Opinion

Commentary: I swear I didn't break the economy

For the last time, it's not my fault.

I know the regional, national and global economies are struggling, but I didn't break it. As such, it's not my job to fix it.

I say that not because I'm Mr. Badwrench. It might take me most of the day to change the bulb in my headlight. No, I say it because I don't think it is fair for politicians, business leaders and economists to keep saying that things would be better if only I'd pull out my Visa card and start spending.

If I'd just buy that 52-inch plasma and a couple of Lincoln Navigators I'd put people back to work from China to Wayne, Mich.

Just a week ago a local banker told our governor that America and Washington state are struggling because consumers and businesses are suffering a crisis of confidence. Gov. Chris Gregoire then repeated a claim she started making 15 months ago, that we'd have been fine if people around here just hadn't listened to bad economic news on TV.

She even expanded it by saying the debates between Barack Obama and John McCain put a damper on our economy by scaring the locals into clamping shut their wallets.

It has become a common lament – economic fears make the problem worse because they inhibit consumer spending. An irrational lack of exuberance on our part is keeping the economy in trouble, they say. If we had only shut off our TVs a year ago, Microsoft, Boeing, Starbucks and Washington Mutual Bank would all be showing record earnings.

Despite what that would have done to plasma TV sales, it contradicts what the same politicians and business leaders have been telling us for a decade or more, that we're part of a global economy, not a provincial one. What happens everywhere matters here.

Not that we consumers didn't play some part in all this. We believed the experts and the style mavens who said we weren't worth a dang if we didn't consume as much as we could. Some of us bought more house than we could afford with mortgages we didn't understand. Then we tapped into home equity lines of credit, trusting that climbing home values would cover it.

Investors put cheap money into more-and-more complex financial instruments with unheard-of returns. Regulators couldn't regulate what they couldn't comprehend.

Then it all collapsed. Bursting bubbles do make a mess of the carpet. While it took a little longer to reach Washington, it has reached us now. And everything from the state budget to the local remodeler is suffering from a lack of cash in the economy. Our retirements and our jobs are at risk.

What's a rational consumer to do? Clean up our own finances by living beneath our means for a change and paying off debt. What we do spend we do conservatively, seeking value. We rethink the difference between needs and wants.

If business and government had done the same thing, and stuck with it during the boom, we might be better off now. But they assumed that the blast of cash – the profits and the revenue growth – fueled by Americans living beyond their means would last forever.

So it is ironic – and more than a bit galling – to be lectured by folks who had far more to do with the disaster than the average consumer, to be told that if only we'd go back to the glory days of over-consuming everyone would be better off.

We lack confidence, for sure, because we trusted the folks running Wall Street and running the government. We chose to believe because it was easier and because we really wanted that Hawaiian vacation and the newest iPod.

It will be harder to gain our confidence now – and that's a crisis.

How about those who made the mess – and profited handsomely from it – carry the burden of cleaning it up. As I said, I'd like to help out but I've got my own problems right now.

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