Commentary: Spending and the Economy | KERA News

Commentary: Spending and the Economy

Dallas, TX – The news lately has been filled with big-picture stories about bailouts and bonuses and layoffs, but commentator Chris Tucker says his own spending habits shed a lot of light on the economic downturn.

I've been feeling a bit guilty lately. I'm afraid that I have gone and killed the American economy--and all because I wouldn't buy that new computer monitor.

Let me explain. About 18 months ago I found myself looking with envy at a 19-inch monitor in some electronics store. It was listed around $200, which was high enough to keep it in the Envy-Only category for me. And I didn't even want to think about those towering 21-and 22-inch monitors running $249 or more even for obscure brands.

At those prices, I vowed, I would just make do with my old 17-inch monitor.

And that's part of the story. Why was it that I wanted a new monitor? There was nothing "wrong" with my 17-inch model. It's less than two years old, has nice color display, good contrast, easy on the eyes. So what did my old monitor lack?

You may have guessed: It was not a 19- or a 21-inch model. The 19- and 21-inch monitors were. . . more. They were the next thing, the next shiny toy, something else to have.

Well, as these things always do, the monitor prices gradually dropped. At Christmas I noticed a 19-inch model for around $129, but I still kept my wallet shut, thinking, with all these economic jitters, who knows how low the prices may go?

And so it came to pass: A few weeks ago, Fry's posted a 19-inch Acer, not a bad brand at all, for $99, representing an almost $100 drop in the price since I began lusting after these toys. And last week, to my amazement, I spotted a 22-inch Dell for . . . drum roll. . . $161.

And yet. . . here I sit in front of my old 17-inch monitor. I've thought it over, and I may not buy one of the bigger models, even if they drop another few bucks.

That's because when I ask myself, "Why not buy it?" another question comes back: Why buy it? Why do I need a new monitor? I really don't have a compelling answer to that question. And therein, I think, lies part of the reason for our current economic stagnation.

While a larger monitor might have some objective superiority that I might come to enjoy if I bought it, the truth is that I was behaving like a consumer version of that famous mountaineer who was asked why he wanted to climb Mt. Everest. I wanted the newer, bigger monitor because it was there. It was something to have, so why not have it?

But once you find these reasons inadequate, once you start to ask tougher questions about your buying, well--gulp-- what happens to the economy?

What happens once the question becomes: "Why buy a new monitor or car or mower or desk lamp or cell phone or anything if your current one is working fine?" What happens to that complex web of wanting and getting, shopping and spending, upselling and upgrading that fuels the economy, and that we all know includes billions of dollars in purchases that are not necessities, but just things that are nice to have?

That's the problem in a nutshell. Once we stop asking, "Why not spend?" and start asking, "Why spend?"-who knows where that road leads? Do I have a patriotic duty to buy something I don't really need, just to boost the economy?

Anyway, next time I'm in the post office I'll check and see if my picture is hanging there. Wanted: the man who killed the economy.

Chris Tucker is a Dallas writer and literary consultant.