The American economic Ship of State is sinking. 70% of what America does for a living is sell cheap crap to each other.
Our Love Affair With Malls Is on the Rocks
We are gathered here today, in the midst of economic calamity, to ask if we really should be gathered here today, in a funhouse of merchandise designed to send us deeper into debt.
Specifically, we are gathered in the Chapel of Love, sandwiched between a LensCrafters and a Bloomingdale’s and tucked into a relatively quiet corner of the vast prairie of retail and amusements that is the Mall of America.
It’s a convenient starting point for rethinking the 50-year marriage between the American shopper and the American mall.
Because we’ve been married to the mall for so long that some of us are now getting married in the mall — 5,000 couples in this chapel since it opened 10 years ago.
And one recent Sunday afternoon, Brianna and Jesse Bergmann are standing here under a white wedding arch, beside an ordained minister, having promised to cherish each other in sickness and in health. There was a homily about forgiveness, an exchange of vows and finally a kiss and some applause.
Before everyone heads past the Foot Locker
and down the escalator to the Rainforest Cafe, the bride — a cherubic 19-year-old — leans against a wall in her billowy white dress and explains why she chose this spot for her big day.
“I love shopping,” she says, giggling. “Mostly clothing. I love Macy’s
, Aero’s, American Eagle, Maurice’s.”
“I come with her when she shops,” says her husband, a 21-year-old who loads pallets in a food warehouse, “so she doesn’t spend too much.”
. . . Here, ladies and gentlemen, is the crux of the problem: We are reliably informed that whatever part of the economic crisis can’t be pinned on Wall Street — or on mortgage-related financial insanity — can be pinned on consumers who overspent. But personal consumption amounts to some 70 percent of the American economy. So if we don’t spend, we don’t recover. Fiscal health isn’t possible until money is again sloshing into cash registers, including those at this mall and every other retailer.
In other words, shopping was part of the problem and now it’s part of the cure. And once we’re cured, economists report, we really need to learn how to save, which suggests that we will need to quit shopping again.
So the mall we married has become the toxic spouse we can’t quit, though we really must quit, but just not any time soon. The mall, for its part, is wounded by our ambivalence and feels financially adrift.
Like any other troubled marriage, this one needs counseling. And pronto, because even a trial separation at a moment as precarious as this could get really ugly.
So we have come to this 4.2-million-square-foot behemoth — the mother of all malls, a pioneer in the field of destination retailing, and a sprawling, visceral economic indicator — for some talk therapy with shoppers, retailers and management. We let people vent, grumble and sift through their feelings. They catalog their anxieties, describe their fears and express the surprising varieties of guilt that only dysfunctional relationships can produce.
There’s not a lot of long-term future for a nation that gives over its production capacity to shopping. We have morphed–from a country that was 70% agricultural, to a nation 70% occupied by industrial production, to a wasteland of overfed, overspent consumers, with the lowest savings rate in the developed world.
For the most part, paraphrasing “all hat and no cattle,” we have become “all brand and no product.” Brand is pumped with advertising and an obscene amount of credit, while the productive capacity of a once great industrial power is off-shored.
Now that nearly nothing is left, that nothing is disappearing down the rat-hole as well.