Do you find the consumerism inherent in Black Friday appalling? Do you decry any retail shop like Target, Best Buy and their kind opening even earlier this year on Thanksgiving Day itself vile? Do you shout at the top of your lungs, “Thanksgiving is for family time, not for paying tribute to the greedy American gods of materialism!”?
Well, you may want to stop reading now, because I’m about to mock you.
That’s not entirely true. I try not to mock people (and sometimes fail), especially when I once shared the same view, but I am going to disagree with you, and with pretty much the dominant conventional wisdom in America. If you read this blog regularly, would you expect anything else from me?
I’m all for taking the time to think about the good things in our lives on Thanksgiving. It is a time for reflecting on what matters most to us, things like family and friends. If on this Thanksgiving, you have the opportunity to sit down, share a meal with the important people in your life, all the better. But I have two main objections to the loud voices, like George Takei (who I usually find hilarious), who shame big businesses for opening ever earlier and thus encroaching on our holiday free time. Takei lambasted consumerism by selling a t-shirt (his link from 11/26 appears to have been removed from his page as of this posting).
Objection #1: Why does retail business deserve special demon status above other businesses and organizations that require employees to work on holidays, including Thanksgiving?
On my way to my parents’ house on Thursday morning, I stopped at a convenience store to buy gas, a banana, and some soda, and to put air in my consistently slowly leaking tire. I was pretty happy to see it was open, and staffed by a pleasant cashier whom when I wished a Happy Thanksgiving smiled and gave a genuine “you too” in return. I would have been shocked if the store hadn’t been open since Thanksgiving is a major travel day. Seems like a good time to do some good business if you’re a gas station. Likewise, airports are open, meaning pilots, flight attendants, baggage handlers, security and other staff are on the job. All over the country hospitals still have staff caring for the sick, police officers and other staff report for duty, military men and women go about their daily work lives. We watched from my parents’ windows as emergency responders appeared in the driveway of the neighbor’s house. We aren’t sure what happened, but it’s safe to assume someone was happy those EMT’s and police weren’t taking the day off. There are countless other jobs that require employees to work on holidays, not just on Thanksgiving. If you are to be consistent in your demonization of working on a holiday, you must spread it around fairly. But for some reason, the media always focuses year after year on what retail stores will ask their employees to work and when as if that is the same as conscripting workers into forced labor camps. If social media is any indication of popular opinion, we eat that idea up and buy it fully.
Gentle reminder… in America, all humans enter into work agreements voluntarily. When one starts a job, it is that person’s responsibility to understand the business and its needs. All businesses have busy periods. If you’re an accountant, chances are you’ll be swamped around April 15th each year. If you take a job in retail, you should probably assume your holidays will be spent differentky than some of your friends. When I worked for the federal government, there were expectations that I be available if necessary 24/7, 365. But with that, came certain perks like having random holidays such as Columbus Day and Veteran’s Day off. You take the good with the bad, or you find another line of work. Related to that, if you view your employer as the enemy to be treated like some totalitarian state’s dictator instead of someone you have a mutually beneficial relationship with, it is definitely time to seek new horizons. A good employee/employer relationship means that in return for a paycheck, the employee does good work, and doing good work means aligning with the business’s needs and goals. In retail… that means making money by selling stuff to people who want it, especially around the holidays. Get over it.
Objection #2: Capitalism (i.e. consumerism) is something to be thankful for too. It is responsible for lifting more humans out of poverty, increasing well-being by most measurable methods, giving voice to the weak and powerless, and equalizing opportunity more than any other forces that have ever existed in history.
If I haven’t convinced you yet to read Steven Pinker’s Better Angels of Our Nature, consider this one more try. In his book (and others such as Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel) the evidence is nicely laid out for a laymen’s eyes showing that capitalism (and I’d clarify that with free-market, non-crony capitalism) is one of the key requirements leading to stable democracies, increased lifespans, decreased* child mortality, decreased poverty, increased literacy, more freedom of mobility, increased individual freedom, and many other indicators for improved human well-being. It’s also what most economists agree on. I once was headed down the path to believing that materialism equals badness. It’s intuitive for us to see individual pursuit of stuff as antithetical to healthy society, which we often envision as full of sharing and caring living in peace and harmony together in tight knit communities. The plain truth is that’s a nice Utopian vision, and often is somewhat realizable in small bands and chieftain-sized societies, but in large societies individual pursuit of one’s dreams by specialization makes us all stronger, and is the only realistic way for a democratic society to function if it also cares about preserving rights. We all have different wants and needs. Specialized economies are what allow me to focus on the things I care about instead of growing my own food, making my own clothes, and cutting my own wood to stay warm. But the way humans have developed over the millennia, with most of our time spent in small groups, has biased us into thinking that individual pursuits are evil, and communal living is best. That greed is bad, and everyone should care about the same things like spending Thanksgiving Day with family (the most obvious communal relationship there is), and most certainly not working, not making filthy money, and certainly not buying stuff!
The Pilgrims themselves believed this in part… at first. Prior to the “first Thanksgiving” the Pilgrims who landed on Plymouth Rock set up their community essentially as a communal society. Everyone shared the resources and land, and each was expected to work equally for an equal portion of the harvest. They all nearly starved to death as many workers chose to leach off their neighbors’ efforts. Why work hard when you can get the same portion with less effort? So, they decided that they’d divide up the land and resources and each man would keep whatever they were able to produce. This created the incentive to work hard, and the community began to thrive partly as a result of this. To economists, this phenomenon is known as The Tragedy of the Commons.
So, this Thanksgiving, I was thankful not only for my family, my friends, and my cat, but also for the US Constitution which preserved individual pursuit of happiness as the hallmark of our society. From the Pilgrims to the present, that includes making money by adding value to society. You make/produce/sell something I want. I trade you money which means less to me than the thing you’re selling me. You keep the money to make/produce/sell more of the things to more people because you want those things less than I do and less than money. And the cycle repeats. Using money to trade is no different than trading items. It just makes it simpler to work with complete strangers all over the world (and have smaller purses, especially men). I was also thankful that I live in a state that does not limit businesses and individual workers in their right to pursue their own dreams by providing things people want in exchange for their money (I’m talking about you Massachusetts and your blue laws requiring permits on some holidays*), even it if means some employees had to work on a holiday (and probably get paid time and a half). I’m thankful I live in a country that allows people to change their jobs, improve their skills, and advance to the highest levels so long as they’re willing to work hard, educate themselves, and not take any job for granted. Even though you’d rarely find me shopping on Black Friday (I hate waking up early, find shopping stressful, and hate crowds), I completely love what it stands for. It stands for the greatest standards of living humanity has ever known. Despite the occasional story of idiots rioting at the front doors, or shoving their fellow shoppers to the ground, the people braving the lines and insanity out there are doing so of their own free will, and stores are giving those people what they clearly want. I see that as a win-win, and I personally am thankful for it all.
*Edited to fix typo/add clarity