Your Patriotic Duty Is to Buy More Sh*t

Our approach to recovery is ill-fitting and out-of-touch, not to mention disgusting. Have we learned nothing? A year ago, I wrote here on Medium that we should all “Prepare for the Ultimate Gaslighting,” warning that both government and brands were about to usher in a massive campaign to get us all to go back to “normal.”

Of course, the pandemic lasted much longer than anyone could have expected. Few knew what fresh horrors would await us as we progressed phase-by-pandemic-phase through 2020 and 2021. Thankfully, we have new hands on the government steering wheel. But that campaign is now, 15 months later, in full force from Big Business, Big Tech, and the Big Media. Case in point: the sappy, manipulative “Mess We Miss” ads from Pepsi that debuted this month. How could we possibly gather again and hug our loved ones without a Pepsi brokering the reunion? Disgusting.

Today’s nugget: CNN Business published a report this morning called “The US economy is nearly ‘back to normal’,” detailing the latest from its “Back-to-Normal Index” — a front-page story that reminded us all that our responsibility as consumers is to spend and not save:

Now, the biggest piece of the recovery puzzle is to keep folks spending. Washington’s stimulus checks and expanded unemployment aid helped with that. But data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis used in the Back-to-Normal index shows the national savings rate is still far higher than before the pandemic…The worry here is twofold: People need to spend rather than save to help get the economy back to normal…

What one might have expected — truly hoped for — after the largest mass trauma and economic disaster in our lifetimes would be a new and bold way of thinking about how we go forward, a more evolved approach to not only the immediate recovery but to how we think, talk, evaluate, and write about our economic system, which — let’s all remember — folded like a house of cards in the spring of 2020. Instead, the same old same old. If there is anything that has snapped back to normal, it is our recovery approach. And it is ill-fitting and old-fashioned.

We are still measuring our economy based on mysterious indices that do not account for the lived experience of Americans all over the country. We are still putting all our faith in unemployment numbers, not the number of jobs it actually takes to make a household run. We are still assessing the recovery based on Wall Street, when half of Americans do not own stocks and do not have the capital (or know-how) to participate. We are still analyzing our economic health based on home ownership and low-interest housing booms, when the pandemic exposed the blatant systemic racism that has held Black and Brown communities back from building generational wealth in that market.

At this point, it is irresponsible to publish a headline that boasts that the “US economy is nearly ‘back to normal’” when Americans are still suffering the way they are. We have massive gaps in the job market, millions still out-of-work, millions who have fallen into poverty because of insufficient (and arrogantly delayed) relief plans, and millions of small business owners who have no business left. Our checkbooks have taken a massive hit, prices are rising at alarming rates, and our major cities (hello from New York) have countless empty storefronts. And in the 15 months since the initial emergency declaration, billionaires have gotten $931B richer. No, this is not “nearly ‘back to normal.’” And, if it is, who wants to go back to normal?

The CNN report reminded me immediately of President Bush’s 2001 speech in which he encouraged Americans to keep shopping. Just two weeks after 9/11, Dubya not-so-subtly told a nation in great pain to play their part and go spend money, go to Disneyland, and return to life as rabid, relentless consumers. His presidential advice was not to mourn, to heal, to sacrifice and to come together in community? It was to shop. Our patriotic duty was to buy more shit. It is no wonder there is a 365,000-square-foot shopping mall under the 9/11 memorial here in New York City. That was a major turning point, at least for my generation: your role is not citizen, it is consumer.

At what point do we begin, as a nation, to process tragedy in a different way? What will it take for us, as Americans, to allow our crises to change us? To let them stop us and wake us up, so we can chart a different course? Why is the CNN Back-to-Normal Index, and those like it, the bellwether of economic health? When do we start to “account” for the real indicators of a happy life? Time with our kids. Freedom from massive anxiety. Debt that isn’t crushing us and our families? I cannot speak for you, friends, but I, for one, am not interested in going back on auto-pilot.

Why is it a problem that the national savings rate is higher than it was before the pandemic? And why are we shocked? Of course it is higher. Americans are exhausted by being $400 away from economic disaster. We want a buffer. We want breathing room. We want to know that there is something, anything, in the bank. The pandemic showed us all that how we were living in The Before was not working. Maybe that national savings rate number is good for our economic health. Maybe it means less worry, less tension in our households, a calmer emotional roller-coaster when our checkbook comes out.

Maybe savings is exactly what we all need and want, so that if another disaster knocks us down, we’ll have the financial fortitude to weather the storm when our own government abandons us? When our leaders are on summer recess as we wait for the cash we need to keep us from falling into poverty. Maybe savings feels good. Maybe savings makes us feel confident. Maybe savings means we have a plan in place to make sure we never get caught with our pants down again. Spending our cash right out of the bank and into the engine leaves us broke, powerless, suffering, and full of angst. No, thank you.

Today’s CNN article and its “Back-to-Normal” Index are just one example of the countless ways that how we talk about our system is wildly disconnected from what it is like to live in our system. The U.S. economy may need us to spend instead of save in order to restore its “health,” but it is time for us to prioritize what we need: a new way forward to feel truly healthy. And a new way to think about and talk about all of it. The question that immediately comes to mind: how do we change the structure of the system so that it doesn’t need so much from us and can provide more for us?

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