly could not sit at home or their families would flee, they opened their own social clubs. There these men could sit and do nothing, at which they were excellent.

And perhaps my favorite, this:

He was the Teflon Don. You put me on trial, I fix your fucking jury and walk out in your face.

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