‘Black Friday’ has become an important economic benchmark. We know in recent years that merchants and the media have used the day after Thanksgiving to refer to the beginning of the period in which retailers go from being in the red (i.e., posting a loss on the books) to being in the black (i.e., turning a profit). On a normal Black Friday, the focus is on both the strategy of merchants in offering items for sale and the willingness of consumers to spend their money on those items. The day is a little like Groundhog Day…the outcome of one day is used by prognosticators to see into the near future, projecting either a sunny or stormy economic outlook for the final month of a calendar year. But in 2009, Black Friday wasn’t normal…and we really need to talk together about what was different.
Black Friday in 2009 gave us a pretty clear picture of our national culture…we’re in deep economic denial. Hoping for a miracle, we looked to this unique indicator for signs that the Great Recession had hit rock-bottom. Many of the reports I saw tried to put on a happy face…don’t worry, it’s not as bad as we thought it would be. Interviews showed some happy consumers and some optimistic merchants, but the consumers mostly said they weren’t going to spend near as much this year and the merchants mostly said they couldn’t cut prices any deeper. We want to see the glass as ‘half-full’…that’s the way we are. But Black Friday numbers just verified what unemployment numbers…and unresolved public and private debt numbers…and foreclosure numbers…and currency valuation numbers all tell us: the economic methods we’ve trusted in the past were not sustainable…they’ve collapsed, and they cannot be revived.
We need to start talking with each other about what will replace our unsustainable, debt-dependent consumer culture. What are the foundational values we need to embrace for a stable future for the next generations? I really don’t think we’ll have much difficulty in identifying these values…as soon as we come to grips with reality. My suspicion is that we’ll keep trying to put off the inevitable and dreadfully painful acceptance that a completely new economic framework is needed. Maybe next quarter’s numbers will be slightly better. Maybe the next Black Friday will show that our current economic assumptions can still work for a while longer…until they’re someone else’s problem. It’s already too late to be ahead of this curve. Now we need to run like crazy to catch up with our economic, political and cultural reality.
In our hearts I think we know what issues we need to face honestly and candidly. More old-school jobs will disappear, but totally new kinds of jobs will emerge. More institutions will fail, but new forms of networking and collaboration will be created. Eventually entities that are ‘too big to fail’ today will have to be allowed to fail, but new economic support structures will be designed with integrated transparency and multi-jurisdictional accountability. These issues will continue to grow in urgency and complexity with continued neglect. We can wait for the next benchmark…or the next…or the next, but sooner or later we’ll be talking about foundational values we need to embrace so we might evolve into a more just, participatory and sustainable society.