Sunday, December 7, 2008

Black Friday and Consumer Denial

Black Friday, the traditional post-Thanksgiving kickoff to the Christmas shopping season, drew more scrutiny this year due to the economic downturn. Although the name originally came from Philadelphia because of the traffic snarl, the term was changed to refer to the time of year when retail stores would move from red to black on their accounting sheets. The stores open early in the morning, and some shoppers spend the night in line, sometimes foregoing their Thanksgiving dinner to be first to buy some hot items limited in quantity.

This year the holiday shopping spree was supposed to be subdued given rising unemployment rates and strained credit card limits. The National Retail Federation had predicted an 11% drop for the weekend. Half the people surveyed said they would spend less this year. Mothers planned to forego clothes for themselves so that they could buy toys for their children. It happened otherwise, at least for now. Store shoppers spent 3% more this year than last over the weekend, taking advantage of deep discounts. Including online buyers, 192 million customers spent an average of $372 over the four days, up 7.2% from last year. The frenzy turned deadly when one New York Wal-Mart employee died as a crowd rushed the doors at 5:00 am.

The weekend was perhaps an indicator of deep denial. Trillions of dollars are being pumped into the tottering markets. The worst unemployment in three decades is expected. Local charities cannot keep up with all the new clients needing food, shelter and help paying heating and electric bills. It remains to be seen if people will continue to spend throughout the season, but for all the hand-wringing about the need to save and pay off debt, frugality was not in evidence.

Americans have been encouraged to spend for decades. After the 9/11 attacks, President Bush exhorted the nation to continue to shop and even to go to Disney World. "Take your families and enjoy life, the way we want it to be enjoyed." As Professor Andrew Bacevich points out, we were not called to make sacrifices as is normal during a time of war. The drive for more cheap things is not just a personal or cultural addiction, but fully two-thirds of the economy is driven by such purchases. Consumerism, which is practically identified with American freedoms, has no robust opponent as it did briefly in the counter-culture sixties. Even the rebellious symbols of black leather and silver spikes have been absorbed into the market through specialty stores like Hot Topic. Still, the mentality has its critics.

David Schindler, editor of the quarterly Communio, points out the hidden dangers of consumption: "Western (economic) liberalism is pernicious in a way that Communism is not, because liberalism fills culture with its vision so imperceptibly and invisibly. Cultures embrace Western freedom, only to discover--too late?--that they've been made unfree by Western consumerism. People know they've lost their freedom when they've been run over by a tank. They are not so quick to notice the loss of freedom that comes from enervation of the soul and slavery to appetite."

Then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in 1985 described the vulnerability of economic systems which leave aside a moral framework: "It is becoming an increasingly obvious fact of economic history that the development of economic systems which concentrate on the common good depends on a determinate ethical system, which in turn can be born and sustained only by strong religious convictions. Conversely, it has also become obvious that the decline of such discipline can actually cause the laws of the market to collapse."

From all indicators, our consumption habits are on a collision course with reality; we can only hope for a softer landing. Ironically, October 29, 1929, the day the stock market crashed signaling the Great Depression, was named Black Tuesday.

Published at Il Sussidiario.Net in translation.

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