Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Sad Hearts at the Supermarket

David Brooks today straddles the gap between social pressures and personal responsibility in "The Culture of Debt" by insisting that, in digging America out of its mountain of debt, "the important shifts will be private, as people and communities learn and adopt different social standards.

"After the Depression, a savings mentality set in. After the dot-com bubble, a bit of sobriety hit Silicon Valley. Now it’s the borrowers’ and lenders’ turn. As the saying goes: People don’t change when they see the light. They change when they feel the heat."

Brooks' optimism about "a bit of sobriety" is a nice Conservative try to ease the pressure off the banks, credit card companies and sellers of stuff for the waves of debt that are now threatening to drown so many Americans. Why did all those irresponsible swimmers plunge so far out?

But he may want to look back at the early 1960s to an America wallowing in post-World War II prosperity when the poet-critic Randall Jarrell was warning in "A Sad Heart at the Supermarket" about a society that "needs for us to be buyers, consumers, beings who want much and will want more --who want consistently and insatiably," in which "the product or services which seemed yesterday an unthinkable luxury is today an inexorable necessity."

Bigger homes with zero down, newer cars with delayed payments, electronic gadgets galore, flying everywhere on impulse, credit cards for jobless new college graduates in a world of hyper-consumerism and retail therapy ("When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping")...

If he were still alive, Randall Jarrell's supermarket sadness would surely be deeper than ever, but then again what would a poet know about the real world?

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