Monday, November 25, 2013

Black Friday becomes Franksgiving

It's coming. In fact, it's almost upon us. After we---the citizens of the United States--spend a day with friends and family giving thanks for what we have, we get to suffer through the nightmarish hell of a day that is Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving. Or at least, that's how the template had existed. Now, it's even worse. But first, some backstory.

The idea for Black Friday is not a new one, at all. It extends far back into the twentieth century, at the very least. What I mean by that is that the idea to have a huge sale on the day after Thanksgiving is not new. The name--Black Friday--is also not as new as many people tend to believe, as it was used as early as the sixties in reference to post-Thanksgiving sales events.

What turned this day into a prime choice for having sales events is easy enough to understand, however. Prior to the Civil War, Thanksgiving could be--and was--celebrated on different days in different States and locations. In some years--prior to the Lincoln Presidency--it was not officially celebrated by the Federal Government at all. But in 1863, President Lincoln issued a proclamation that declared a Thanksgiving Day on the last Thursday in November. And from then on, Presidents followed his lead. In 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt and Congress officially established this in law by making Thanksgiving Day the fourth Thursday in November (which is usually the last Thursday in November, though not always; it won't be in 2017).

FDR's 1939 Thanksgiving. Source: National Archives
Interestingly enough, Roosevelt first tried to change the date to the third Thursday of the month in 1939 (a year--like 2017--with five Thursdays in November), as a means to help store-owners by "creating" more Christmas shopping days. It wasn't a well thought out move on Roosevelt's part. He failed to realize the impact such a change would have on college football--which had become quite popular--nor did he anticipate the backlash from the public, with respect to a President haphazardly changing something many had come to regard as sacrosanct. But Roosevelt--certain that he was right, that the earlier date was somehow helpful--stayed the course and made the same declaration in 1940 and 1941, that of Thanksgiving being on the second-to-last Thursday of November.

In all three years, there were thus two Thanksgivings, events which indicate just how partisan people were in the past by the way:
FDR's proclamation of the date of Thanksgiving had the force of law only in the District of Columbia and the territories of Hawaii and Alaska. A few states mandated that Thanksgiving be marked on the date set by the president, but in most states governors issued pro forma ratifications of the date the president proclaimed.

Now, however, the celebration became a political hot potato. Governors had to read public opinion, examine the local business climate, consider political loyalties, and decide which date to select as the official Thanksgiving.

Do they stick with tradition and celebrate Thanksgiving on Nov. 30, or follow FDR's lead and change the date to Nov. 23? It wasn't long before people started referring to Nov. 30 as the "Republican Thanksgiving" and Nov. 23 as the "Democratic Thanksgiving" or "Franksgiving."
But as the author of the above piece rightly notes, the supposed benefits of an earlier Thanksgiving never materialized. That--coupled with the continued public outrage over Roosevelt's arbitrary action--was enough to convince Roosevelt to abandon his experiment, thus leading to legislation passed by Congress and signed by Roosevelt in December of 1941 mandating that Thanksgiving would be an officially recognized Federal Holiday that occurred on the fourth Thursday of November.

The point of this story though, is to understand that Thanksgiving had marked the beginning of the Christmas shopping season for quite some time, reaching back into the nineteenth century at the very least. There have always been do's and don't's when it comes to retail practices, social conventions that were established and maintained by custom and practice (as with all other things). One of these was--and still is, to some extent--a general moratorium on advertising for Christmas sales prior to Thanksgiving. Doing so is generally perceived as being in bad taste. This is key to the theory informing Roosevelt's aborted attempt at change: moving Thanksgiving forward so such advertising and accompanying sales would happen sooner rather than later without upsetting social conventions on the matter.

But what Roosevelt failed to grasp in this regard are two realities: first, adding more theoretical shopping days doesn't necessarily help in the least, especially when people are short on disposable income (as they were in the late 30's/early 40's), and second, many people--if not most--liked and appreciated these kinds of conventions, the ones that dictate what behavior is considered acceptable and what it is not. The latter is really an issue of manners and courtesy.

With that being said, it seems there's change in the air, that there has been for some time. Blue laws--laws that restrict business operations on Sundays and holidays--have been systematically attacked and eliminated across the land for decades now. In many locales, they are wholly a thing of the past. And the case could be made that such a move is completely fair, that social conventions should remain only customs, voluntary practices, never become laws. And when it comes to conventions like those involved in blue laws, conventions rooted in religious observances, such a case is seemingly strengthened under the rubric of the separation of church and state.

Moreover, one could even argue that the removal of such conventions, of restrictions on the economy, is consistent with the fundamental tenets of a free market, capitalistic society, thus creating lines of division on the issue that appear to be the reverse of what we have come to expect: those favoring the elimination of blue laws and in fact the elimination of most social conventions that limit behavior are to be found largely on the left (with some strands of libertarianism sprinkled in), while those who accept and even desire such conventions are largely on the right, are conservatives more often than not. And yet the free market aspect would suggest the opposite: shouldn't the Right be all for the most open free market system and shouldn't the Left be opposed to the continued extension of the work week?

In practical application, with regard to Black Friday, that's exactly what happens. Kind of. The free-marketeers are okay with the idea of the event as an exercise in maximizing profits, while simultaneously being aghast at the lack of decorum on display by Black Friday shoppers and merchants, at the breakdown of manners and politeness entailed by the actual events. In contrast, the progressives are opposed to the way companies force their employees to work extra hours, work through a holiday, specific to the event, yet oppose the restrictions that would limit such moves--like blue laws--in general.

But I would argue that the Left, the liberal or progressive mindset, fails to appreciate the damage being done by Black Friday and events like it. As I noted above, the idea that increasing the number of shopping days until Christmas will automatically lead to increased sales is flawed. Or at least it was in 1939. Now, after the widespread issuance of "credit" in the form of interest-bearing credit cards, this is likely no longer the case. Coupled with the increased demand for the "latest," "newest," or "must have" items, such credit allows for more spending as a function of time, alone. Indeed, this reality is very much why the United States has such a low savings rate and high debt rate on a per capita basis.

Black Friday--more than any other moment--feeds this stupidity, as it entices people to go into debt not just for the latest gizmo or popular doodad, but because it does so based on the promise of the best price for the rest of the year for the product in question. It's a "can't wait" promise: buy it today because you'll never have the same opportunity again! To drive this point home, retailers even use the "while supplies last" bait, thus convincing people that not only can they not wait, they have to get there ahead of everyone else!

The consequences of it all: a "feeding frenzy" in the retail world where the lack of manners and politeness noted above becomes the standard pattern of behavior for both shoppers who are driven to get the best deal, and retail workers who are generally annoyed at both having to work while others enjoy a holiday and at the contemptuous behavior of the typical shopper. And of course, these responses feed off each other, hour by hour, year to year, a reality compounded again by the store owners who endeavor to "one-up" competitors by extending their holiday hours and sales each and every season.

Which all leads to Black Friday 2013: forget about Friday, the action now starts on Thursday, on Thanksgiving proper. Wal-Mart--the top of the heap, when it comes to tasteless and low-class moves--has been open on Thanksgiving for many years.  But now, other retail giants are following in its footsteps, to the extent that we really are talking Black Thursday. Best Buy will be opening its doors at 6:00 pm on Thanksgiving Day. Macy's, Target, Sears, and many others will wait until 8:00 pm. KMart will actually start its Black Friday deals at 6:00 am, while Old Navy will start at 9:00 am. Almost all of them will remain open until late Friday night, if not longer.

As ugly as this all is in my view, even worse will be the general response: people will go out and shop at all of these stores, lots and lots of people. This whole new tradition of opening on Thanksgiving Day could come to a quick end if people could manage to spend the day with their friends and family, enjoying each others' company, having a nice meal, and the like. But apparently, we--as a nation--are too wound up in our need to spend, to get a "good deal" to do that, suggesting that the last is more important than anything else, including our families.

Is this really the road we want take? Have we become so jaded, self-centered, and materialistic as a people that we can find no value in not shopping for a day? Apparently so. And make no mistake, this is a consequence not of capitalism, but of the need to unmake traditional patterns, to abolish customs and social practices rooted in the human condition. It is the logical outcome of the progressive vision, the one championed by Franklin Roosevelt. It really is Franksgiving.

Cheers, all.

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