24 Nov 2007

Black Friday, 9/11 and Your Kids

After 9/11, Bush made a speech laying out his thoughts about the attacks and anticipated responses. A number of things have not gone well since then (He mentions Iraq only to say that the War on Terror will not be as easy as the war in Iraq in 1991. Missed something there...), but one thing that was conspicuous in its presence was the famous "go back to the malls" image. He did not say that, literally. What he said was:
Americans are asking: What is expected of us? I ask you to live your lives, and hug your children. I know many citizens have fears tonight, and I ask you to be calm and resolute, even in the face of a continuing threat. [snip] I ask your continued participation and confidence in the American economy. Terrorists attacked a symbol of American prosperity. They did not touch its source. America is successful because of the hard work, and creativity, and enterprise of our people. These were the true strengths of our economy before September 11th, and they are our strengths today. [snip] We will come together to take active steps that strengthen America's economy, and put our people back to work.
There are many ways to interpret these words; many people interpreted them as "live as usual, have faith and let the government handle things". This idea, combined with our national obsession with economic growth, being the world's largest economy, etc. results in something quite sad, autistic even, in the face of what happened in 9/11.

Let's recap: Terrorists hijack planes, destroy the Twin Towers and kill thousands of people. We are to live life as usual -- because the government will take care of things.

Clearly we were wrong: The Government has not done a good job, and -- despite all evidence of failure and disapproval -- the Government continues to pursue that path. (A part of me wonders not just about Bush's sanity but also of the sanity of those who appear to think that the right faith is an adequate substitute for competence.)

It's time to reconsider our reactions. Some people have decided to challenge the Government's stupid idea about national security. Others have entered politics, deciding the business-as-usual was not adequate. Today, I am thinking of shaking the foundations of America even further: I am challenging our President's advice to "participate and strengthen America's economy." Let's understand what that means to us, and why it's more subversive to the Government than any protest, electoral challenge, etc.

What does it mean to us? Making and spending money keeps the economy going. If you spend, I have a job; if I spend you do. More importantly, the more productive I am with my time, the more stuff I can sell to you and yours. But what is the composition of the stuff that I produce and you buy? Do I make apple pies, big screen TVs, SUVs or abstract art? Big corporations make big, complicated things like TV shows, cars and gasoline. They depend on millions of consumers for sales and profits. Small, mom and pop operations make pies, art shows and live music. If we want to experience our neighbors, local creativity and the human spirit, I suggest that we buy from small operations.

On the production side, ask yourself where you put your time: do you work for a big widget company or yourself? Do you barter or do you pay taxes on a fat salary? Do you work 60-plus hours per week, or do you work 30 and spend more time with your family and friends? It's hard to move jobs, but I want to point out that there are different ways to earn and spend money.

More importantly, the exchange rate between money and time also differs. If I wash my car instead of taking it to a car-wash, I do not support the economy, because I do not buy the services of others with cash. If I take care of my kids instead of putting them into daycare, it's the same thing.

Economists note that economic production advances far more rapidly when I specialize in making widgets and use the money I earn to buy goods and services I no longer have time to do myself (car washing or baby care). This is true, but there are two other features to note: if I do it myself, I get a different quality outcome; second, if I do it myself, I do not contribute to the economy -- and that transaction is not taxed.

This is where it gets subversive: If we produce for ourselves or barter with others in the informal economy, we reduce the tax base for the government. Holding tax schedules equal, that reduces government revenue. If the government does not have money, it cannot waste it on the war on terror. ($1 trillion and counting...)

The reason the President asks "I ask your continued participation and confidence in the American economy" is because he needs tax revenue to pursue his plans. If we agree with his plans, that's fine. If we do not, we should change the way we participate in the American economy.

Those who lost faith in Government's ability to manage a post 9/11 world entered politics; they did not go on with business as usual. Those of us who cannot enter politics should change the way we participate in the economy, as both consumers and producers.

Black Friday usually means the day that companies pass from losses ("in the red") to profits ("in the black"). We should change the meaning of Black Friday to the day in which we decided to exit business as usual -- the day that we decided to move our economic power into actions that support ourselves, our families and our neighbors:

Instead of buying a big-screen TV, buy tickets to the local theatre company.
Instead of driving to the Mall, bake cookies with your kids.
Instead of subscribing to cable TV, read a (used) book or write one yourself.
Instead of working 60 hours, work 2/3s time and enjoy a simpler life.
Instead of buying a new suit, try to wear one out.

In short, we need to join the Church of Stop Shopping.

I realize that this sounds like the scribbles of a hippie graduate student with plenty of time and no obligations (and you're right). But ask yourself: What can I do today that makes my life better as a human? Where have I failed to enjoy myself, because I was busy being "calm and resolute"? It's only in the face of failure that we re-examine our choices, expectations and goals. It's clear to me that we, as Americans, have failed in our reaction to 9/11. Since you and I are not the government, and we are not politicians, the only thing we can do is change our lives.

Bottom Line: Concentrate on being humans, not consumers (or production machines). By doing so, we send an explicit message of priorities; the implicit penalty (smaller tax revenues) will strengthen that message by forcing politicians to fight over allocating a smaller pie. Stupid ideas will be the first to go.