Sunday, November 30, 2008

When Black Friday Comes

When Black Friday comes, I stand down near the door
and catch the great men when they dive from the 14th floor.
When Black Friday comes, I call in everything I'm owed
and before my friends find out, I'll be on the road....
--Black Friday by Steeley Dan

Black Friday--the day after Thanksgiving-- got its ironic title in recent years because as one of the biggest shopping days of the most important shopping season of the year, it was the day that retailers went into the black.

This year, as expected, not so much. If it wasn't quite Black Friday in the old sense of doom, initial reports interpreted the data as not promising, and particularly, retailers were still seeing red. Already discounting, it seems they weren't slashing prices quite enough for consumers, willing (or perhaps needing) to wait.

If this shopping season is the nadir, it's been moving in that direction for several years, at least according to expectations--and expectations tend to become needs for those corporate investors who figure in the original Black Friday of the stock market. So come January, a number of major retailers may be holding going out of business sales.

But despite the pain and problems, some kind of adjustment is long overdue. Growth in sales and profits, artificially inflated over the years by marketing, easy credit cards, near-slave labor and other ethically questionable practices, could not continue indefinitely. It's all contributed to changing us, and not always for the better.

Part of what that means is evoked by the Black Friday incident of shoppers trampling to death a Long Island Wal-Mart employee in their frenzy to get into the store as he opened the door. The Washington Post reported further that: "Other workers were trampled as they tried to rescue the man, and customers stepped over him and became irate when officials said the store was closing because of the death, police and witnesses said."

What combination of greed and desperation could lead to behavior like that? Black Friday indeed.

It's likely that we're just beginning to feel the effects of the current economic turmoil, which may well result in a lot more unemployment, lost investments and economic insecurity in the coming year. But if this Black Friday is the symbolic nadir of the consumer age, January 20 may be the beginning of a positive transformation.

We have become a society out of balance in so many ways. In America we are consumers but not producers. The excesses of advertising and marketing, together with the dumbing down that helped to make them effective, have compromised our ability to communicate honestly about matters of importance. The resources consumed by our consumption have thrown our planet into dire peril, and weakened what ultimately sustains all life, including ours.

But in this election we have endorsed the changes we need, and hired the leadership to make those changes. Now we can help to build a more balanced society and economy, with cleaner and sustainable energy systems and practices. Besides buying separately, we can work together. The malls of America can house public services as well as private enterprise.

It doesn't have to be either/or, all or nothing. But as one age is dying, another is being born. It won't be easy or painless, but we can be part of it, help to shape it, and save the future.

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