All eyes are focused on U.S. consumers this holiday season, because businesses are sitting on the sidelines, awaiting the outcome of the "fiscal cliff" negotiations; and government spending is off the table, as debt and deficit reduction have taken center stage. Not to put too much pressure on consumers, but it is also likely that the areas affected by Sandy will need the rest of the country to pick up the slack, as the storm's recovery process continues. Retail sales fell in October by the steepest amount since June, hurt in part by the effects of Sandy.
An editorial in the Oregonian puts it more succinctly:
"[I]f you get caught in traffic Friday, remember it's for a good cause," writes the paper's editorial board. "The Black Friday shoppers are helping rebuild the economy one gift at a time."
Then again, do we really want to "rebuild" the economy, or just improve it? The economic system that collapsed in 2008 was held together in large part by consumer debt. Do we really want to bring that back?
And even a growing economy does not necessarily correlate with human happiness. Divorces, suicides, airline crashes, and oil spills increase the GDP just as reliably as the launch of a new iPhone.
That said, a lousy holiday shopping season spells real economic suffering for people, in the form of fewer job openings, reduced pay and hours, and stagnant pensions.
But does this fact make shoppers patriots? Are those who observe Buy Nothing Day acting against, as one CBS executive put it, "in opposition to current economic policy in the United States"? What is the extent, if any, of our moral obligation to buy stuff?