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Black Friday: A Day Forgotten and Reborn

A name for a day of huge business losses has become the name for a day of hoped-for business gains. How’d that happen?

Only recently has Black Friday referred to shopping for great deals the day after Thanksgiving. Before that, it didn’t refer to people saving money but losing losing lots of lucre. In 1929 in Europe, it referred to the Wall Street stock market crash that coincided with the onset of the Great Depression. The first use of the phrase likewise referred to an American financial collapse back in 1869. Today, lots of people, if they swallow all the hype, attach the phrase to something fun — consumer mania. While it’s good for both a day and a color to gain positive associations, it’s not so good for people to lose a historical note of caution.

It’s impressive how our collective amnesia came about. Modern media attained the power to totally redefine a phrase that once conjured up a scary memory. Not only has a major event in American history been forgotten by most Americans, but their economic masters have managed to get them to dedicate a day to shopping. And it seems this new Black Friday is being turned into a new national holiday almost as big as the other two on either side of it.

It’s always been possible to fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but not all the people all of the time. Or was Abraham Lincoln wrong about that?

Personally, I’m not much of a materialist (disqualifying me to be a rightist); I feel claustrophobic in shopping malls during December. But I recognize we’re all different and don’t begrudge anyone who does like to shop, consume, and possess (disqualifying me to be a leftist). What does bug me is the media making shop, consume, and possess seem perfectly normal. That sends the message that keeping the economy healthy, even if it keeps us sick, is a higher good.

In a sane world, it’d be just the other way around. The economy would not be our master, and we its servants. Rather, we’d let the economy work for us and measure its health by how much wealth and leisure it provides us.

Come Thanksgiving (try “Thankindians”), when Americans tally up their blessings, most feel grateful to have a job. They don’t object to the job having them. It doesn’t matter if the job does not exercise their talents or produce genuine value for others or even damages their health. As long as it puts money in the pocket, people feel thankful.

But should life be so dreary? Shouldn’t we be able to be thankful for work that was rewarding? Beneficial? And brief? Allowing us the time to live life fully? Judging by the absence of an American movement for more vacation time (much longer in Europe) or for an extra income without working, something the rich take for granted (and a movement much stronger in Europe), it’s fair to conclude most Americans do not feel worthy of such justice. They only feel adequate to the task of finding, performing, and keeping some job — the miracle of life be damned.

Apparently too many of us believe that our happiness depends on the wellbeing of the economy. For these sadly misguided, what indicates society’s success is not sufficient leisure but economic growth. Yet growth is a short-sighted indicator. Nothing can grow forever — not a titanic dinosaur, not a giant sequoia, nor a cancer whose sole purpose is eternal mitosis, because the host is finite, whether it’s a body afflicted with tumors or Earth afflicted with insatiable and wasteful economies.

Just as living things mature and stop growing, economies should, too. Better indicators of economic prowess are standard of living and widespread leisure. Economies are something we should be able to forget about, just as we’ve forgotten about famines, the plumbing, and highway maintenance (something French peasants used to have to provide).

Instead, we’ve forgotten about the original Black Friday. And have swallowed another fiction about Wall Street crashes — that they bring down the rest of the economy. Thus many assume our wellbeing depends on the fortunes of our masters. So we bail them out at our expense, granting them something to be grateful for which is not work related.

But the link between stocks and the economy at large is tenuous. The biggest crash in US history, 1987’s Black Monday, passed without a blip, hurting only stockholders but not the economy at large. The famous crash of 1929 preceded the Great Depression but did not cause it. A recession of some size was due, since the US economy follows the 18-year land-price cycle. But other factors were more destructive: the Dust Bowl, the bursting of the Florida “real estate” bubble (land bubble, actually), and the new tax on buildings in New York City halting their construction boom. No, the fate of the economy does not rest on the gains of Wall Street.

Understanding what does cause recessions shows us how to avoid them. The solution is something Honest Abe may have had in mind when he said corporations should not be absentee landowners but individuals and families should own only as much land as they can productively use themselves. The way to limit the size of landholdings is not by prohibiting excessive holdings. The way to do it is actually the same way to prevent land speculation. And that is to charge owners an ongoing tax or dues for the land they own.

That charge won’t increase how much people pay for land because as the tax on land rises, the price for land falls (its value — the total that a buyer is willing to pay — stays the same). What it does do is take away the profit from speculating in land. Once speculation is eliminated, not only would the black days of financial crises be prevented — and thus safely forgotten — but also the price of land couldn’t be inflated by speculators, a bubble couldn’t be blown up, and without a bubble there can’t be any bubble bursting, dragging down the rest of the economy into recession.

Societies spend so much money for land and natural resources and the airwaves and the like that if they were to redirect it from the bank accounts of speculators, into the public treasury, then government would have so much revenue, it’d suffer an embarrassment of riches. Policymakers could do all sorts of wonderful things, like, repeal the counterproductive taxes on earnings, purchases (retailers should love that), and buildings. It could even pay citizens a dividend, sort of like Alaska’s oil dividend, or Singapore’s from its budget surplus.

Would people use the extra income to consume more, gratifying retailers, putting them all in the black? Or would people use it to work less, gratifying their more playful selves, putting the economy in its place as our servant? It’s hard to predict. Probably a mix of both. We’d likely lose both sorts of black days, both the orgy of shopping and the crash in stock prices — and be better off without either extreme.

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