The idea occurs to me, as so many desperate resolutions do, during the holiday season. I have maxed out the Visa, cracked open the Citibank debit card that has lain in a drawer for years, and am tapping the ATM like an Iraqi guerrilla pulling crude from the pipeline. Convinced I am picking up no more than the occasional trinket — a tree ornament for Howard and Nanette, a bar of French soap for Norma — in just two weeks this atheist Grinch has managed to scatter $1,001 across New York City and the World Wide Web. I am not in the spirit, but somehow I have gotten with the program.
And what a program it is. Through three years of lusterless economic reports and rising unemployment, consumer confidence has barely flagged. The coffins are returning from Iraq: by Christmas, the U.S. body count is near 500. Still, this month America’s good guys caught Iraq’s bad guy, several employee-starved companies hired several workers, and a “hoo-wah!” rose from the malls of America. Interviewed on the Saturday before Christmas, Everyshopper Barbara D’Addario chuckled as she told CBS, “Today, [I spent] about $75, and I’ve been here 20 minutes.” What is the source of her generosity and glee? “[I have] great hopes that the economy is improving and we caught Saddam Hussein,” says D’Addario. “We’re very happy.”
We are very happy, and when we are happy, as when we are sad or angry or bored or confused or feeling nothing in particular, we shop. The President has personally mailed us each an envelope of mad money, and we are returning the favor. Those who received the richest reward from his tax cuts are responding most enthusiastically. During the 2003 holiday season luxury watches priced from $1,000 to $200,000 are flying from the shops as fast as time. In the more earthbound districts, although sales are less brisk, the hoi poloi are enlisting in their own campaigns of retail shock and awe. At a Wal-Mart in Orange City, Florida, a woman is trampled by a crowd surging toward a pile of $29 DVD players.
On Wall Street, the faithful, joyful, and triumphant rejoice. “U.S. Economy Surges,” “The Bounceback Year,” “2004 May Be Banner Year for U.S. Economy,” sound the business-page headlines (pushed to the back of the section are the party-poopers grumbling into their cups about discouraged job-seekers, the deficit, and the falling dollar). The Dow climbs above 10,000, with the S&P 500 and the Nasdaq panting to keep up.
The heartiest hosannas emanate from Washington. The tax cuts are working! the Bush Administration crows. “Cash registers are working harder this holiday season because more people have jobs and the economy is improving, @ announces Commerce Secretary Don Evans. At the next Cabinet meeting, perhaps reminded that employment for cash registers is better than that for millions of potential voters, the President puts on his grown-up face and adds a phrase he will pull out repeatedly during his reelection campaign: “We won’t rest until everybody who wants to find a job can find one.”
Since September 11 the Consumer in Chief had been exhorting us to keep our chins up by keeping our wallets open. In his second post-attack address to the nation, he rooted for “your continued participation and confidence in the American economy.” Executive Vice-President Dick Cheney was more direct, expressing to NBC’s Tim Russert his “hope” that the American people would “stick their thumb in the eye of the terrorists” and “not let what’s happened here in any way throw off their normal level of economic activity.” In New York only a day after the towers fell, Mayor Rudolf Giuliani counseled his trembling constituents to “show your confidence. Show you’re not afraid. Go to restaurants. Go shopping.” The world was proffering succor, asking what can we do for you? The Mayor spoke as a true American. “I have a great way of helping,” he said. “Come here and spend money.”
The flaming buildings and falling bodies had momentarily turned the meaning of fortunes, even lost fortunes, to dross. After the attacks, people were talking about community and charity. Buying stuff lost its appeal. But rather than congratulate America on her newfound thrift and selflessness, the President and his minions were not so subtly making us feel irresponsible for staying out of the stores.
It was impossible to remember a time when shopping was so explicitly linked to our fate as a nation. Consumer spending accounts for two-thirds of the U.S. gross domestic product, and if the gross domestic product is what makes America strong, we were told, the marketplace is what makes us free. Consumer choice is democracy. A dollar spent is a vote for the American way of life. Long a perk and a pleasure of life in the US of A, after September 11 shopping became a patriotic duty. Buy that flat-screen TV, our leaders told us, or the terrorists will have won.
All this floats to mind in mid-December as I stoop to fish a glove from one of the little arctic seas that form on New York street corners after a snowfall. In the act I dip my paper shopping bag into the slush, allowing its contents to slump toward the sodden corner and begin to drop through. Frigid liquid seeps into the seam of my left boot.
“Merry fucking Christmas,” I spit at a foot pressing one of my purchases to the bottom of the filthy soup. The foot is attached to a leg bulwarked by its own supersized shopping bag. A mass of bags buffet me about the head and shoulders as I struggle to stand. I flash on the WalMart victim. This is freedom? I asked myself. This is democracy? As I heave my remaining shopping bag to dry land and scramble after it, I silently announce my conscientious objection: I’m not buying it.