'Tis the Season of Frugal Chic

ELLEN GOODMAN

December 06, 1991|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON. — Boston -- Until now, I had never regarded Christmas as a patriotic event. I associate the flags, the salutes, the pledges of allegiance with the Fourth of July, not the Twenty-Fifth of December.

But ever since this Christmas shopping season opened, over the dead bodies of millions of Thanksgiving turkeys, the tune I keep hearing in my head isn't ''Jingle Bells'' but ''My Country 'Tis of Thee.''

Politicians and their henchmen, the economists, are cheerleading us through the shopping days, as if we were buying war bonds instead of bangles. The lords of leading indicators insist that only consumer confidence will lead us, Rudolph-style, out of the fog of recession. They are tracking the daily retail tills like sleigh marks on the roof.

There is the implication that anyone who truly loves her country and wants it to recover from this recession will contribute this holiday season to the hundred neediest malls. We're all supposed to be buying: not just for Aunt Evelyn but for Uncle Sam.

I find this dreaming of a Patriotic Christmas more than a little bizarre. It's as if the economists came up with a '90s variation on an '80s T-shirt: When the economy gets tough, the tough should go shopping.

The theory, such as it is, goes like this. Consumers account for about two-thirds of the spending in the economy. About half of the gross profits for most retailers at your neighborhood stores come in Christmas receipts. If we buy, then manufacturers hire people to make things. These workers get money to buy other things and it's jingle bells all around.

The problem with the theory is that you need money to make it all work.

Real Americans are suffering from a bad case of New Year's nerves. There are more than 8 million unemployed, 23 million on food stamps, millions more working in McJobs, and a critical mass wondering if and when they'll be out of their current sheltered workshop. One-half of all Americans expect unemployment to grow.

Even the president who was telling us in November that it was a great time to buy a house seems to have wised up. He was seen shopping at J.C. Penney over the weekend, buying socks. And that man makes $200,000 a year.

Ten years ago, the politicians told us money would trickle down. Instead it trickled away. It's no wonder we're getting a bit more tight-fisted.

My own modest, personal and thoroughly unscientific poll has turned up the same Yule results as the statisticians. The presents are going to be practical and price-conscious. Last year's cashmere is this year's denim. Last year's string of pearls is this year's popcorn stringing.

There's a bit of Frugal Chic in this Seasonal Affect Disorder. The ever trend-watchful Faith Popcorn, who labeled cocooning in the '80s, has proclaimed the End of Shopping and the Beginning of Burrowing. But what's going is more easily understood as the beginning of the end of endless borrowing.

Call it un-American if you want, but some sense of the future has set in among the buy-now-pay-later population. In part this is due to the baby boom's little echoes. Children focus the mind wonderfully on Christmas future. It's also due to debt.

In the last decade we almost tripled credit-card debt to $229 billion. That may seem modest compared to the national debt of some $3.7 trillion -- until you realize we owe that too. Is it any wonder we look skeptically at an economist talking about the economy as Tinkerbell: Clap if You Believe in America -- clap your Visa card against your credit limit.

Is there a consumer crisis of confidence? Sure. Why should we be confident in a government whose major economic proposal of the week was a presidential promise that, ''We're not going to do anything dumb.'' Swell. By keeping down with the Joneses we're way ahead of the Bushes. The administration's sense of the future is as long as a fiscal quarter.

The economy will drop unless you shop? Show your stars and stripes by spending? The beleaguered consumer isn't going to bail out the economy by going deeper into debt. Christmas isn't an economic policy and consuming isn't a non-profit charity.

If this is a more sober season, well, it's easier to keep your eye on the highway and the horizon. Deck the halls with boughs of bills. Mark them paid. Tra la la la la.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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