Friday, November 23, 2007

To buy or not to buy

This Friday is Buy Nothing Day, an informal day of protest by social activists who oppose consumerism. It's also Black Friday, the start of the holiday shopping season. The name sounds ominous but is meant to be hopeful -- we're talking about black ink, that is, big profits for retailers. These competing media events mark opposing views of consumerism -- one urges consumption, the other reflection. Do you fulfill your destiny as bargain hunter and a consumer or do you assert your dignity as a human being, a global citizen passively resisting, in solidarity with others?

Even in our troubled state economy you can live your values, buy nothing on Friday and have a clear conscience. Often hyped as the "busiest shopping day of the year," it actually isn't. Some Americans do wait in line as early as 4 a.m. to get dirt-cheap electronics, but more procrastinate and do the bulk of their holiday shopping between December 21-23. So if you choose to unite in protest on Buy Nothing Day, you won't be dooming Michigan retailers.

It's the whole season that makes or breaks retailers. Consumer spending accounts for more than two thirds of all economic activity. The last six weeks of the year are the home stretch for retailers who make about 40 percent of annual profits in that period. What worries retailers this year is that consumers are low on cash and credit. Until the housing bust, consumers had dutifully continued shopping, tapping home equity like a personal ATM. They believed their equity was real, but it was only a financial illusion.

A financial illusion sold with an advertising illusion -- consumption equals empowerment. Access to credit signifies status and proffers the freedom to pursue your dreams. That's the fantasy sold by credit card companies and banks to people who forgot they lived in the real economy. Thanks to the housing slump, a house is once again a house.

The real economy is where human beings dwell. This is where a house provides shelter from the elements. This is where hunger and poverty oppress millions. This is where elderly choose between medicine and food. This is where you live within your means and discover you are farther from the financialized fantasy of the good life than marketers want you to know.

On Friday, as any day, you have a choice between real life and fiction. You can choose solidarity with the less fortunate who lack easy credit and access to over-consumption or you can pretend to afford an unsustainable fantasy. Live more. Buy nothing.