Ehhh . . .is this bad? Really bad?

From this morning’s Washington Post:

Retailers posted the worst November sales in more than 30 years yesterday, as holiday shopping not only failed to lift the economy but showed that the financial crisis is further distressing everyday consumers.

About 30 major companies — including Macy’s, Abercrombie & Fitch and Target — posted sales declines at established stores. Overall, retail sales in November fell 2.7 percent compared with the same month last year, marking the second consecutive negative month, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers, a trade group.

I have a problem here. I don’t mean to appear unfeeling. I know that a worsening retail situation will hurt a lot of people who live on the margins.I feel for them much more than I feel when I ee the stock market going down and people like me lose some networth. Yeah, I’ve also seen this slumping economy cut my own net worth by something approaching half, but it’s all paper value. Doesn’t impact me right now in real ways.

But when the first alarm went off in September I immediately put planned major purchases on hold. My gut instinct then was this is what everyone would do – or most people – and the result would be it will make the situation worse.

And so it has. But is this bad?

There’s a part of me that is screaming “wake up America! You could be a world leader. You may be the major hope of civilization, if not our species. You – America – may hold the key to massive problems with the environment going haywire and radical religious elements expressing their fear as hatred in violent acts. ”

Yeah – part of this waking up business was electing Barach Obama president. But in the end this isn’t about him – it’s about us. He knows he can’t do it all – he just thinks he can inspire us to do it. So a big part of this waking up is us starting to take the world seriously again. Many of us have been living in a ridiculous dream world where houses keep getting bigger to hold the pile of stuff that’s under the Christmas tree which also keeps getting bigger. And, of course, China is pumping in goodies here as if our appetite for anything and everything is without limit. And it would seem to be.

So maybe we need a wake-up call to put the brakes on this wild, unfettered consumerism? That should have been obvious when Bren and I – mostly Bren – spent so much time this summer cleaning out the basement. It should be obvious when you look at all the “garage” or “tag” sales. It should be obvious when you see you can buy things, like telescopes, that are the same size and power – and the same price – as what you paid 30 years ago.

Yesterday a nice old guy called me to tell me he had bought a new telescope for $15. He admitted he knew nothing about telescopes or astronomy and he didn’t have any plans for this one, but he had looked at the Moon and Jupiter and Venus the other night – and when he saw this telescope, well he couldn’t resist. He just had to know what it was you could buy for $15. And it was a lot. I think my first telescope was much like what he bought and I paid at least $25 for it and that was half a century ago.

But we know why the prices are low. We know other people are living like hell so we can live like kinds. W know the world has a very unlevel playing field, but we don’t like to think about it. We know we’ve stoppe making thng and jobs have been outsourced overseas and we owe a ton of money to China. We know people in other countries are living in poverty making us toys and stuff – but we don’t like to think about it. We’ve been having a ball!

My mother used to tell me I was “spending like a drunken sailor” when I was a kid and blew my allowance on something silly. Well, an awful lot of us have gotten awfully used to spending like drunken sailors. So maybe a few percentage points drop in retail sales is a good thing. Maybe we’re starting to understand we don’t need all of this stuff?

Hey – maybe we are actually making some judgments between those two critical words – “want” and “need.” Maybe we’re developing some self discipline.

Is this funny? Well, if it is, I’m laughing at myself because my last post was about being disappointed with FedEx for not keeping me well-informed about where my most recent toy is. Yeah, if I’m honest, it’s a “want” – not a “need.”

But I have reigned in my spending at least by the amount consumer retail sales are falling, so I’m doing my share 😉

But seriously – we may be seeing just the start. This could get serious. It could get ugly. But it also could be that cold slap across the face that we all need to come to our senses and start paying our dues as a society. Maybe in the end we’ll look back on this and as retail sales – and the economy – slumps, we’ll say “thanks, I needed that.”

Then again, maybe our changes now will be too little, too late. This does feel like we’re at a hinge in history – but a rusty one. Maybe this is just the “gloomy Gus” in me. See, I thought I saw this slump coming years ago. For the past five years I’ve been toning down my investment – modest as they are – and putting my life savings into conservative stuff with no chance of making more than about 5 percent. This wasn’t because I know a lot about the economy, nor because I have a better crystal ball than most – it was just simply a gnawing feeling that we were all living too high on the hog and someday that little piggy was going to go to market without us.