Saturday, November 26, 2016

In Defense of Black Friday

I think the way we react, socially, to Black Friday is a great example of anti-market bias and how it feeds the Trump phenomenon (or the "What's the Matter with Kansas" phenomenon, or whatever we might call it).  Privately, clearly this is a popular event, yet publicly, we mostly signal disdain for it.  As with many things, our private actions are probably a better indicator of our true values.

What is Black Friday, really?  It is the culmination of a holiday about thanksgiving and generosity.  After a day spent with family and loved ones, many of us rush out to buy gifts for them.  Is there another shopping day, other than the last day or two before Christmas where more of the purchases are gifts - tokens of love and gratitude?  The newspapers find the 40 people who got into a scuffle and put them on the front page, and they become the poster children of the event, even while 100 million others spent a pleasant and fun day looking for special gifts for one another.  Our biases are so strong here that we allow those poster children to be stand ins for ourselves, even when most of us have personal experiences on Black Friday that are wholly at odds with that picture.

And, who benefits the most from Black Friday?  It's not "1%ers" standing in line before Best Buy opens their doors at 5am.  Markets - faceless, uncaring markets - create this emergence of abundance that on this day more than any other is discounted and broadly distributed.  If you are willing to get up early and stand in line for a little while, you can get a $100 laptop computer for your daughter.  That laptop would be a miracle of innovation if it cost $10,000.  It's certainly a miracle at $300.  But, for this day, this abundance is even more accessible.  Black Friday's success and its value in this regard is irrefutable.  The shoppers are voting with their feet.  They go because this is event is good for them.

But, commerce can only be vulgar in our public postures, so we concentrate on the retailers that provide this abundance.  They are preying on the workers who have to run the store.  They are tempting their customers into a frenzy of consumerism.  Never mind that our own experiences overwhelmingly undermine this narrative.  Black Friday is mostly an event, shared with friends and family, that is about giving.

And the event is part of the value.  We might knit a sweater instead of buying one to make a gift more personal.  But, the amazing abundance we share has made this more difficult.  We aren't miracle workers.  We can't build our own laptop.  But, what we can do is have an adventure.  We can get up at 4am and go stand in the cold together.  We can speedwalk to the electronics department, with the brief thrill and drama of wondering if any laptops will be left when we get there.  That story will be part of the gift.  "We surprised you, didn't we?  You thought we were going to buy that refrigerator, and we told you they were sold out when we got there, but really we went to get your laptop.  It was so cold that morning.  In line, we saw Jenny's parents - you know Jenny, from your old soccer team.  They were there to get her an X-Box.  Even though we were there an hour early, there were quite a few people in line ahead of us.  But, there were still two left when we got in.  We almost didn't get one."

You didn't just work for an afternoon at your boring job to get that laptop for your daughter.  You went on an adventure.  And, since you went on that adventure, you were able to get her a better laptop than she thought you could afford - and a story about how you spent a morning on an adventure for her.

But, on Black Friday, when you got home from shopping, you logged onto Facebook, and what did you see?  Probably a few posts of Facebook friends posturing.  "I'm boycotting Black Friday.  No shopping today.  Who's with me?" with lots of comments and likes in support.  A sort of private/public shaming of your adventure.  And, a subtext that for some people that you know, saving a few hundred dollars on a laptop is less valuable to them than moral preening.  Talk about coming from a position of privilege.  Anti-consumerism is useful because the pretext is a statement against commercial power while the subtext is that you're well off enough not to concern yourself with vulgar commerce and the scarcity of material things.  It's a twofer.

Reactions this shaming won't generate:
1) Gee.  You are right.  I am ashamed.
2) Hmm.  I'm interested in your moral and political opinions.
3) I wonder if there are programs at your church which would help me to be more morally upright.

In this story, there is a darkness.  But, it isn't from the retailers or the shoppers.  It's from the shamers, who proudly infuse this story with their own negative prejudices.  A prerequisite of a community that builds a sense of unity and goodwill is for a plurality of citizens to refrain from this sort of darkness.  But, sub-communities thrive on signals that demean others.  The difference between signals that are necessary expressions of moral mutual re-enforcement and signals that are ungenerous degradations of outsiders is subtle.  It seems like these days we have a bit too much of the latter.

In a way, this is an expression of the never-ending battle between fundamentalism and liberalism.  Fundamentalism has all the tactical advantages.  At its core, fundamentalism always builds on an imperfect aphorism.  Here, it might be, "Overconsumption and materialism are indecent."  Other popular aphorisms might be, "You have no right to question the word of God." or "We must be intolerant of intolerance."  All of these aphorisms are true, and because they are unassailably true, they are effective defenses when we depend on them to generate ungenerous degradations of other people in order to mark our status among those we affiliate with.  I'm afraid this means that those taken in by a fundamentalist mindset are destined to become more shrill and insistent when they are faced with natural appeals for moderation.  Maybe that tendency is how liberalism maintains itself.  The tendency of the shamers to signal to their community at the expense of outsiders naturally leads to their irrelevance.

I'm hoping for a return of liberalism.  In the meantime, enjoy your shopping.  I'm sure your daughter will appreciate the laptop, and she'll love the story about your adventure.  Don't be ashamed for our sake.


  1. Thanks for Kevin Erdmann. There are but a handful of commentators who are not PC, and remember there is PC-right and PC-left.

    Actually, what drives me nuts is when people unload $XX million for modern art. That brings out the ancient shtetl from the pale socialist Scot genes in me.

    But enjoy the gadgets, the fancy cars, the gourmet meals, tickets to a ballgame, or…yes, a gallery opening of a modern artist where they serve fresh vegetables.

    Your call!

    1. Thanks, Benjamin. I think you're on to something there about the huge sums of money that might be spent on status goods. That is a subject for interesting moral debates - the sorts of debates about how to distribute the golden eggs more evenly without killing the goose. It's odd that anti-consumerism ideas whose source comes from that dilemma push people to complain about the one day, more than any other, where golden eggs line the aisles of Wal-Marts across the country.

  2. The best Christmas gift I ever got is that my wife and I don't exchange gifts. Don't call me Scrooge. I love the holiday and now that we don't exchange gifts I love it as much as Thanksgiving. Nice post - now I can look down on the people that look down on Black Friday shoppers (irony noted). ;-)

  3. I don't look down on the shoppers so much as feel bad for the retail workers, who have to work their asses off for minimum wage on a day that should be a holiday. Why can't we have Black Saturday and let everyone relax for a couple days? Don't get me started on those retailers who are open Thanksgiving evening.

    1. You have a point, but I think you need to be careful about implicitly assuming monopsonistic powers. On the margin, every action creates a reaction that, while not necessarily equal, is close to equal. Firms can't just impose costs on workers with no recourse, even if that recourse is subtle and diffused.