Economy leaves us too stunned to move

The Baltimore Sun

Christmas cheer is hard to find this year, and harder to hang on to. I know I lost mine when Wal-Mart's chief marketing officer, Stephen Quinn, declared, with smug self-assurance, "We know that Mom's not going to cancel Christmas."

Yeah? How do we know that?

And why is it up to us moms anyway? Why not have Dad make the decision this year: Is there enough money for Christmas? Let him make the tough call. Let him tell the kids.

Quinn thinks it is mothers who don't have the heart to cancel Christmas. He is sure that it will occur to us this morning that Christmas is three days away and there are not enough packages under the tree and there isn't enough rich food in the fridge.

He is certain we can't bear to disappoint the people we love, husbands and children who are used to piles of presents and a table groaning under the weight of ham and mincemeat.

Oh, yeah?

The economy is in such a bad way - and has been for so long - that it looks like mothers should have canceled Christmas last year. That's when the recession actually started, economists are telling us.

Consumer spending, which is the fuel for between 60 percent and 75 percent of our economy, is falling - and it never falls. We have stopped living above our means. We have even stopped living within our means. We are now living below our means.

We are so afraid of losing our jobs that we are holding onto our purses like old ladies at bus stops in bad neighborhoods. We only open them to let the moths out.

We are not just hesitant to spend. We are terrified to spend. We not only don't want to incur more debt, we don't want to part with the cash we have because we don't know if it will suddenly disappear along with our paychecks.

This financial crisis is so complicated that none of us regular moms can understand what happened. And it is so vast that none of us feels safe, even if we don't work for the Big Three or an investment house.

The result is a kind of deer-in-the-headlights consumer phenomenon. We are too stunned to move, too confused to decide, too overwhelmed to act. We say, "I don't know" a lot.

Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman wrote in The New York Times that the retreat of the consumer is absolutely the wrong thing to do right now, that we are turning an "individual virtue" - income-based living - into a "public vice."

Without mothers, who make something like 80 percent of the buying decisions for the family, including choosing the house and the car, the economy will never recover.

As was the case after Sept. 11 and when the government mailed out the stimulus checks last spring, we are being urged to jump-start the economy with some lively spending.

But right now shopping seems like an unconscionable act. It is not just reckless, it is not just stupid. It is wrong, immoral. (Unless you are my 22-year-old daughter, who is apparently completely unaware of this economic meltdown.)

We all feel like we just have to sit tight until President Obama arrives to build a bridge or pave a road in our neighborhood. That will mean it is safe to return to the malls. Until then, it is back to "cocooning," that thing we do with our families when times are tough.

The word cocooning makes it sound like hot chocolate and board games and laughter with the kids, but it isn't that at all. Cocooning is fear, distractedly stirring a pot of homemade soup. It is anxiety, tossing and turning at night after the kids are asleep.

I could go on and on. But this is depressing stuff, and I don't want to think about it anymore. Not at this time of year. Not at Christmas.

The kids are coming home for the holidays and I will be making wonderful things to eat and we will travel to see family in Pittsburgh. After all, food prices are down and gasoline is cheap.

And I have to get to the mall.

Christmas is only three days away, and there are not enough presents under the tree.

If Christmas ever gets canceled, I am not going to be the mom who pulled the plug.

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