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ON CALIFORNIA

And Visions of Upticks Danced . . .

November 28, 1993|PETER H. KING

SAN FRANCISCO — Christmas shopping in this city was once my favorite pastime. This was almost 20 years ago. I was in my early 20s, freshly arrived from Fresno. My income certainly wasn't large, but it was largely disposable, and so in the month before Christmas I'd roam the retail palaces that surround Union Square and shop like a maniac. I'd shop Macy's. I'd shop Gump's. I'd shop Eddie Bauer's. I'd shop them all.

It was great fun. I can still remember the crisp nights, and how pretty the city seemed, lit up like one giant Christmas tree. I was full of spirit; most years I'd go with a buddy, and we had developed a system--buy a gift, get a drink. We'd hit a store, make a purchase, and then head to the nearest tavern for our reward. This procedure lent new meaning to the old battle cry "Shop 'til You Drop." It also meant waking up the next day with Irish-coffee breath and loads of strange, dimly remembered purchases.

And so went youth. Today, Christmas shopping is a more sober experience. In my prime as a surrogate Santa, I never heard much discussion of Christmas presents as crucial cogs in the economic engine. Maybe I am simply paying closer attention now. More likely, it is the lousy economy. We need Christmas now like never before. And what was once a lark, a rush of consumerism in the spirit of Yule, now is saddled with a great weight, the stuff of economic science.

*

The Christmas economists emerge in the media just before Thanksgiving. Typically, these pre-Christmas reports will carry a rundown of conflicting forecasts from academicians, marketing experts, pollsters, shopkeepers and randomly selected consumers. All sorts of indexes are trotted out to buttress holiday spending predictions, everything from long-term weather forecasts to wrapping-paper sales. Newsweek brings word just this week that corrugated box orders rose 10% in October. This is seen as a highly favorable sign.

All of this is fine to a point. Certainly, retail is a huge slice of the economic pie, and a large proportion of consumer purchases comes during the Christmas countdown. What seems different now, off-key, is the general tone of the exercise. We are in something like the fifth year of a lackluster economy, and quotations from economists now often convey a sense of desperate hope: Maybe this Christmas will be the Christmas that at last turns things around.

Once the season opens we receive almost daily reports back from the malls. Shoppers are watched like specimens. Are they buying, or just looking? And what does it mean for Clinton's reelection chances? Extreme extrapolations are made. To listen to the economists is to believe that, somehow, that extra Madeline doll you buy for your daughter can save an aerospace worker's job.

Many of the economists become cheerleaders. You hear them on the radio talk shows, telling listeners that, when all was said, the best thing they can do for the economy is "go out there and shop!" This is especially true in California, where we have been told--and told, and told, and told--that economic recovery is essential to the economy of the entire nation.

The whole business is captured nicely in this bit of Christmas prognostication, gleaned from a press release based on a national poll: "Consumers . . . are not planning to scrimp, which is good news for two reasons. It means that the important retail sector will get a much-needed boost. Just as important, it signals that the American public has a fundamental optimism about the future. Because consumer spending is vital to the health of our economy, that's a welcome indicator that the worst may be over."

*

Now much of this might be dismissed as good old-fashioned hyperbole. Conversely, it also might be true that we are evolving economically toward a day when prosperity depends on how many electric razors and goose-down vests go out the door between Turkey Day and Dec. 25. If so, I imagine it will raise, for some people, troublesome economic and social questions about the kind of place we've become. And certainly, the emergence of Christmas as a leading economic indicator can't sit well for those hopeless romantics and puritans who long have deplored the holiday's "commercialization."

To such worrywarts and grinches, we say this: Give it a rest. Go out and shop 'til you drop. Do your part. Now is not the time to raise your nettlesome questions about societal priorities, to quote from the Book of John, to lament the loss of a day's "true meaning." Such talk used to be tolerable, but we're way beyond that now. The stakes are too high.

After all, it's Christmas.

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