reasoned thought for an age of uncertainty
With Thanksgiving come and past, the shopping season is officially in full swing, and what a kickoff it got with Black Friday violence, including near-riots over waffle-makers at a Wal-Mart in Arkansas, a 2am shooting outside another Wal-Mart in Oakland, and one sad incident in which a California shopper pepper-sprayed fellow video-game shoppers (again, at Wal-Mart) in order to gain a competitive advantage during the early morning sale frenzy.
Well, I guess if there is one thing as American as shopping, it is bloodthirsty competition.
I too went shopping this Black Friday with my brothers, as we always do, though we didn’t assault anyone (well, short of maybe a slow walker in the way here or there). What stuck me most this year about the whole experience is that the big “Day-After-Thanksgiving” sale seems to keep happening before I get there. While most stores place sale signs strategically throughout their shelves, this is generally for a couple of uninspired sale items sprinkled amidst the rest of their regular-priced retail. Maybe I am just not an early enough riser for sales, or my competitive shopping instinct is just not sharp enough. But my choices were either to buy junk for cheap, or designer goods for top dollar. Could it be that even shopping sales now reflect the increasingly polarized nature of American society?
It seemed like there was simply no middle of the market anymore. That is, unless of course, you are willing to camp outside of Best Buy at 1am to snatch up a 42-inch LCD TV for $200. If you were one of those shoppers willing to brave the elements to get that first grab at the few Black Friday sale items, you just might have had the luxury to enjoy what real purchasing power feels like (either that or what Black Friday violence feels like). As I contemplated this, I wondered, could these Americans, weathering the night with their sleeping bags and coffees, their credit cards at ready, be the consumer equivalent of the Occupy Wall Street crowd?
The parallel seemed even stronger in light of the pepper-spray incident in Los Angeles. Individuals do draw cues about violence and what is acceptable behavior from authority figures. After all the police abuses of pepper spray that have occurred over the past few months at Occupy Wall Street protests, is it any wonder then that an individual took it upon herself to fend off crowds with her personal mace? (And just in case you doubt the logic, she wasn’t the only one misusing pepper-spray on Black Friday–the police also maced shoppers in North Carolina at, you guessed it, Wal-Mart).
I suppose, for some individuals, being able to afford a waffle-maker or an X-Box could be well-worth the risk of arrest for elbowing another person in the gut or blasting them with pepper-spray. How else to protect the low-priced supply? Wealth is, after all, a comparative concept. Not everyone can be wealthy.
Positions of wealth and power in society are rare, and those lucky enough to have attained positions of wealth and power must fend off encroachment by the masses in order to protect those positions. In order for a small number of individuals to earn millions, millions must earn a very small number, just as in order for a few individuals to receive a $2 waffle-maker means that thousands will get no waffle-maker. And as we have learned, that seems to mean someone will be spending the night in a sleeping bag in the parking lot, and someone will get pepper-sprayed (and that person will certainly not be the person who emerges from the ruckus with the $2 waffle-maker).
How did we get to this position, where people are willing to trample each other for a marginal advantage? Have we given up on our collective purpose? One of the great aspects of being human is that we can be formed as much by our environment as by any innate abilities. Our choices as individuals and our choices as a society define our character as human beings. But rather than forge a common existence, we have opted for the struggle, where predator feasts on prey, and where attainment of wealth and comfort requires that others suffer in squalor.
American financial culture is an animalistic one, in which we must compete in order to survive. And we have chosen this path. We have chosen it by denigrating our self-government as a foreign body (it is in fact our community, for better or worse, and it always will be), by complaining about the taxes we pay, and by reducing all meaningful exchange in society to “the market.” As we do so, the market becomes more and more a reflection of our character as a nation. What will that reflection be? One where goods are either incredibly expensive or mass-produced junk with the appearance of quality but lacking quality, functionality? What does that say about us?
So while I may have missed the sales and the violence this Black Friday, I left at least with a snapshot of where we are headed. And, as I headed for the door with a full wallet and an empty shopping bag, one item caught my eye just before I could reach the exit. A tie. That’s all I bought. And it cost me a hundred dollars. That’s a whole lot of waffle-makers.