COMMENTARY: Hand over the credit cards and no one gets hurt

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(RNS) In this do-or-die season of holiday shopping, retailers watch nervously as millions of consumers make a fateful choice: exercise prudence, or spend money they don’t have in order to buy what they don’t need.

Even though economists have declared the Great Recession technically over, disposable income is only slightly more plentiful than it was a year ago. In fact, unemployment is still rising, as are costs of health care and education.

Nevertheless, merchants and suppliers, mall owners and retailers are hoping prudence takes a bath. So are the banks, which have ramped up interest rates on the credit cards that shoppers will have to use to satisfy spending desires.

The Christmas retail machine has become like the tobacco industry, whose entire business plan is convincing people to do something stupid: sacrifice their health for a puff of pleasure, then join the hacking ranks of the addicted.

To this addiction-centered way of thinking, October’s economic numbers were, well, sobering: personal disposable income increased 0.4 percent, or $45.7 billion (half of that increase coming from higher prices, only one-tenth coming from higher employee compensation), but personal spending increased almost twice as much, and savings continued to tank.

So much for a new culture of thrift.

If consumers paid attention to their job prospects, to their savings for retirement and disability, and to what they actually had in their wallets other than plastic, Christmas spending would slow to an affordable crawl.

As it is, an economy that’s driven by consumer spending does everything possible to encourage self-defeating behavior, from high-intensity ads hawking the fun of shopping and opening gifts, to government cheerleading for the mood-altering drug of shopping.

Never mind that such short-term folly will yield a sour harvest of continued misery in housing and employment, and put citizens even further behind next year. Never mind that even China’s moneylenders have grown skeptical of a national economic plan based on self-destruction.

Addiction, of course, pays little attention to reality. After 60 years of prosperity thinking — 30 years of real prosperity, 30 years of phony prosperity grounded in debt and reckless profiteering — Americans aren’t likely to embrace a culture of self-restraint and thrift.

Who would even try to sell us such sanity? Not the merchants, whose only hope of surviving the recessionary storm is one month of big-time profligacy. Not the politicians, half of whom are pushing hard for a crash in order to unleash a populism that will turn ugly faster than they can control it.

Herewith, then, the Advent sermon you won’t hear preached:

“First, we are passing the plate. Put your credit cards into it. We’ll give them back after the manic phase has passed. Don’t spend money you don’t have.

“Second, teach your children the joy of family and being together. Stop the cycle of materialistic madness. If you want your children to have a future, teach them to do without.

“Third, don’t blame some imagined enemy for this predicament. We did it to ourselves. All of us. Just be glad you live in a free country where it is possible to stop spending.

“Finally, remember that we are descended spiritually from plain people whose great joy was to sing, pray and eat together. One more season of addictive spending will do nothing to make our lives better.”

(Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the author of “Just Wondering, Jesus,” and the founder of the Church Wellness Project, http://www.churchwellness.com. His Web site is http://www.morningwalkmedia.com.)

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