Buying as Patriotic Duty

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One evil act has spawned a million acts of kindness. But here in Washington it has spawned a hundred acts of greed as well. Lobbyists for planes, trains and automobiles, fast food, hotels and real estate have swarmed over the Capitol seeking a piece of the $75 billion stimulus package. Those with the best chance of scoring are those with the best chance of jogging consumer spending. The President favors consuming our way out of this slump as well, urging us to "go to Disney World" and eat high on the hog, as he did for the cameras at Morton's steak house. "What can you do to help in this crisis?" Mayor Rudy Giuliani asked, with lower Manhattan smoldering in the background. His answer: "Spend, spend, spend."

That wasn't crass; it was right. Shopping, traveling, gambling (Las Vegas has been losing $30 million a day in revenues) and dining out make perfect Keynesian sense. It's not surprising then that lobbyists are wrapping the flag around breaks for their sector. Last week the "hospitality" industry, billing itself as "the poster child of the consumer retrenchment post-Sept. 11," was busy trying to revive the full deduction for business meals. Slashed by tax reformers in 1986 as a subsidy to the professional classes to eat large at public expense, the 100% deduction is now just the boost an economy at war needs.

The Greatest Generation got to save old tires, dig a Victory Garden and forgo sugar. The Richest Generation is being asked to shop.

While that effort is easy to caricature, it's hard to refute. The President's first job may be to send troops to capture Osama bin Laden, but his second — if we're not all going to find ourselves up the economic creek — is to send vacationers to Florida and diners to three-star restaurants.

But boy, does it strike a sour note. In the aftermath of one awful moment, we've finally come to understand what our parents meant by a cause larger than ourselves. We're hungry for a way to help the war effort, honor the dead and help the survivors. We're not shunning the perfect marbled steak at Morton's for want of a tax break but because it feels wrong with planes being shot at in Afghanistan.

The fact is there's going to be no grand mobilization for which we can sacrifice. It's not our parents' war, with its visible monsters, quantifiable victories and necessary sacrifices. The Greatest Generation got to save old tires, dig a Victory Garden and forgo sugar. The Richest Generation is being asked to shop. Last week Republican Senator Jon Kyl proposed a "Travel America" tax credit to encourage us to check in to the Bellagio or go lie on the beach.

The irony of this strange war is that just as we see the limits of what money can buy, buying becomes our patriotic duty. Perhaps we'd need to buy less if we could learn to accept less upward mobility and slower growth. In the meantime, we'll have to feel our way to being a Better Generation. With the collapse of the World Trade Center, the curtain closed on the decade of wretched excess heralded when Wall Street's Gordon Gekko proclaimed, "Greed is good." When a plea went out on Sept. 12 that the rescue workers needed socks, thousands of pairs flooded Ground Zero. Word came to send money instead. The money poured in, but the socks kept coming. The task in this new decade is to find a place for the socks we have to give.