The Gilded Folly of This Land
(sung to the tune of “Winter Wonderland”)
Midnight sales are so appealing
Our children can pay.
It’s the Best Time of the Year -- for Retailers
America must have changed faster than I thought during my time away from it. The day after Thanksgiving, better known as Black Friday, is supposed to be the official start of the Christmas shopping season. But lately, that start has been pushed forward to the evening of Thanksgiving itself in a few cases. So, before the turkey has been digested, some people are off to stake out a place on an ever-growing line in front of their favorite big box stores in hopes of securing some piece of merchandise they do not have a use for, but at the too-good-to-be-true price for which it is being advertised, it is just too good to pass up.
In fact, many of those prices are too good to be true, and a select few shoppers would consider themselves fortunate to have secured the exact items they saw in the circulars at the advertised prices. Stores have long used the bait-and-switch tactic to lure shoppers in so that they would buy the less publicized, but more profitable, goods, and people fall for it time and time again. In fact, the best deals may not even be found on Black Friday or during Christmas shopping season at all. Ever heard of buying an item when it is not in season? Chances are it is the same item, but at a lower price. While there are always “must have” items that disappear quickly each year, Christmas shopping season was devised by retailers to move their inventory that had been selling slowly.
The fact that stores are now open on even the biggest holidays of the year sounds rather scroogy of them. It seems they expect to wring every last drop of effort from their “associates,” even though Americans already work the longest hours in the West and generate one of the highest rates of productivity anywhere. Even if some of their employees are willing to work on a holiday for extra pay, these multi-billion dollar businesses would have been real Samaritans had they let all their employees take off with holiday pay. Shoppers will understand, and they will still be there on the other days, just as they were when stores used to be closed on Sundays.
Here are a few questions for everyone. How many of you have kept all the gifts you received or bought for yourselves last Christmas? Of those gifts that you have kept, how many of them are you using regularly, and how many have you allowed to collect dust or stowed away someplace you do not check very often?
Yet, the cycle repeats every year. People max out on their credit cards and savings to buy things they or their intended beneficiaries probably do not need. I was guilty of this practice too, and like everyone else, I found it a chore to decide what to buy for whom. It is no fun taking a trip to the mall and navigating the crowded corridors looking for the “hot” item that happens to be on the shopping lists of five million other people. Lugging around those shopping bags full of stuff is cumbersome, even if you have a car, and those with cars have to navigate the parking lots for spaces. Even online shopping is not totally immune to this mess because the huge volume of holiday mail traffic leads to inevitable delays, and there are still the bulky gifts to carry to their destinations. Come December 26, and the stores are again teeming with people -- some of whom are looking for after holiday bargains, and some who are unhappy with their Christmas gifts and want to return them. That seems to be the spirit of Christmas nowadays.
It’s Chain-Snatching Season Again!
Guess what? The grinches are back to steal Christmas, and they are packing heat and ripping off more than jewelry. Just before Thanksgiving, some shoppers across the country lining up to be among the first to buy the new Sony PlayStation 3 video game console were confronted outside stores by gun-wielding thieves intent on robbing them. One man who waited for 38 hours and resisted was shot and wounded, but still worried about losing his place on line. (His friends did manage to buy three PS3s for him and the store gave him one for free, while the alleged thieves were eventually caught.) Such incidents have prompted a few shoppers to arm themselves for their Christmas shopping trips.
Most shoppers, however, would have better protected themselves donning football gear. Even in the absence of muggings and shootings, the launch of the PS3 was marred by shoppers being injured by fellow shoppers who were desperate to secure one. (Sometimes they even injured themselves by not looking at where they were going.) Hungry people in some countries wait days and fight each other for food, while being kept in order by baton-wielding police. Hungry shoppers in the U.S. wait days and fight each other for a video game system that has so far been judged to be overhyped when compared to its less expensive rival, which has thus far outsold it, while also being kept in order by baton-wielding police. In the end, was the wait worth it? Probably not for almost 40 percent of prospective PS3 buyers, who risked “sleep deprivation, lost wages, missed classes, the elements, and even muggings,” and ended up “with a bitter taste in their mouths.” Playing video games is supposed to relieve stress, not aggravate it.
Considering how ready some shoppers are to fight and maim each other for a video game system or some other material item of questionable value, how many of them would be gung-ho enough for a real fight by signing up for a tour of duty in Iraq right now? It seems that Americans have more to fear from each other at Christmas time (or any other time) than from any insurgent, terrorist, or member of the Axis of Evil. With so many domestic adversaries, who needs foreign enemies?
Besides, how long will these game systems last before they are replaced by even newer systems for which another anarchic launch will be held and result in injury and perhaps even death? It is nearly impossible, not to mention expensive, to keep up. Remember the Atari 2600? This legendary game system was the PlayStation of its day, but even at the peak of its popularity, people did not try to stampede each other to get their hands on one. The 2600 had what would be considered very primitive graphics today, and its controller (see right) had only one button! Yet, until the video game market first bottomed out in 1984, gamers were having endless hours of fun on it -- so much fun that some continue to enjoy 2600 games in computer format to this day, proving that video games need not have killer graphics or cost a lot to be fun. A few years after the crash, I found a stockpile of unopened 2600 games selling two for a dollar in a store specializing in closeouts, and scooped up ten of them. Most of the games are still around 20 years later -- now being enjoyed by a friend who is a nostalgic gamer. They were my early Christmas presents to him a couple of years ago. Fun never goes out of style, and if it can be reused, then all the better.
Lest we forget, the crooks on the streets, scary as they are, cannot hold a candle to the crooks in the suites when it comes to making the holidays miserable for people. This year has shaped up to be a bumper year for mergers and acquisitions, as evidenced by the record closings of the Dow Jones Industrial Average and fat bonuses expected by traders and senior executives on Wall Street. With M&As come layoffs, and Christmas is no longer off limits for practicing the art of handing out the pink slip. Then, more often than not, the new super-sized companies use the profits from the mergers to finance more M&As. Kind of gives new meaning to the term “chain-snatching”.
As for the man who was shot for resisting robbery, he plans to sell his PS3s on eBay and said he is willing to get on line again, presumably for the next generation of video game system when it is released. For now, his more immediate concern is to recover from his wounds and figure out how to pay off his medical bills. He is unemployed, and hence, has no health coverage. Family and friends have chipped in what they could to help him, and a fund has been set up to help with his medical expenses. Good luck to him.
The Cost of Christmas
“So uncivilized!”: Midnight shoppers try to bum-rush the doors at a Utah mall (New York Times)
The savings rate for the average American in 2005 was –0.4 percent, the first time it had been negative since the 1930s, when Americans then were dealing with a depression and its aftermath. It would thus be interesting to see how many shoppers laden with bags full of gifts this holiday season have decent-paying jobs, adequate health insurance, and personal debts that are under control. If any of them are hit with a layoff, major illness, or death in the family, they would need to have accumulated the equivalent of at least six months’ worth of expenditures to get by. If not, they may have to rely on those ubiquitous credit cards that some have been collecting like baseball cards. Unfortunately, many Americans are just a missed paycheck or two away from living la vida broka, and those financial institutions that have been extending easy credit to millions of them are the same ones that pushed for the 2005 bankruptcy law to be passed, which makes it harder for Americans to declare Chapter 7 bankruptcy, which is more lenient to debtors.
Never underestimate the power of the dark side of the banks that issue the credit cards. Come January, when the bills from your holiday spending spree become due and you cannot pay them off in full, the 20 percent or more interest rate on each of your cards will squeeze you harder than a Force choke. For those who have made a new year’s resolution to save more money in the coming year, it would be best to start meeting that promise now, not next month.
“The cost is with you, young shopper, for you have not paid off your bills yet!” (Reuters)
The Meaning of Christmas
To all this, I say, “No thanks!” I got off this treadmill a few years ago, and I do not want to get back on. I will still buy gifts for family and close friends, but I will only buy something they could use once and forget (like food or dinner at a restaurant) so they will not have any junk lying around. Interestingly, this is one aspect of Christmas that even materialistic Hong Kongers (who are no strangers to getting on line to buy overhyped merchandise) tend to follow better than Americans. Despite it being the most Westernized city in China, most Hong Kong people treat Christmas as just another day off, and what they like to do on their days off is eat. I have attended a few Christmas parties at the homes of relatives in Hong Kong, and the food and festiveness found there rival those found in the best Christmas parties I have been to in the US, even if there are no holiday decorations or presents to unwrap. The get-together itself is enough of a Christmas present. People can come, eat, go away happy, and not have to worry about receiving gifts they would rather exchange or return to the store. (That would happen during Chinese New Year, when many receive more Danish butter cookies than they can consume!)
For the material-minded and less so alike, Christmas is about sharing it with others. A gift under the tree means little without the presence of a companion with whom to share the joy of opening it, and the most expensive gift is not always the best one. Remember the song about the Little Drummer Boy? He was a poor kid who went to visit the baby Christ right after the latter was born, but who thought himself outclassed by other guests, kings among them, who brought expensive gifts (“I have no gift to bring…That’s fit to give the King”). But the Little Drummer Boy had the gift of music (“Shall I play for you, pa rum pum pum pum, on my drum?), and that is what he offered the newborn Christ. When he finished playing, he found that his gift was the one Christ enjoyed the most (“Then He smiled at me, pa rum pum pum pum, me and my drum”). Usually, the simplest gifts tend to be the most original.
Even as the more religious among us still intend to honor the birthday of the man after whom the holiday was named, the rest of us who observe it to any degree look forward to the gatherings of family and friends that make it perhaps the biggest holiday of the year. Here is a challenge to everyone (including myself): have you ever performed an act of kindness for someone you do not know -- to that person’s appreciation? It is something worth trying between now and the big day. What if everyone did something considerate for someone who is not that close to us, maybe even a total stranger, with the sole condition being that this person pay it forward to someone else he or she does not know? Would that not be more satisfying than trudging through the mall looking for that magic gift that is supposed to bring happiness? If the Maker were to look down on us today, upon what would he smile -- a random display of generosity or a premeditated show of gluttony?
Here is to spending Christmas with those you care about, and with those who care about you.
Chohong Choi has lived in Hong Kong and New York, and can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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