Retailers are not expecting a great Christmas season this year. Shoppers have less money
in their pockets and more worries about their economic future. The very act of
shop-til-you-drop, always a little bizarre as a form of Yuletide expression, feels especially
unseemly in wartime, even when rationalized as a patriotic act of economic stimulus.
It is also an odd time for the theme of national unity and shared sacrifice. In the September 11 attacks,
several thousand Americans, mostly accidental heroes, made the ultimate sacrifice. Thousands more are
fighting in Afghanistan.
Sacrifice is also widely unequal on the home front. Those making the biggest sacrifice, like the
unsuspecting victims of Sept. 11, are innocent bystanders losing their jobs, or needy people (mostly
children) losing vital services to recession budget cuts. Corporations, meanwhile, are lined up for tax
We are all feeling as if we are sacrificing, because we have indeed all given something up: each of us feels
less secure in our daily lives. All who fly, or who work in tall buildings with new legions of security
guards, feel inconvenienced.
But inconvenience is a paltry form of sacrifice. Certainly, it pales compared to the rationing and high
surtaxes that citizens willingly shared in World War II.
The other day, at a performance of ''South Pacific,'' the cast took their curtain calls. Then male lead
addressed the audience, clad in an FDNY T-shirt. He announced that they would be in the lobby after
the show, collecting funds for the victims of Sept. 11. They concluded, still dressed in World War II
costumes, by inviting the audience to sing ''God Bless America.''
Beyond breaking the magic of a lovely show, there was something else a little off about this
Americans always give generously in times of national emergency. But private charity is not the answer
to what ails New York.
For starters, there is great chaos in the distribution of privately raised funds. More to the point,
individuals in effect are being asked to make up for the Bush administration's warped sense of national
New York City, based just on the direct economic effects of September 11, needs at least $50 billion
more in public funds than the Bush Administration is prepared to give it.
Instead, the money is going to corporate tax cuts.
Instead of passing the hat, the cast should be circulating petitions. Instead the taking solace and
solidarity in the easy comfort of patriotic song, the audience should be exercising our democracy,
demanding a different set of priorities. The higher form of patriotism is being an engaged citizen.
This brings me to a subject from which you doubtless want a holiday respite, the economic stimulus.
The Federal Reserve has just cut rates for the 11th time, and the recession continues to deepen. Plainly,
Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan is not expecting a quick turnaround.
This recession is different from most, since September came just as we were plunging into the morning
after the most extreme bout of speculative excess since the 1920s. Too many investors put too much
money into schemes that will never pay off. Too much inventory and excess capacity is gumming up
At a time like this, with layoffs deepening, neither voluntary private consumption nor corporate
tax-cutting does the trick. What private consumption cannot do, public and collective consumption
must do, or the recession just deepens.
As it happens, in wartime the public thinks in terms of collective solidarity. So the mood is there and
the need is there.
This is a time when we should be rebuilding public and social systems. We need to repair our public
health system, not just to protect against weaponized anthrax, but to vaccinate kids. We need a
high-speed rail system, not just because people are frightened to fly, but because it's a more efficient
form of medium-distance transport.
In World War II, they devised on-site child care at war production plants, so that Rosie the Riveter
could build fighter planes without sacrificing her children. In this war, we are withdrawing child-care
benefits from mothers who have exhausted welfare benefits and ignoring child-care needs of the working
President Bush continues to enjoy popularity as commander-in-chief. But his critics are right to
challenge his economic priorities. The theme of this strange war is turning out to be unequal sacrifice and
wasted opportunity. If we are not careful, a longer-term theme could be a protracted recession.