It was very quiet, the sound of drumming rain stilled for a time, when Koko and I went walking this morning on seriously saturated soil. The clouds were arrayed in layers of white and gray, with a patch of orange near Waialeale offering the only hint that the sun was on the rise.
Ran into my neighbor Andy, whom I hadn’t seen in a while, given that our walking schedules have been erratic of late, and he mentioned he was going to see Jefferson Starship perform tonight. It seems expensive ticket prices have kept him from attending rock concerts since, best as he could recall, he saw the band perform when it was still called Jefferson Airplane.
Apparently the rest of the nation is now catching up with Andy’s cutting edge cost-consciousness as it embraces the so-called “new frugality.”
“Consumerism being driven into retreat “ read the headline on an AP story in today’s Honolulu Advertiser, prompting me to wonder: Wow, can that really be true? Is it possible that materialism and consumerism have been felled not by a revolution — bloodless or otherwise — but a recession, a splash in the face with the cold water of reality?
According to the article, the shift is more profound, and fundamental, than simply pinching pennies for a time:
"It is a whole reassessment of values," said Candace Corlett, president of the consulting firm WSL Strategic Retail. "We've just been shopping until we drop and consuming and buying it all, and replenishing before things wear out. People are learning again to say, 'No, not today.'"
Timothy Duy, an economics professor at the University of Oregon, is convinced "the economy is moving away from consumerism." Just how far remains to be seen, but a recent Pew Research Center survey found that more than half of Americans say they have cut back in the past year and about half agreed that people "should learn to live with less."
People are not only buying cheaper, they're buying less, said Joachim Vosgerau, an assistant professor of marketing at Carnegie Mellon University's Tepper School of Business who specializes in consumer behavior.
And crucial for this trend’s longevity, it’s now reportedly entering the realm of hip:
Corlett said one recent WSL Strategic Retail survey detected a "saving is cool" culture developing, with more than half of those polled agreeing they take pride in the ways they've found to save money. "The longer this (downturn) lasts, the more entrenched it will become," Corlett said.
This screeching halt in spending is playing out locally with a number of luxury projects slowing way down, according to an article in Pacific Business News that blogger Aaron Stene kindly sent my way.
Among the Kauai casualties are the 1,010-acre Kukuiula project, reportedly “one of the largest residential projects under way in Hawaii,” where construction has been scaled back, and the $1.4 billion Kaua‘i Lagoons resort project, where the PBN’s report of a construction halt was later rephrased as a “construction realignment” in The Garden Island. The paper quoted Ed Kinney, vice president of corporate affairs and brand awareness for Marriott Vacation Club International and the Ritz-Carlton Club as saying:
“We’re talking about taking the opportunity, based on the economic conditions, to suspend vertical operations,” he said, adding that Marriott was continuing with sales operations without interruption.
Translation: you can still buy, even though they’re not building.
I’ve also heard the Kealanani ag subdivision project is in trouble — aw, shucks — following the bankruptcy of Lehman Bros., which was providing much of the financing.
It seems the dreams of a growth slowdown articulated by many have been achieved without the destruction of a hurricane.
But somehow, I don’t believe the “new frugality” is likely to survive the next boom, which is why it’s important to use this lull to reassess the general plan, renew our efforts to preserve ag land and support farming and seek ways of expanding our economy so it isn’t so dependent on tourism and construction.
The last time we had this opportunity was after Iniki, in 1992, but everyone was so focused on rebuilding and “bringing the island back” — in other words, the tourists — that in typical heads down, shoulder to the grindstone fashion, we never stopped to look at where we were headed, which is why we ended up here, with a lot of new high end real estate and a 20 percent increase in demand at the emergency food pantries.
But now that the entire nation is taking a sort of time out, we have another chance to plot a more sensible path for the future rather than grabbing at any sort of economic stimulation that drifts our way.