Jingo All the Way?

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From the Kroger store just outside Cincinnati to the Travel-Centers of America truck stops in Texas, T-shirts emblazoned with “God Bless America� and “United We Stand� greet consumers. Nearly every newscast brands the events since Sept. 11 as something like “America Strikes Back� or “America's New War.�

A time of national unity is a time of clichés and mantras like “Hail Marys� to gird us collectively against the unfathomable. But “unity� is not their only design.

Literally before the smoke had cleared, slick fliers graced local Citibank branches, bearing the image of Uncle Sam from the famous World War I recruiting poster, saying he wanted “YOU� to buy stocks on the coming Monday. Past our patriotic tschatchkes, we have been urged back into “the economy� by commercial-minded cadres from Federal Reserve chair Alan Greenspan to San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, whose office is distributing 15,000 posters featuring an American flag with shopping bag handles.

More recently, a consortium of designers, accompanied by dutiful supermodels, unveiled their own T-shirts as part of a fashion-forward campaign heralded by a chirping anchor woman, just after anthrax updates, intended to “get you spending again.� Designers such as Ralph Lauren, Donna Karan and Tommy Hilfiger lent their pseudo-celebrity to the presentation of the Ts in New York's Bryant Park, kicking off a campaign by the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CDFA) and Vogue.

New York City's mayor, Rudy Giuliani, joined them at the podium to add his own mantra: “Shopping is important. Do it!�

We understand that the nation is “at war.� Ominously, it is a war that threatens Americans where they live more profoundly than any conflict since the Civil War. Past the incomprehensible horror of the World Trade Center attack, a chorus of media wags have attempted to convince us that in spite of unyieldingly frightening economics swirling, it is our rote and patriotic duty to spend money to, somehow, fight the terror. Less clearly spelled out in red, white and blue is where the money will come from.

The much-parroted conventional wisdom invokes Capitalism 101: Consumer purchases account for about two-thirds of the U.S. economy; when consumers purchase at a steady and preferably incremental pace, stores empty out and order more stuff, bolstering their stock values; that fuels the assembly lines of vendors who ship the stuff to the stores, bolstering their stock values; ergo, buying stuff bolsters the lot of the American markets, the heart of which psychos bombed on Sept. 11. Consumption becomes not just defiance, but a counteroffensive.

In spite of all real indicators prior to Sept. 11, the pundits reassured consumers that everything was OK. A week and a half later, Greenspan went so far as to tell the Congress that the U.S., in the weeks preceding the attacks, had been showing signs of recovery, contradicting a “beige book� report issued by none other than the Federal Reserve.

Now, as the holidays approach, we can expect to see many splendid permutations of the CDFA/Vogue “Fashion for America� effort. The designer group's initiative will involve an ad campaign featuring the likes of comely actress Julianne Moore and model Gisele Budnchen, and appearances by the designers themselves, whose names appear on the back of the special edition T-shirts, at some of the 400 department stores that will carry the Ts. Nobly, the proceeds are supposed to go to the Twin Towers Fund.

“The best way to help is to heed the mayor's request about getting out to shop, and act as if we are living on Sept. 10,� Tommy Hilfiger told the media gathering in Bryant Park. In logical terms, however, things bog down there.

In spite of Hilfiger's undoubtedly luxe life, in spite of Greenspan's cut in the prime lending rate, in spite of the tax refund checks issued in August as evidence of Bush largess, a recession had roosted well before Sept. 11.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in the first six months of the year, companies laid off a total of 712,488 employees, up from 513,254 during the first half of 2000. Add that to the nearly 900,000 layoffs since Sept. 11, and you've got more than 1.5 million U.S. households separated from their income — or a substantial chunk of it, in relatively abrupt fashion.

Indeed, as late as Sept. 10, the Christian Science Monitor reported that in the second quarter of 2001: U.S. commercial banks wrote off $2.8 billion in credit card debt, up nearly 27 percent from the second quarter of 2001, per the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp; that Americans were paying 4.63 percent of mortgage payments more than 30 days overdue, up from 4.37 percent in the first quarter, per the Mortgage Bankers Association of America, and that Americans filed a record 400,394 bankruptcies, up 24.5 percent from the previous year, according to the American Bankruptcy Institute.

Right now, only 27 percent of Americans consider it a “good time to buy� items they want and need, according to a Roper Reports consumer confidence survey of 1,000 adults age 18 and over, conducted in mid-October, up from 22 percent from the week after the attack. Looking toward the holidays, Roper asked consumers what would “get them out to shop at stores,� and found the No. 1 response to be “discounts and sales and services of products� (63 percent), versus 42 percent who cited “promoting U.S.-made products� and 34 percent who said they would be influenced by percentages of sales going to “relief efforts.� This suggests that people are hunkering down, and that's quite understandable, says Jon Berry, Roper vice president. “Entering bankruptcy in the name of patriotism is not exactly an act of honor,� he says. (For more on confidence surveys, see Pulse, page 22.)

Some 26 percent of Americans plan to spend less on purchasing gifts this year, “a sizable chunk,� Berry says, “especially when you consider that that camp includes some pretty important segments. Thirty-three percent of women plan to spend less, and 30 percent of 45- to 59-year-olds plan to spend less.� Even among the less recession-wary, the $75,000-household-income category, 1 in 5 plan to spend less.

On Oct. 21, The New York Times even reported that, from a rough poll of credit-issued bank execs, Americans in recent months had begun curtailing credit card use for the first time in nearly a decade, beginning before Sept. 11 and slowing further thereafter.

Logic strains even more when one charges such a consumer base with emptying America's stores. As columnist Alexander Cockburn has pointed out, speciality and mass retailers not only virtually repaved suburbia in the past decade into gleaming, multi-brand strips, but built up their empires on soft ground.

“There are too many stores, and there have been for a long time,� affirms Wendy Liebmann, president of WSL Strategic Retail, a New York-based consulting firm. Compounding that, early research on a 2002 “How American Shops� report by WSL indicates that the big-brand retail glut has manifested in such a homogenous storescape that consumers are nearing a sort of critical mass on must-haves.

“It seems like, for six years, all we've done is buy a litany of stuff, from cars to computers to DVDs,� says Liebmann. “Even without any recession jitters, people don't really have a compelling need to run out and buy something. … In the short term, people might feel a bit better once they buy their sweater with a flag, or T-shirt with flag, or a flag, but that will not solve these fundamental retailing and marketing issues that have been looming for a long time.�

It's eerie to find ourselves called, as dutiful citizens, to live beyond our means. War footings past have prompted leaders to ask material sacrifices of We the People. But, as former labor secretary Robert Reich pointed out in his Sept. 23 syndicated column, this newly conceived “market patriotism suggests a strange kind of sacrifice: Continue the binge we've been on for years. … The reality is that Americans are in no position to do what's being asked of them.�

It is a “New War� indeed, when they also serve who get out and shop.

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