A week ago on Sunday the family and I took my folks - who are visiting from out of town - to lunch in Palo Alto. The restaurant we went to was close to an Apple store, where a line of about 100 people snaked out the door and around the corner. Californians in their multitude stood around for hours in line to get themselves a brand new iPhone. On Monday, I witnessed the same phenomenon at the Stanford Shopping Mall, where another Apple store is located. It occurs to me that the line for the iPhone symbolizes much that is bad about U.S. consumers and the reason for why our economy is in such dire straights these days.
To be pointed about it, the American consumer is akin to a five year old who is unable to delay gratification for even a few days. They want their toys, and they want them now. Tomorrow will simply not do and next year is completely out of the question. How is this a problem, you ask? It's not that I have any problems with the iPhone- in fact, when the lines disappear I will probably get one myself - it's just that the willingness of people to stand for hours in line just to get the latest toy - be it an iPhone, a Wii console, a Harry Potter book or a ticket to the newest blockbuster - is simply irrational. Guys, those toys are not in short supply. Go to your nearest book store and ask for a Harry Potter and you'll no doubt get one. Wait for a few weeks and the same will be true for the iPhone. Why the rush?
This is probably not a major issue when you are talking about relatively low cost items, but the same phenomenon is what got us into our current economic malaise. I can't afford to buy a house - never mind, I'll take a crazy loan that I can't repay and get one anyway. I can't delay my satisfaction. I can't afford to take a Caribbean vacation. Never mind, I'll just put it on my credit card and pay it off twice over with interest. I can't save for retirement because I have a burning desire to buy a new pair of shoes, car, big screen TV, whatever. My immediate wants far outweigh my future needs.
Many Americans have apparently lost their capacity for rational thought and delayed gratification in the face of consumer culture. So, get it all now if you must, but remember that the time will come when the Piper will demand payment in full.
On an unrelated note, check out the latest Carnival of Personal Finance where my recent post about the benefit of the long bear market is also included.