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Seattle Times Newspaper

Opinion | The party's over for American consumers

By Syndicated Columnist - Froma Harrop

The new numbers on consumer confidence are out. They show American consumers
very confident that the economy is going down the tubes.

Over in Asia and Europe, stocks plunged on fears that Americans may no longer be
able to find the second jobs and recklessly borrow the money needed to buy
imported stuff. Economists now freely use the "recession" word following the
report that American payrolls fell in August, the first monthly decline in four

American consumers, in other words, are all dried up. And the discussion has
begun on what kind of baloney economy kept them lubricated for so long.

Among the jobs to be lost in coming months are up to 12,000 positions at the
giant mortgage lender Countrywide Financial Corp. Like other mortgage companies,
Countrywide is having a hard time these days palming risky loans off on sucker
investors. This means that they can only make prudent loans, which translates
into less business.

Of course, some professions thrive in tough economic times. Business should be
brisk for bankruptcy lawyers. And we will need auctioneers to help unload
foreclosed properties.

There will also be growth in certain "niche" occupations, such as
mosquito-control technician. It seems that swimming pools behind abandoned homes
in Southern California are turning green, a sign of mosquito infestation. That
is a health hazard. Thus, local governments are hiring mosquito-control
technicians to fumigate.

And it's vindication time for the economists who've argued for years that
expanding household debt is not a brilliant formula for national greatness. And
they no longer have to counter the free-lunch theories — among them that a
rising population will power the housing-bubble machine unto eternity, and that
if you change accounting methods, American families don't seem so much over
their heads in debt.

Paul Kasriel, chief economist at Northern Trust in Chicago, has been one of the
lonely voices of despair over Americans' personal finances. Last week, his
prophetic warnings were reviewed in The Wall Street Journal.

For example, Kasriel wrote in 2004 that inflated housing prices created only an
"illusion" of national wealth. "In recent years," he said, "growth in our
capital stock has slowed and the composition of the slower growth has moved in
favor of McMansions and SUVs, which do little to increase the productive
capacity of our economy."

The following year, Kasriel wrote another essay titled, "Households Still
Running on Empty!" (The exclamation point is his.) In it, he challenged popular
arguments that personal income has been underestimated because of the way
contributions to private pension funds are counted. His bottom line was that
household borrowing in recent years had risen relative to household spending,
and that household spending represented a record 76 percent of gross domestic

Today's "partying," he said, would lead to tomorrow's "hangover."

So here we are: The partygoers have downed a bottle and still they can avoid a

A recent article on the Motley Fool's British Web site offered "Five Ways to
Prepare for a Recession." The prescriptions: Don't make big luxury purchases you
can't pay for with cash. Build an emergency fund. Live more frugally. Reduce
your debt. Find more work.

All sound advice, but consumers had better act fast — like five years ago.

It looks as though Americans will have to find an honest way to pay for the high
life. Or they can learn to be happy with what they've got, which, before the
McMansions and SUVs, was still quite a lot.

But there's no avoiding reality. The green in the swimming pools is not the
color of money, but of happy mosquitoes.

Providence Journal columnist Froma Harrop's column appears regularly on
editorial pages of The Times.

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