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Buying unneeded stuff now, pay later

“U-Store It USA!” “American Self-Storage!”

Does it make you feel warm and tingly and patriotic to store your made-in-China stuff in a self-storage facility with “America” or “USA” in its name?

If you wanted to find both a cause and a symptom of the current state of the USA economy, you could look at the self-storage industry.

We’re often told that the economy of this country is a “consumer” economy, and that consumption is the engine of the economy. That is, unless some politician is appealing to small businesspersons, in which case, “small business” is the engine of the economy. Both are equally untrue.

Not consumption, but overconsumption drove the economy until recently: people buying things they didn’t need with money they didn’t have — until the bubble burst. You’ve heard of the “dot-com” bubble and, more recently, the “housing bubble.” However, have you ever heard of the “consumption bubble?”

There’s a whole generation (perhaps two or three) that knows nothing better to do on a Saturday afternoon than to buy something at a big box store, also known as China, Incorporated.

“I really need that air compressor. You never know when a tire will go flat.” “Daddy! I want that!” “Isn’t this the cutest thing ... it’s a panini maker. We can make our own!”

“There’s no room in the garage/your room/the kitchen.”

“That’s okay, we’ll make a run to the storage locker, tomorrow. Oh, while we’re here, let’s get some of these big plastic totes to put things in.”

In order to finance these purchases, the “buy-something” generations are up to their eyeballs in debt, or have taken out the equity in their homes to the point that they owe more than the value of the home. Does no one else equate “under water” to “formerly overvalued?”

How often did we hear, “Take out the equity in your home ... it’s yours ... it’s your money!” That was a lie. It wasn’t anyone’s money. In fact, it wasn’t even money.

It was a fiction based on the false hope that (incredibly) housing prices would always go up and (equally incredibly) there would be someone willing to pay far more than the intrinsic value of a property.

Let’s not overlook the role of government. Our government meddled in the mortgage market. (Yes, our government. You know, the one “by and for the people?” The one we created? The one we are responsible for? That one.)

Some of the meddling was driven by the real estate industry, which managed to convince a nation that “the American Dream” was home ownership. Since when? And how did they get to decide?

(Actually, we allowed them to decide through our apathy. We didn’t know what the dream was, so when someone came along and offered one, we bought it. And financed it. And refinanced it. And took out the equity. And bought junk from China. And put it in a self-storage locker.)

Some of the meddling was driven by politicians who figured an easy way to buy votes was to make mortgage money available to people who didn’t have the income, the future prospects, or the common sense to afford a home.

But, again, we cannot blame the politicians: we must blame ourselves for allowing them to drive the country in that direction.

Yes, self-storage companies with “America” and “USA” in their names are real, and they are legion. Look inside them to see where we have stored the debris of the past and the mortgage on our future.

Paul Lentz

Peachtree City, Ga.


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