[an error occurred while processing this directive] Of course there is a perfectly reasonable logic to all of this. Even before the Sept. 11 attack, America was heading in to a recession, if not already there. With the markets declining, capital spending stalled, and other major economies in trouble as well, U.S. consumer spending (which accounts for 2/3 of GDP) was the only thing preventing a rapid spiral downward.
What might be good collectively for the economy, however, could be disastrous for individual families. The average American was already carrying an unsustainable amount of debt even before the attack on the World Trade Center. Both personal debt and corporate debt have doubled since the 1950s, credit card debt still hovers around all time highs and bankruptcies have been soaring. With close to one million jobs lost this year before Sept. 11, consumer spending was destined to decline anyway as people worried about their future.
The threat to the economy of a decline in consumer spending is quite real, but something sticks in the craw about these exhortations. Even as airline executives called for bail outs, they unceremoniously laid off 100,000 employees in the weeks following the attack. And who was selling stocks to those Americans who patriotically stepped in to buy when the markets reopened? Traitors? I hope not, since for every buyer there was a seller. More likely, the sellers were simply seeking more security in uncertain times.
Thus we have a new definition of sacrifice: individual financial irresponsibility. Patriotism demands that we muster the courage to serve as cannon fodder in the markets by providing liquidity for the smart money dumping stocks, and that we also resume our role as foot soldiers of the consumer society in the supermarkets, malls and tourist destinations as well. Patriotism also demands that we put aside any thought of paying down debts, saving for retirement or our children's education. (An alternative program to help the economy would be government funding for a high speed rail network which would create jobs and help address the vulnerability of a transport system that today offers no alternative to air travel.)
Apart from the implied admission that our economy is a giant Ponzi scheme, there are other troubling implications of these pleas to keep spending. In order to show the terrorists that we will not be cowed, we're supposed to resume the heedless life of materialism and consumption that inspired some portion of the hatred directed at us by Islamic fundamentalists. I'd like to think we could come up with something better.