Steve: Always something new to spend too much on

I learned last week that the sale of Halloween costumes for pets has become a multi-million-dollar industry. Seeing the family Chihuahua dressed as the Incredible Hulk might be worth a few bucks, but the message I get is that times are still bad.

Times have been less than optimal since the late 1970s. Wages have flatlined in real terms and our standard of living has marked time, unless you’re in the top 1 percent. Then you can buy diamond-encrusted Chihuahuas dressed as the Incredible Hulk for each of your children and laugh it off because you’ll be richer tomorrow.

While the sales people at Tiffany’s fawn over those who have scored 40 percent of our recent economic gains, we have to settle for things that are only more expensive than they should be. And this has been an American habit since the Depression.

Why? If we can’t have yachts in the land of plenty, we will overspend on little luxuries that give us real or imagined class, if only for a few minutes at a time (And the folks who launch the right small elegances at the right time join the 1 percent).

I read a marketing expert’s explanation of this phenomenon in the early 1980s. That was when we were still in under the yoke of OPEC and the weight of accelerating inflation but before we were assailed by Boy George and Flock of Seagulls.

In the 1930s, it was the movies. You had to skip lunch, but you could watch Fred and Ginger breeze through a fantasy life, suspending your worries about ever working again or eating a full meal.

In the impecunious early ’80s, it was deluxe ice creams. Chains like Swenson’s and Haagen Daz thrived when we settled for mounds of real-cream manna as a break from double-digit inflation, double-digit interest rates and gas prices that left everybody reeling except the oil sultans of OPEC. And then when OPEC collapsed, and many of us got rich again on junk bonds, we bought matching sweats, headbands and running shoes and traded sundaes for gym memberships as we pretended, mostly, to work it off. We bent and stretched while arm-mounted tape-players assailed us with Boy George and Flock of Seagulls — or shambled along on the track to the synthesized serenity of the Chariots of Fire theme.

In the 1990s, it was coffee. That great little espresso shop across the street from Seattle’s incomparable Farmers’ Market whose brown logo was just slightly risqué became the corporate behemoth we call Starbucks, with label turned green (appropriately) and the slightly naughty parts gone. It spawned a whole industry based on giving people an experience and a product that feels first class, a labor-intensive espresso drink or industrial-strength coffee that powered into your taste buds like a boom-box invaded your ears. You spent too much at Starbucks but had enough left over for the mortgage.

Since then, while Starbucks and specialty coffees have become a staple, we’ve added specialty bread shops, Krispy Kreme doughnuts, micro-brew beers, fine cigars and many small-vineyard California wines to the affordable indulgences we console ourselves with when we find ourselves bumping against the ceiling of limited possibilities. Now, high-end vodkas like Grey Goose and Ketel One have joined that list.

But consider this: Warren Buffett, one of the wealthiest people on earth, will grab a Big Mac when he’s hungry and the trading is hot. In Hollywood, big black limousines still stop in front of Pink’s, a crumbling, faded-paint hot-dog stand, and the famous faces within will wait in line for a chili-dog and fries for about $5. Meanwhile, the people who dream of being the luminaries in line at Pink’s are standing in line at the Universal Studios Hard Rock Café, where they’ll crane their necks to spot non-present celebrities and spend $50 for the privilege.

My conclusion: Warren Buffett and the stars at Pink’s are the ones who know what they really want.

Steve Hansen is the managing editor at the Quay County Sun. He can be reached at shansen@qcsunonline.com

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