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Bauble Economy

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By Eugene Robinson
Tuesday, November 29, 2005

I have a confession to make: I didn't go shopping last weekend.

Neither bauble nor tchotchke did I purchase, neither widescreen nor Xbox, neither electric razor nor Lexus-with-a-bow-on-top. Can you ever forgive me? Is it too late to redeem myself? Or must I spend the rest of the year weighed down by this awful burden of macroeconomic guilt?

No, this isn't just another quixotic complaint about the commercialization of the Christmas season. That battle was lost long ago, probably the moment the three Magi reached into their saddlebags and pulled out those thoughtfully chosen presents. Matthew quotes Jesus as saying that "it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God," but that's never been interpreted so strictly that it rules out getting your kid the Sony PSP that he or she has been dreaming about.

So Christmas means shopping, and Christmas shopping means a heavy dose of microeconomic guilt. Do you buy the $400 Xbox, or skimp and go with the $300 model? Do you swing for the fences with the 60-gigabyte iPod, or decide the 30-gig will have to do? Max out the plastic on a plasma wide-screen with all the bells and whistles, or settle for a DLP set?

Those micro-level decisions I can deal with. But these days, I feel as if I also have to worry about whether I'm doing enough, macro economically speaking, to support the American economy. If I don't patriotically spend enough this Christmas, will I be responsible if the whole thing collapses?

Consumer spending represents two-thirds of the economy, and the frantic month between Thanksgiving and Christmas is prime time for retail sales -- for some merchants, up to one-quarter of their yearly total. It has penetrated the national consciousness that how well the nation's retailers do during the Christmas season is seen as a powerful indicator of America's economic health.

All weekend, there were breathless reports on the news: Huge crowds waiting for the stores to open on Friday! Disappointing sales at the end of the day, down 1 percent from last year! A big rebound over the weekend, with total sales up 22 percent from last year! But maybe only the big discount chains did well, and the specialty stores are quiet as a tomb. Or maybe it's just electronic goods that are selling like hotcakes, and everything else is gathering dust on the shelves. Or maybe not.

Each of us has to bear part of this burden, and I resent it. I almost feel that if I don't shop enough between now and Christmas, the children of merchants will go hungry -- but then I think about it, and I realize that whatever worries the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Sam Walton might have, caloric intake probably isn't one of them. I almost feel that if I don't whip out the credit cards fast enough, China will take over the world -- but then I remember that everything in the stores is made in China, which must mean that China is inevitably going to take over the world anyway. But maybe the Chinese will take over the world sooner if I don't shop.

Of course, the other reason the Chinese are taking over the world is that they have such a high savings rate. We Americans spend money as fast as we make it -- sometimes faster. The whole thing has the whiff of a giant Ponzi scheme. We spend our money so that the economy can create jobs so that we can be employed so that we have more money to spend. Some of the money leaks out to China, but the Chinese return the favor by financing our huge fiscal deficits, which is in their interest since China needs a healthy U.S. market to buy its goods. Round and round it goes, and everything is fine as long as nothing interrupts the flow.

As I said, this basically has nothing to do with the "real" spirit of the Christmas season. That's something every family and every individual must find within, and it has nothing to do with how big those credit card balances are a month from now.

No, this is about the economic spirit of Christmas, and who wants to be responsible for contributing to national decline? So, despite my shameful performance so far, I promise to go out and spend. And I'm going to try my very best to ignore the fact that the morning after Christmas, all that stuff will go on sale . Every last bit of it.

Let that be our little secret. Don't tell anybody, especially China.

eugenerobinson@washpost.com


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