Sunday, November 30, 2008

Blackened Friday

Random musings in the wake of Black Friday:

I saw a new commercial yesterday. Since the auto bailout is apparently stalled in Congress, GM is taking matters into its own hands: it’s trying to get a federally-insured bailout from the American people by making itself a bank. The “GMAC Bank” is advertising 4.5 percent interest on its savings accounts--and the ad adds that “your money is safe” because the deposits are insured by the FDIC.

Shortly after seeing the commercial aired, I saw the story on Headline News about a 34-year-old seasonal employee who was trampled to death at the 5 a.m. Black Friday opening of a Wal-Mart store on Long Island. This being America in 2008, there were soon videos of the event up on YouTube. Shoppers outside the store were shrieking--not with horror, but with laughter--as the store’s glass doors caved in.

The police closed down the store, but it reopened three hours later. Wal-Mart’s brief official statement on the “incident” contained an 11-word expression of condolence to the victim’s family buried in CYA language. The entire statement reads:

“We expected a large crowd this morning and added additional internal security, additional third party security, additional store associates and we worked closely with the Nassau County Police. We also erected barricades. Despite all of our precautions, this unfortunate event occurred.

"Our thoughts and prayers go out to the family of the deceased. We are continuing to work closely with local law enforcement and we are reaching out to those involved."

Jdimytai D’amour wasn’t the only victim of Black Friday. An 8-months pregnant woman in the same crowd was knocked down and reportedly suffered a miscarriage. Across the country, in Palm Desert, California, gunfire erupted at a Toys’R’Us, reportedly after shoppers got into an argument. Two died.

I hope that Nassau County prosecutes Wal-Mart for inciting a riot. But corporate greed isn’t all to blame for the death of D’amour and the other Black Friday victims, just as corporate greed isn’t the only cause of GM’s problems, or AIG’s, or Lehman Brothers'. GM sold SUVs because millions of Americans decided they needed one (or two, or three), even though most of them had no need whatsoever to go off-road. Millions of people who should have known better bought homes with cheap, risky mortgages. Millions and millions of people bought stuff with credit cards when they shouldn’t have. And hundreds of millions flock to Wal-Mart, even though its mass-marketing strategy relies on selling the most goods with the fewest employees possible, putting thousands of local retail stores out of business and sapping money from local economies. This isn’t just corporate greed. It’s across-the-board American Greed.

And World Greed, for that matter. Toyota, Honda, Subaru, Mazda, Nissan, Volkswagon and Hyundai also happily jumped on the SUV bandwagon, though people don’t seem to notice that. China eagerly banked on American greed to hyper-energize its own economy, even as its factories took away Americans’ ability to pay for their spending spree.

Now, instead of cars and soap and other goods, American commercials are dominated by ads for insurance and credit cards and stockbrokers and America’s chief product is imaginary money.

Maybe greed is not that good, Michael Douglas movie clips notwithstanding. Maybe thrift is an even better strategy. If we got back to real money and got our greed in check, it wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing.

Once the speculative frenzy dried up, gas prices suddenly became affordable again. Maybe we shouldn’t buy an SUV or a home if we can’t afford it. Maybe houses will become affordable to more people, if builders aren’t driven by speculation. Maybe somebody will start building cars that don’t cost a year’s wages. Maybe someone will even start offering bus service again. A bus is an even bigger-ticket item than an SUV; GM should make a nice profit on them.

There’s a final irony in Black Friday. If greed drives the American economy, why does the American economy need Christmas? After all, those crowds in the stores aren’t supposed to be buying for themselves; they’re buying for their family and friends.

It would be ironic, indeed, if those shoppers who trampled Jdimytai D’amour’s body did it not out of greed, but out of generosity.