Black Friday's Flaming Shroud

Good to know that a $250 video game console is now considered one of “the essentials.” I understand that the point of the story is to note that Christmas shopping receipts are predicted to be down this year, and that there may be some subsequent effects on the economy. But this seems to me to be evidence of the best part of the Wal-Martization of U.S. retail: downward price trends on “luxury” goods making more and more previously unattainable items available to the middle classes. There may be reason to be suspicious of Wal-Mart’s claims to save the average family $2500 a year, but we’ve certainly seen a broad leveling out of retail purchasing patterns in recent years as consumer goods that would have once been luxury items have moved to the masses with great speed.

That said, the fact that so many luxury-type items (flat panel TVs, high end video game systems, etc.) are now considered by so many to be “essential” items may be somewhat dangerous in that it probably encourages irresponsible spending. — The Sude

Peter here is dead right. There are a few things extra-notable about this year’s Black Friday, which duly propped up its own desperately necessary myth that every year’s receipts bust bigger blocks than ever:

“Retailers knew they had to offer promotions enticing enough to get shoppers out of bed on a chilly day, and they delivered,” said Tracy Mullin, chief executive of the National Retail Federation.

Who knows what the hell the National Retail Federation is, or why it needs in the person of Tracy Mullin a chief executive. But leave that aside for now. Point one is that stores seemed, at least to my eye and ear, to push themselves near the breaking point in offering over-the-top bargains and opening hours. With the audacity of natural price cycles looming, marketers and advertisers had to devise last-ditch plans to eke out a win in the expectations game — that datum which somehow has a seemingly bigger impact on the fortunes of American capital at the Olympian heights in which its fate is cast than the actual or absent soundness of the household economies which are actually doing the buying.

Point two is, as Peter demonstrates, that our household economies are in a carefully stoked shambles. Black Friday lives and dies on the democratization of dumbass luxuries. Entertainment technology is now the exclusive motor of our national economic delusion. The chiefs and executives have devised no other way of getting such large numbers of Americans to spend thousands of dollars so regularly on such quickly evolving, and quickly obsolete, commodities.

But there’s bad news. How much better does the Average American need to do than a big-screen plasma TV that’s 25 times as wide as it is thick? What will all the people who crashed Best Buy for their Big Ticket Item buy next year? How will we compensate next time for the churn and burn required to keep the wheels spinning this time? How much harder will we need to whip those little bastards in Japan and on the West Coast? Better graphics! Lower overhead! Appeal to the aged! Make portable games vatos will play! Grand Theft Suburbia! Grand Theft Flint, Michigan! Grand Theft Happy Oaks Managed Care Community! How long can we keep up such a relentless pace of manufacturing niches while the economies of scale that make them possible are also destroying them all through crass exploitation and mass homogenization?

The ‘essentialism’ that Peter diagnosis is only irresponsible insofar as it squanders wealth that could be applied to future costs which will be fobbed off on the federal government and, thus, those smart enough to save. Yet the really frightful thing about it is the strain created by continually pushing forward and upward our concept of what’s essential. At some point, possibly soon, I think a lot of people will be glutted enough with goodies that the numbers will start to point away from leveraged consumption again. You really only need one plasma-screen TV in your life, no matter what the fat redhead guy on every consumer electronics commercial tells you. (Unless they’re designed to crap out, of course.) The logic of democratizing luxury features not just the practical hurdle of near-bankruptcy in the middle classes but the emotional hurdle of near-satiety. The anxiety of consumption, once arrayed with high-end entertainment, may push back downward into the cheap standbys: alcohol, tobacco, drugs. You keep a steady stream of content — increasingly free and cheap content designed to drive hardware acquisition — and self-medicate on the cheap, too. We’ll need to come up with some new set of trinkets enticing enough to keep the little man at his job. Since sex has gone open-source, with content free to all, what’s left?

Of course, there is another possibility: a savings rate worse than 1933’s, amid a glut of big-ticket essentials that last longer than they must to keep the economy powered, actually is an indefinitely sustainable, if somewhat high-risk, solution to the problems posed to social order by a plan of eternal expansion requiring ever-speedier financial transactions. I can’t rule out this possibility, and maybe the ugliest thing to contemplate in this post-coital economic atmosphere is the possibility that not even market failure can break our habit, or can only, like rehab, interrupt it long enough for us to indulge in it at length again.

Cross-posted at Postmodern Conservative.