LOS ANGELES - So here I am at the Beverly Center mall, looking at a pair of $228 jeans from Bloomingdale's, and I can't remember my duty as an American: Am I supposed to buy these overpriced trousers and everything else in sight to help fuel the economic recovery?
Or am I supposed to stifle the consumptive urge and sock away every spare nickel and dime because the national buying binge helped cause the crash and I could be out of work by Friday?
If you listen to politicians, analysts and pundits, you'll hear it both ways, along with a lot more conflicting and indecipherable gibberish.
Consumer confidence is up. Consumer spending is down.
The recovery is kicking into gear. We're headed for another cliff.
Real estate is coming back strong. The foreclosures have only just begun.
It can all be pretty confusing for a layperson like myself. So I asked economist Christopher Thornberg, who saw the housing meltdown coming long before most of his colleagues, to meet me at the mall and help clear things up.
You know what, though?
I don't need an economist to tell me that only a moron would pay $228 for a pair of jeans. I dropped them back on the pile faster than you can spell T-A-R-G-E-T.
And that's when I met up with Thornberg, founding director of Beacon Economics, a California-based research group that puts out a quarterly economic forecast.
Over a cup of coffee near Bloomingdale's, Thornberg assured me I'm not crazy to think I'm getting mixed signals on the economy. He also said I'm not likely to hear the truth from either Washington politicians or Wall Street barons.
And what exactly is the truth, at least as Thornberg sees it?
- Wall Street is nearly as ruthless and unregulated as it was two years ago, thanks in part to everyone on President Barack Obama's economic team being of Wall Street, by Wall Street and for Wall Street.
- Although Joe Blow's consumption is down a bit, his wages have been chopped, so as a percentage of income his spending is at an all-time high.
- The trade deficit is still way out of whack, in part because of our spending habits, and the national debt is gargantuan. So if you're on the bubble, this holiday season probably isn't the best time to buy things you don't need with money you don't have.
"If you don't have the ability to pay off the credit card at the end of the month, you shouldn't use it," said Thornberg, chief economist for the California state controller and a former senior lecturer at the University of California, Los Angeles Anderson School of Management.
That sounds positively un-American, doesn't it? Particularly in December.
But Thornberg insisted that debt is something you should only take on for a long-term asset that you pay for over many years. A house, for instance. But you don't take on debt to buy iPods for the family, he said, or you're asking for big trouble, especially given the outrageous finance charges.
"In the '90s, American consumers spent like college freshmen with dad's credit card," Thornberg said. We've slowed down because we woke up in 2007 to discover the "$1 million house is worth only $500,000" and the equity line of credit had become a flesh-eating monster. But in his opinion, "Americans still have way too much debt."
It wouldn't be so galling, of course, if Wall Street wasn't handing out bonuses like this year was something to celebrate.
In case you missed it, the chief executive at Goldman Sachs, which got billions in taxpayer-funded bailouts and will give stock bonuses to 30 executives and pay its average employee $700,000, said his company is "doing God's work."
"The entire compensation system on Wall Street is 'Heads I win, tails you lose,' " Thornberg told me. "They take a big share of the upside and no responsibility for the downside," he went on, and he was getting angrier as he spoke.
"When you see home prices triple in seven years, you've gotta know something's wrong. Think about the players in that. Ken Lewis of BofA, Angelo Mozilo of Countrywide and Robert Toll of Toll Brothers.
"All these guys made massive amounts of money, and they all sat around saying how wonderful everything was ... and when it blew up ... they walked away gazillionaires and took no responsibility. And Robert Toll had the unmitigated gall to go to Washington and say the construction industry needed to be bailed out without acknowledging he made an insane amount of money."
I hope all this doesn't ruin your holiday mood. I just thought we should know whether we can trust the people who are telling us to get out the credit card and buy, buy, buy, so we can run up huge finance charges and Wall Street bankers can continue doing God's work.
I will say, however, that I think American consumers are catching on to the scam. The Beverly Center wasn't exactly mobbed when I was there. It was late morning on a weekday, just a couple of weeks before Christmas, and some stores had more employees than shoppers.
"I think shoppers are being cautious, much to the chagrin of retailers," said Jack Kyser of the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corporation. When shoppers do show up, Kyser said, they're pretty "aggressive in demanding markdowns."
So if we're not flooding the malls, or buying cars and furniture, where's our money going?
As Thornberg explained, consumer spending includes big-ticket items like housing, education and health care. With the possible exception of housing, there aren't a lot of bargains to be found, so we're stretched pretty thin, with unemployment expected to stay high into next year and hundreds of thousand of foreclosures still to come, just in California.
Even Santa looked as if he were on the bubble. In the middle of the Beverly Center, he sat alone on a bench, waiting for some business. He told me he's been wearing the red hat and white beard for 13 years, and he's hearing something a bit different this year from the little rascals. They're asking for dolls and trucks instead of iPods and computers.
Santa said he gets the occasional adult sitting on his lap, and they've got problems too.
"They tell me they have no job and no money," he said.
Those are things Santa doesn't have in his sack, so what's he tell them?
"I tell them to have faith."
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