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IT'LL TAKE MORE THAN SHOPPING

The advertisement had the requisite patriotic thunder. "If you were planning to get a new car or truck, it's time to stick with the plan," General Motors told Sunday newspaper readers.

"In this time of terrible adversity, let's stand together. And keep America rolling," the GM admen implored.

There always was some measure of truth in the aphorism that what's good for General Motors is good for America. But now we're taking it to a whole new level.

Even before the expected war on terrorism begins, we know what is expected on the home front: Sacrifice is out. Self-indulgence is in. Our mothers had to give up their silk stockings. We're being asked to make a national trip to the mall. The greatest generation did without sugar. Ours is told it has a civic duty to order dessert.

The president, in his otherwise strong speech to Congress last week, soured the mood when he tried to bring his global effort to the neighborhood: "Americans are asking, 'What is expected of us?' " the president said. "I ask you to live your lives and hug your children."

Leave aside, for one moment, the sneers that would greet the call for a national hug had it been uttered, say, by Bill Clinton. President Bush went on to ask for cooperation with law enforcement, for donations to victims of the terrorist attack, for prayers.

He outlined a battle he said would be long and difficult. But for those Americans whose loved ones did not die beneath the rubble, are not in the military and don't work for the airlines, he gave every indication there would be no burden to bear. Enduring the end of curbside check-in is so far the only inconvenience imposed upon us.

"I ask your continued participation and confidence in the American economy," he said.

Well, I was planning to get a new car. Trouble is, the plans were put on hold long before terrorists struck Sept. 11. Like many Americans, a combination of gloomy personal and national economic indicators during the past months already had blunted my ability to buy. Civic pride, no matter how heartfelt, can't bring it back.

Before Sept. 11, massive layoffs were well under way and unemployment had spiked up. Business investment was down; so were corporate profits. The economy was teetering on the edge of recession and was about to tip in. Now the wounds from the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon have brought on more profuse bleeding.

Against this backdrop, the call for consumers to spend is bipartisan. In fact, it's universal.

"People, if you want to do an act of patriotism, if you were going to buy a car, go out and buy that car," said Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., on the CBS show "Face the Nation." "If you were going to do some trip, go on that trip."

There is something altogether distasteful about this boosterism. It disregards the devastating hurt -- financial and emotional -- that has been visited upon so many Americans. It equates consumerism with community. But booking a vacation to Disney World is not the moral equivalent of volunteering to help a child who lost a parent.

The Bush administration and congressional leaders huddle now, discussing plans for new economic stimulus, though it is not clear the moment is right for it. Nonetheless, there is a focus on business tax cuts to spur investment. But business wasn't investing before the terror attacks, because it had over-invested during the 1990s. It had no customers for the products such investment might produce. It has fewer now.

There are ways to spend a buck that would stimulate the economy and salve real wounds. We could improve airport and rail security. We could agree that no one injured in the terror attacks go without health insurance. We could ensure that all children who lost a parent in the calamity -- not just those fortunate enough to have generous employers or sturdy public pensions -- have a safety net to catch them.

This, at least, is spending that shows we are in this together, and not just shopping alone.

Newsday

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