Black Friday

So I majored in religious studies and have spent a fair bit of time in church, which may color my thinking, but am I alone in thinking that Black Friday is clearly a religious observance?

(I mean, obviously it’s a totally secular event and has nothing to do with God or gods or anything*. I mean religious in the sense that a religion at its core is just a worldview/orientation/value set and the traditions/rituals/practices that help codify and express that worldview.)

I would argue that all these people standing in line aren’t really there to save money. (Like, standing in line at Best Buy for four hours to save $20 on a TV is almost never an economically rational decision.)

They’re standing in line to be part of something. And the something is consumer spending, the foundational idea of (and driving force behind) America’s relative economic health. And because we associate economic health so closely with community health, Black Friday is a way of both giving thanks and making an offering.

In the end, I would argue the rituals surrounding Black Friday–combing through emails and advertisements for coupons, waking up before dawn, communing with strangers in large indoor public spaces (Target, Wal-Mart, etc.)–aren’t just similar to religious rituals. I would argue that they are religious rituals, just ones played out in a secular world.

As David Foster Wallace noted in his famous commencement address at my alma mater Kenyon College, “There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.”

(For the record, I don’t find this particularly sad or tragic or anything. I just find it really interesting.)


* But then again, many religious traditions have little or nothing to do with God or gods.

Why Customers are Disappearing, Why Higher Unemployment Is the Likely Result, and Why Many in Washington Don't Have Half A Brain

Can we just put aside ideology for one minute and agree that businesses hire more workers if they have more customers, and fire workers if they have fewer customers?

There are two big categories of customer: One is comprised of individual consumers. The other is government.

We tend to think of the government as a direct employer – of teachers, fire fighters, civil servants.

But government is also a major customer of the private sector. It buys school supplies, pharmaceuticals, military equipment, computers. It hires private companies to build roads and bridges, dredge ports, manage data.

One out of every five Americans works for a company whose customer is the government.  

Here’s the problem: Both categories of customer are buying less.  

Individual consumers are buying less because they have less take-home pay. Their wages are dropping (the median wage is 8 percent below what it was in 2000, adjusted for inflation). And their taxes have gone up. The expiration of the Social Security payroll tax cut will shrink the typical paycheck by more than $1,000 this year.

Less take-home pay is causing 45.7 percent of consumers to pull in their belts, according to a survey released Thursday by the National Retail Federation. A quarter of consumers are putting off big-ticket purchases. A third are cutting back on eating out. A fifth are spending less on groceries.

This is why January’s retail sales rose at their smallest rate in three months.

What about the other big customer – government? It used to be that when consumers spent less, government stepped into the breach and spent more in order to keep people employed. That’s what we were supposed to have learned from the Great Depression.

No longer. Government is cutting back, too. Deficit hawks and government-haters are insisting on it.

Last year, President Obama agreed to $1.5 trillion of spending cuts, which have already begun.

Unless Republicans and Democrats reach a budget agreement before next Friday, another $85 billion of spending cuts go into effect this year. They’ll begin almost immediately. 

With consumers and government both spending less, businesses won’t hire more workers; they’ll fire more workers. That’s likely to happen in coming months.

Anyone with half a brain should be able to understand all this. But apparently many in Washington don’t have half a brain.

It’s difficult to understand why food inflation would cause riots in Egypt … until you realize Egyptians spend 40% of their earnings on food. It’s hard to believe a housing bubble and high energy prices could take down the U.S. economy … until you realize that Americans spend half our paychecks on housing and transportation. Consumer spending maps tell us more than how we spend. They reveal the DNA of an economy.
The Big Stall

Bad news on the economy. It added only 88,000 jobs in March – the slowest pace of job growth in nine months.

While the jobless rate fell to 7.6 percent, much of the drop was due to the labor force shrinking by almost a half million people. If you’re not looking for work, you’re not counted as unemployed.

 That means the percentage of working-age Americans either with a job or looking for one dropped to 63.3 percent – its lowest level since 1979.

 The direction isn’t encouraging. The pace of job growth this year is slower than its pace last year.

What’s going on? The simple fact is companies won’t hire if consumers aren’t buying enough to justify the new hires. And consumers don’t have enough money, or credit, or confidence to buy enough.

It’s likely Americans are beginning to feel the pinches of January’s hike in the payroll tax combined with the government budget cuts known as the sequester. Increases in gas prices haven’t helped. All are taking money out of the pockets of most people – whose job situation remains precarious. So they can’t and won’t buy much.

One indicator: Retailers cut their staffs in March – by 24,100.

Yes, the stock market has rebounded. But only a small portion of Americans are affected by the rebound. The richest 1 percent own 35 percent of all shares of stock; the richest 10 percent own 90 percent.

And, yes, housing prices have stopped falling, and construction of new homes has picked up. The construction sector added 18,000 jobs in March.

But the turnaround in housing isn’t because prospective homeowners have been able to get new mortgages. It’s because investors are buying or building homes to rent. And a buoyant rental market doesn’t make most people feel wealthier.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of all this is that we’re in the fifth year of a supposed economic recovery from the second-worst economic downturn of the past century, and we’re still not nearly back on track. Instead, we’ve had the most anemic recovery in history.

A Gallup survey released Thursday showed that the percentage of Americans holding full-time jobs has remained essentially unchanged over the past year. With 12 million people out of work and another 8 million holding part-time jobs who’d rather have full-time ones, this just isn’t nearly good enough.

We’re experiencing the burden of austerity economics and the continued scourge of widening inequality. Both are squeezing average Americans. Yet it’s impossible to have a buoyant and sustained recovery without a large and growing middle class.


What's Your Consumer Label?

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(credit: Marketplace)

Labels: not just for food anymore. Companies have to organize their customers somehow - otherwise they’d be marketing denture cream to 8-year-olds and tampons to middle-aged men. Are you a High Rise Renter? Part of Main Street USA? Live in a college dorm? There’s a label for that.

How do they do it? Well they used to just make their best guess about who was watching a given channel at a given hour (guess who was watching Oprah at 4pm every day?) and tailor their advertising appropriately. But now marketers have all sorts of information about us. From online profiles to credit card transactions to Google searches and Foursquare check-ins, everyone with some kind of connection to the outside world is pretty much leaving a trail of data every where they go.

So - surprise! - a huge industry has sprung up to collect and analyze this data (called “data mining”) and sell it to the companies that want to sell you stuff. You can read all about it here, and “identify your lifestyle category" here.

Spending on Fat Tuesday and Ash Wednesday.

By Lisa Wade, PhD

Today is the first day of the Christian season of Lent, a period of voluntary self-denial that is the excuse for the indulgence of Mardi Gras. Last year a credit card processing company traced spending in New Orleans on both Fat Tuesday and Ash Wednesday. They found a spike in the days leading up to the big day (below) and then a crash the day after.

According to Mark Waller at

…people spent 30 percent more at restaurants in the weekend before Mardi Gras than they did in an average of the four previous weekends…

What were they buying? Indulgences: “duck fat fries, king cake burgers, and crab and crawfish mac and cheese.” Mmmmm. The week before they’d mostly bought lattes.


…restaurant, retail shops and other merchants logged about half the business on Ash Wednesday compared with the Wednesday before.

What was the most popular food item that day? Soda.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Economic Storm Clouds Ahead

Economic forecasters exist to make astrologers look good. But the recent jubilance is enough to make even weather forecasters blush. “Just look at the bull market! Look at home prices! Look at consumer confidence!”


I can understand the jubilation in the narrow sense that we’ve been down so long everything looks up. Plus, professional economists tend to cheerlead because they believe that if consumers and businesses think the future will be great, they’ll buy and invest more – leading to a self-fulfilling prophesy.

But prophesies can’t be self-fulfilling if they’re based on wishful thinking.

The reality is we’re still in the doldrums, and the most recent data gives cause for serious worry.

Almost all the forward movement in the economy is now coming from consumers –  whose spending is 70 percent of economic activity. But wages are still going nowhere, which means consumer spending will slow because consumers just don’t have the money to spend. 

On Thursday the Commerce Department reported that consumer spending rose 3.4 percent in the first quarter of this year. But the personal savings rate dropped to 2.3 percent – from 5.3 percent in the last quarter of 2012. That’s the lowest level of savings since before the Great Recession. You don’t have to be an economic forecaster, or an astrologer, to see this can’t go on.

Yes, home prices are rising. The problem is, they’re beginning to rise above their long-run historical average. (Before the housing crash they were were way, way above the long-run average.) So watch your wallets. We’ve been here before: The Fed is keeping interest rates artificially low, allowing consumers to get low home-equity loans and to borrow against the rising values of their homes. Needless to say, this trend, too, is unsustainable.

What about the stock market? It’s time we stopped assuming that a rising stock market leads to widespread prosperity. Over 90 percent of the value of the stock market – including 401(k)s and IRAs – is held by the wealthiest 10 percent of the population.

Moreover, the main reason stock prices have risen is corporate profits have soared. But that’s largely because corporations have slashed their payrolls and keep them low. Which brings us full circle, back to the fundamental fact that wages that are going nowhere for most people.

Not even fat corporate profits are sustainable if American consumers don’t have enough money in their pockets. Exports can’t make up for the shortfall, given the rotten shape Europe is in and the slowdown in Asia.

So don’t expect those profits to continue. In fact, the new Commerce Department report shows that corporate profits shrank in the first quarter, reversing some of the gains in the second half of 2012.

And, by the way, the full effect of the cuts in government spending hasn’t even been felt yet. The sequester is going to be a large fiscal drag starting next month.  

Look, I don’t want to rain on the parade. But any self-respecting weather forecaster would warn you to zipper up and take an umbrella. Don’t be swayed by all the sunny talk. There are too many storm clouds ahead.
Black Buying Power Nears $1.1 Trillion

According to the report, consumer trends include:

• With a buying power of nearly $1 trillion annually, if Blacks were a country, they’d be the 16th largest country in the world.

• The number of Black households earning $75,000 or higher grew by almost 64 percent, a rate close to 12 percent greater than the change in the overall population’s earning between 2000 and 2009. This continued growth in affluence, social influence and household income will continue to impact the community’s economic power.

• Blacks make more shopping trips than all other groups, but spend less money per trip. Blacks in higher income brackets, also spend 300 percent more in higher end retail grocers more than any other high income household.

• There were 23.9 million active Black Internet users in July 2011—76 percent of whom visited a social networking/blog site.

• Thirty-three percent of all Blacks own a smart phone.

• Black Americans use more than double the amount of mobile phone voice minutes compared to Whites—1,298 minutes a month vs. 606.

• The percentage of Blacks attending college or earning a degree has increased to 44 percent for men and 53 percent for women.
Shopping up a storm: How the Weather Channel predicts what you want to buy

The companys data helps fine-tune when and where advertisers should place their spots.

How many of you noticed last fall when the Weather Channel Cos. renamed under the brand “Weather Co.”? According to the Wall Street Journal, the name change reflects a shift in the company’s focus from just being about weather forecasting, to using all that weather-related digital data to start forecasting broader consumer behavior. That’s right: based on where and how often people check the weather, our friends at The Weather Channel can also tell us when we’re likely to buy snacks, water, haircare products, bug spray, furniture and more—and they’re using that information to help advertisers fine-tune their campaigns. 

Wandering Away from the Mall of America

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(photo credit: Eridony)

Big American corporations are starting to pump up their spending… in emerging markets such as China and Brazil.

But… aren’t companies in the U.S. economy writhing in pain and gasping for air right now? Exactly. That’s why they’re diversifying by moving into other economies - cutting jobs here and opening offices elsewhere. The future doesn’t look too bright for American consumer spending, but it’s looking quite sunny in parts of Asia and South America.

And it turns out that these companies have loads of cash parked outside our borders. It costs them a lot of money (i.e., they have to pay taxes) to bring their overseas profits back to the U.S., so many companies are already positioned to make big investments in countries like India and China.

We’re all for portfolio diversification here at TILE, but will this kind of diversification help or hurt the economy? What do you think?

Is Obama Being Rated Fairly?

According to the Wall Street Journal America’s economy is growing at its fastest rate in 10 years.

Consumer borrowing is on the rise.  Consumers are cautious but they are spending.  Personal spending is up 2%.  New home sales are also on the rise.

Now, this news brings me to one question: Why is the U.S. Commander- In-Chief being portrayed as a villain and republicans are seen as heroes when they block and stand against everything Obama tries to do?  Am I missing something here?  I mean, the American people love all these things reported by the WSJ and even more: lower gas prices, the lowest in 15 years.

Should the republicans go on to take over the White House, as they’ve done on everything else, I think the inevitable collapse of this country will be much deserved.
Why fast fashion is slow death for the planet
With high-street chains churning out fresh designs every few weeks, we now buy more cheap clothes than ever before. But as Lucy Siegle reveals in her hard-hitting new book To Die For, it's a trend that will cost us far more than we imagine
By Lucy Siegle

The Guardian article - this was so interesting!

Why We Spend, Why They Save

By Sheldon Garon, NY Times, November 24, 2011
Christmas is nearly upon us. Americans, once again, are told that it’s our civic duty to shop. The economy demands increased consumer spending. The problem is that millions of lower- and middle-income households have lost their capacity to spend. They lack savings and are mired in debt. Although it would be helpful if affluent households spent more, we shouldn’t be calling upon a struggling majority to do so. In the long run, the health of the economy depends on the financial stability of our households.

What might we learn from societies that promote a more balanced approach to saving and spending? Few Americans appreciate that the prosperous economies of western and northern Europe are among the world’s greatest savers. Over the past three decades, Germany, France, Austria and Belgium have maintained household saving rates between 10 and 13 percent, and rates in Sweden recently soared to 13 percent. By contrast, saving rates in the United States dropped to nearly zero by 2005; they rose above 5 percent after the 2008 crisis but have recently fallen below 4 percent.

Unlike the United States, the thrifty societies of Europe have long histories of encouraging the broad populace to save. During the 19th century, European reformers and governments became preoccupied with creating prudent citizens. Civic groups founded hundreds of savings banks that enabled the masses to save by accepting small deposits. Central governments established accessible postal savings banks, whereby small savers could bank at any post office. To inculcate thrifty habits in the young, governments also instituted school savings banks. During the two world wars, citizens everywhere were bombarded with messages to save. Savings campaigns continued long after 1945 in Europe and Japan to finance reconstruction.

All this fostered cultures of saving that endure today in many advanced economies. The French government attracts millions of lower-income and young savers with its Livret A account available at savings banks, postal savings banks and all other banks. This small savers’ account is tax free, requires only a tiny minimum balance, and commonly pays above-market interest rates. In German cities, one cannot turn the corner without coming upon one of the immensely popular savings banks, called Sparkassen. Legally charged with encouraging the “savings mentality,” these banks offer no-fee accounts for the young and sponsor financial education in the schools.

Supported by public opinion, policy makers in European countries have also restrained the expansion of consumer and housing credit, lest citizens become “overindebted.” Home equity loans are rare in Germany, and Belgians, Italians and Germans are rarely offered an American-style credit card that allows the user to carry an unpaid balance.

How did America arrive at its widely divergent approach to saving and consumption? Seldom over the past two centuries has the federal government promoted saving; it left matters to the states or the market. In the 19th century, savings banks and building and loan associations did thrive in the Northeastern and Midwestern states; where they existed, working people saved at high rates. However, the vast majority of Americans in the Southern and Western states lacked access to any savings institution as late as 1910. Most Americans became regular savers only after the federal government decisively intervened to institute the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation in 1934 and mass-market United States savings bonds in World War II.

The United States emerged from the war with unparalleled prosperity and hardly needed further savings campaigns. Instead politicians, businessmen and labor leaders all promoted consumption as the new driver of economic growth. Rather than democratize saving, the American system rapidly democratized credit. An array of federal housing and tax policies enabled Americans to borrow to buy homes and products as no other people could.

But from the 1980s, financial deregulation and new tax legislation spurred the growth of credit cards, home equity loans, subprime mortgages and predatory lending. Soaring home prices emboldened the financial industry to make housing and consumer loans that many Americans could no longer repay. Still, Americans wondered, why save when it is so easy to borrow? Only after housing prices collapsed in 2008 did they discover that wealth on paper is not the same as money in the bank.

To improve the balance sheets of America’s households, we must approach saving in a more forthright manner–not an easy thing to do when again and again we hear that individual prudence acts to impair the economy.

Sheldon Garon, a professor of history and East Asian studies at Princeton, is the author of “Beyond Our Means: Why America Spends While the World Saves.”