The easy availability of credit has created what Robert Manning calls our Credit Card Nation, where we are encouraged to shop until we drop. In the aftermath of the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, President Bush made that point shamelessly when he told the American people that the best way to help in that traumatic period was to go shopping again. He knew, even if most Americans didn’t, that it is their non-stop consumption that drives the economy. Without it, I guess, the terrorists could have won.
“In fact,” Robert Manning writes in his seminal book on credit cards, “with the ascendance of the post-industrial economy, bank credit cards have become an essential technological and financial tool for commercial transactions as well as an increasingly important macro-economic tool for U.S. Policy-makers.”
Shopping is our real national pastime, but it comes, as he warns, at a price that is not advertised in the malls:
The idyllic wonderland of consumer credit too often belies a reality of unknown sacrifices and enduring debt… the credit card industry is playing a crucial role in transforming American consumer attitudes. The promotion of “immediate gratification” ruptures the cognitive connection between earnings/saving and credit/debt that has traditionally shaped consumer behavior. It is this “cognitive disconnect,” with its siren song “Buy, buy, buy. It could be free, free, free” that constitutes the cornerstone of the Credit Card Nation.
And so it is not surprising that holidays are used or created as national events to spur consumption. They have become rituals of shopping. None is as important as the first day after Thanksgiving, itself a day set aside for overindulgence at the kitchen table. That day now has a name, Black Friday, so called because it is supposed to be the day when the whole retail sector goes into the black financially. (This may not have been such a wise use of language since the Wall Street crash of l929, ushering in the Great Depression, started on a “Black Thursday.”)
After months of financial volatility, Black Friday of 2007 was seen as a make-or-break event. Would it send a cathartic and upbeat signal that the economy was back? Shoppers had been tasked to launch the Holiday season with a big bang.
On Wall Street, buyers jumped the gun, sending prices higher with their hopes. AP reported, stocks rebounded as investors engaged in a bit of Black Friday bargain hunting and looked for signs of how well retailers might fare during the holiday shopping season. The market was voting its own money.
In the malls, preparations had been made for five months with advertising dollars set aside for promoting sales and deep discounts to lure the shoppers who had almost been boycotting the stores in September and October. Ingenious plans for opening earlier and staging “midnight madness” sales to trigger a stampede were put in place.
The hype machine went into overdrive with TV ads having the expected effect of getting TV News, especially in local markets, actively building anticipation.
I was watching local news stories in Boston, featuring perky local news “correspondents” who were stirring a buying frenzy with upbeat reports on manic consumers waiting feverishly to rush into malls the night before. It was, in the words of Reverend Billy of the Church of Stop Shopping, a “shopopocalyse.” His crusade against out-of-control consumption is pictured in the new film What Would Jesus Buy?
This highly relevant film was not on TV, of course, because our media is deeply complicit in promoting/encouraging mindless consumerism through newspapers, commercials, and on newscasts.
This is a well-practiced formula mirroring TV’s promotion of the war in Iraq, as the line between selling and telling disappears. Media outlets are amply rewarded with endless ad revenues hyping all the discounted goodies you can get, with the Boston Globe packing no less than 43 advertising/sales supplements (down from 47 a year ago) into a paper that had wall-to-wall Macy’s ads, including some offering $10 coupons to bribe you into the stores. Marketing like this is what the media does best.
The only negative note was the fear among some that toys might be unsafe because of lead or other dangers. Some 26 million toys, most made in China, had been recalled in 2007, a sign that the regulators were asleep on this front in the economic wars as they were on Wall Street.
The real danger may not be lead in the toys but another type of lead – in our heads. It’s that “lead” that leads to denial on the part of millions that we can go on with our addictive, well-cultivated crazed consumption habits.
Bill Bowles writes about this on his CNI Blog:
The problem is that many of us have been force-fed with a diet of nothing but passive, uncritical consumptionism, indeed, we are addicted to the stuff; breaking such powerful habits is what this is all about; it’s about getting people to think critically again about what’s going on and why and what, if anything, we can do about it.
Bowles also ties this cultural affliction, sometimes known as affluenza, back to our dependence on a media system that won’t really allow other voices to be heard.
It would be an understatement to say that the world has changed almost beyond recognition in the past two decades, we appear to have re-entered the age of the dinosaur, gigantic creatures stomping across the planet, “guided” by pea-sized brains. So … we have increasing concentrations of powerful media – media that is actually an entire raft of processes critical to the survival of capitalism – either in the hands of vast corporations or the state (which in any case is now openly in bed with the big corporations)…
Were most media outlets connecting any dots between the annual shopathon and the “severe recession” that many economists are forecasting? Were there any warnings to the public to save their rapidly inflating money for the expected hard times? Was there any explanation of how prices have sharply risen and, thus, the discounts – often “teaser” rates just like the ones offered loan victims – are really not all they are cracked up to be?
What about the larger trends? Yes, there has been reporting on how bad things are – but this reality was largely NOT depicted in the “shop now, be happy” coverage. This euphoria was deliberate and deceptive. The Boston Globe did run a story in the B Section where the business news is buried. At the very end of the AP report (not theirs) you read this:
Last year, retailers had a good start during the Thanksgiving weekend, but many stores struggled in December and a shopping surge just before and after Christmas wasn’t enough to make up for lost sales. This year, analysts expect sales gains to be the weakest in five years. Washington-based National Retail Federation predicted that total holiday sales would be up 4 percent for the combined November and December period, the slowest growth since a 1.3 percent rise in 2002.
Holiday sales rose 4.6 percent in 2006 and growth has averaged 4.8 percent over the last decade.
Where were the stories alerting us to this coming calamity on the front pages? They weren’t there. It is not in their interest to carry them, clearly a big No No. It gets worse. MTV pointedly rejected an ad from the Cultural Jammers Network urging a Buy Nothing Day. Commented one blogger, “The station that markets itself as the voice of hip youth has censored the burping pig.”
But why? Their advertising standards representative, Elisa Billis, said, “The spot goes further than we are willing to accept on our channels.” Too radical for self-styled “hip” MTV, which routinely carries military recruiting ads with no qualms.
The Boston Globe did carry a cartoon lampooning local sports mania in a town with
winning teams. In its last panel, set in a mortgage office, a fan is being told he will be able to pay off his Red Sox/Celtics/Patriots tickets in just a few decades.
Many of the shoppers this season are charging it even though all the credit card companies have jacked up rates, driving the real cost of shopping higher, and even though credit balances are at an all-time high. The companies are just waiting for them. The day after Christmas, VISA will report on how much business was done. In years past, they called it “disappointing.”
And then in January, the returns – consumers bringing back purchases and gifts – will start as the bills come due. Experts – including former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers – are warning that the credit card system itself may be the next to fall.
Writes economist Robert Samuelson:
“The specter of the subprime debacle is that it’s just a start. Huge amounts of auto loans, credit-card debt, commercial mortgages and equipment leases have also been securitized. If similar problems emerged, it would shake confidence in the securitization model and, by magnifying investors’ losses, threaten to turn the credit crunch from a slogan into a reality. A broader crisis, though a long shot, can’t be excluded.
Thanksgiving this year fell on the anniversary of the John F. Kennedy assassination. The New York Times predictably marked the event with one more op-ed article – one in a long line – assuring us that there was no conspiracy. (Even as 80% of the public continues to believe that Lee Harvey Oswald did not act alone.) In some ways obsessive debt-creating consumption patterns are a form of self-assassination as a nation of shoppers shoots holes in their financial futures.
While they discredit suggestions of a past conspiracy, they seem to be ignoring a current one. That involves the steady decline of our economy, thanks to illegal practices through white-collar predatory lenders backed by our biggest banks and hedge funds, as well as the inability of regulators to regulate, and a complicit media to blow the whistle, which caused a multi-billion dollar economic crime that is still in progress.
So what happened? Was the day the big success we were told it would be by the media’s relentless upbeat coverage? In a culture where perception itself is carefully managed, Black Friday didn’t appear to be dark at all. On Friday night, after a day of boosterism disguised as journalism, retailers and media promoters were, like President Bush in Iraq, proclaiming victory – “mission accomplished.”
Not so fast.
Yes, Black Friday showed better results than expected, but the retail industry afterward said it still expected a weak Christmas. Remember, the stores were open longer than ever and the advertising/ hype was more pervasive. Also. the discounting was deeper and the bargains more extensive. We know that the sales were up, but what about the returns and expected credit card defaults?
The New York Times sent reporters into the stores and found “desperation rather than celebration.” By Monday, Wall Street was glum, according to Fox News: “So much for a ‘Black Friday’ bounce for Wall Street. Instead, negative market sentiment and another ugly day for financial stocks sent the Dow plunging 237 points lower.”